Focus on Learning: Establish Mathematics Goals to Focus Learning

Worry in her beautiful, tired, sad eyes communicates so much. Strain across her face makes my heart ache. As we sit down for coffee with our children playing nearby, she blurts, “I don’t know how to make myself clearer, Jill. They just don’t, won’t, can’t – I don’t know – get it!” I sigh into my coffee which causes steam to fog up my glasses, and she laughs through her tears.  

Knowing that I am an evidence-interested educator, she pulls out her unit plans for me to see and offer feedback. “You were in our class yesterday. What I can I do better…? How do I help them learn?” Love and concern for her students is evident in her thoughtfulness, craftsmanship, and design.

I was in this class yesterday and had been for many days of the unit. I go again and again, because I am learning from her and with her students. This strong, organized, empathetic teacher is, in fact, a very good teacher.  

“What if we take your teaching up a level to a stronger focus on learning? Let’s look at the output that is causing you this worry and stress. Together, can we look at their work and identify what they, in your words, ‘just don’t, won’t, can’t’ do?’ And then, what if we establish mathematics goals to focus learning for you and your students?”

Sitting there on the bank of the Chattahoochee, occasionally interrupted, joyfully, by a toddler that needed to show us a valuable rock or other important discovery, we combed through student work. Outpouring concern and frustration, she talked about each learner, their strengths, and what surprised her about what they did not understand. I listened in awe of what she knew about her students in granular detail, and what she thought they knew but didn’t really. My notes highlighted every success she saw and the joy and pride she felt with every success.

How might we shift her work to increase the amount of success for her and her students? How might we empower learners to take action, self-assess, and ask questions early and often to improve their understanding and communication? What if we take what we just learned about her class and level it out to make her expectations and her thinking visible?

We found four categories or groupings:

  1. As soon I as finish explaining the task, they are all over me, Jill. They have no idea what to do or are too scared to get started. They want me to hold their hand. They are not empowered or safe enough to try.” They are splashing around in the shallow end, maybe even thrashing.
  2. They started, but cannot think flexibly when their first attempt gets them nowhere. They will not hear feedback or collaborate to think differently. They just shut down.
  3. “They are happily working along and find success.” They are willing to work in the pool, but need support build around them to know this is a safe, brave space to draft and redraft to think and learn. Mistakes are opportunities to learn; they do not define you.
  4. “They are first and fast and successful. They want and need more. I want to deepen and connect their learning, not broaden it.” They are willing to dive into the deep end confidently to explore new connections and representations.

This hard, important work helped us gain clarity about what is essential to learn in her classroom. Articulating frustration points as well as success points during her analysis of learning in her classroom revealed and organized a path for communication of learning intentions.

How might we empower and embolden our learners to ask the questions they need to ask by improving the ways we communicate and assess?

What if we make our thinking visible to our learners? What if we display learning progressions in our learning space to show a pathway for learners?

Great teachers lead us just far enough down a path so we can challenge for ourselves.  They provide just enough insight so we can work toward a solution that makes us, makes me want to jump up and shout out to the world, makes me want to step to the next higher level. Great teachers somehow make us want to ask the questions that they want us to answer, overcome the challenge that they, because they are our teacher, believe we need to overcome. (Lichtman, 20 pag.)

We want every learner in our care to be able to say

I can make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.  (CCSS.MATH.PRACTICE.MP1)

But, as a learner…What if I think I can’t? What if I’m stuck? What if I feel lost, confused, or discouraged? How might we offer a pathway for success? What if we provide cues to guide learners and inspire interrogative self-talk?

NCTM’s recent publication, Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All, calls us to support productive struggle in learning mathematics. How do we encourage our students to keep struggling when they encounter a challenging task? They are accustomed to giving up when they can’t solve a problem immediately and quickly. How do we change the practice of how our students learn mathematics?

How might we coach our learners in to asking more questions? Not just any questions – targeted questions. What if we coach and develop the skill of questioning self-talk?

Interrogative self-talk, the researchers say, “may inspire thoughts about autonomous or intrinsically motivated reasons to pursue a goal.” As ample research has demonstrated, people are more likely to act, and to perform well, when the motivations come from intrinsic choices rather than from extrinsic pressures.  Declarative self-talk risks bypassing one’s motivations. Questioning self-talk elicits the reasons for doing something and reminds people that many of those reasons come from within.” (Pink, 103 pag.)

Our coffee is cold and our children have lost interest in playing together. As we wrap up our reflection, feedback, and planning session, we agree to experiment the next week with her students. How might the work and learning change if we make a pathway for self-assessment and self-talk visible to the learners?

We plan to post #LL2LU SMP-1:  I can make sense of problems and persevere in solving them in the classroom and on the tables for easy reference.  Our immediate learning goal for the students is to make sense and persevere, to ask clarifying questions and try again, to show thinking for clarity and questioning, and to find multiple ways to solutions and find connections.

Excellent teachers think hard about when they will present the learning intention. They don’t just set the learning intentions early in the lesson and then forget about them. They refer to these intentions throughout instruction, keeping students focused on what it is they’re supposed to learn. (Hattie, 55-56 pag.)

Hattie, John A. (Allan); Fisher, Douglas B.; Frey, Nancy; Gojak, Linda M.; Moore, Sara Delano; Mellman, William L.. Visible Learning for Mathematics, Grades K-12: What Works Best to Optimize Student Learning (Corwin Mathematics Series). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

Leinwand, Steve. Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All. Reston, VA.: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2014. (p. 21) Print.

Lichtman, Grant, and Sunzi. The Falconer: What We Wish We Had Learned in School. New York: IUniverse, 2008. Print.

Pink, Daniel H. (2012-12-31). To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others. Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.


One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.