I want to explore the idea of ambitious instruction and the teacher actions connected to this idea. For a more academic read, this paper outlines the term ambitious instruction. Lani uses a much simpler representation to get across the key ideas:
I really like this contrast. Ambitious instruction takes typical practice and sets higher goals that are focused on student thinking and an expansive view of what it means to do mathematics.
Slipping Away From Ambitious Instruction
Lani talks about a result from the MIST study where many teachers were aiming for the ambitious instruction, but slipped back to the left side of the chart when students struggled. A number of teachers viewed the struggles as intractable because they focused on students’ deficits and shortcomings. This is a clear problem; if teachers’ conceptions of students cause us to think, implicitly or explicitly, that they aren’t capable of engaging with meaningful mathematics, we’re stuck.
Even tougher was that a larger group of teachers, even if they didn’t use deficit language to characterize students, still moved away from ambitious instruction when students struggled. They were trying, but when things got hard they slipped back and reduced the cognitive demands for students.
I can see myself in both of these examples. I’ve been guilty of using a deficit framing of struggling students, and I’ve been guilty of lowering the cognitive demand of tasks when the going gets tough. Both actions can seem benign on the surface, whether I’m describing a student as unmotivated or making a choice that a certain task isn’t appropriate for that class that day. But in practice, these actions functioned in a way that lowered expectations and denied opportunities to learners.
One solution Lani offers is teacher education and ongoing professional development that focus on ability, bias, and an asset-orientation to counter deficit thinking. I want to continue thinking about how to build this habit: to catch myself in instances of deficit thinking, to educate myself in ways of seeing strengths in all students, and to surface and address my own biases.
At the same time, I think there’s an important instructional piece. I can enact high expectations for students by challenging them with high cognitive demand tasks and having scaffolds ready if they are necessary. I can practice the course corrections I need when I realize a class is not ready for a demanding task, step back to build the foundation, and return to an opportunity to challenge students with meaningful mathematics.
I see these as two different skills I can work to improve to support my practice:
- An asset-oriented approach to framing and talking about students that frames challenges as solvable and values students for what they bring to the classroom
- A focus on adjusting the scaffolds and supports rather than the rigor and expectations of demanding tasks that students struggle with
This still feels a little fuzzy to me, and I’m left with the same question Lani ends her talk with: what structures help teachers sustain this work and this practice on a day-to-day and a year-to-year basis?