Redefining Success

2017 NCSM Annual Conference
February 2017

Session date/time:  4/4/17 at 2:15

By Juli, Alex, and Jessica Dixon
@thestrokeofluck (twitter)

According to Oxford Dictionaries, success is “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.” This definition becomes problematic when the aim or purpose is misguided. In mathematics, success is often defined by passing a standardized test – an aim that may be too low or too high depending on the student and situation. For example, with this as the aim, teachers might feel pressure to bypass conceptual development so that they can provide students with extra time for practicing procedures that will be “on the test.” Additionally, teachers might neglect high achievers, confident that these students will be able to “pass the test” without the need for accommodations. It is important to acknowledge that in either case, teachers’ intentions are noble; the teachers are making choices in order for their students to succeed. What’s problematic is the definition of success.

So how should success in mathematics instruction be redefined? To answer this question, we have to consider how the aims and purposes of mathematics instruction are determined. They must not be determined in a vacuum. Success isn’t just about the teaching; it is also about the learning and must be based on the accomplishments of each and every student. So how should we determine the aims and purpose of mathematics instruction? As leaders in mathematics education, it is our responsibility to help teachers to determine what this means for each and every student. What does success mean for students who struggle? What does it mean for students who are high achievers? What should success look like for each and every student?

As a mathematics education community, we have come to agree that conceptual understanding is a crucial part of success with mathematics. How is this aim articulated in our definition of success? Is this expectation of conceptual understanding being applied to each and every student? How do we know if the teachers we support hold these same beliefs?

I think that more and more teachers are holding these beliefs, but it is important that teachers have the knowledge to enact their beliefs. The connection between beliefs and knowledge will support change to occur. So then, the question becomes, what knowledge is necessary to redefine success to support all students to reach their full potential?

We must focus on all students, not only as a collective but also as individuals. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each and every student? This means getting to know students – knowing their individual stories and the impact those stories have on their mathematical identities. Through our presentation, my daughters share their personal stories as examples of the complexities students bring to the classroom. Their stories are eye opening, unnerving, and inspirational.

We must focus on the mathematics. We must determine what it is that we want all students to know and be able to do while also acknowledging that some students will struggle to achieve the goals we set and others will require more challenge. It is important to remember that those high achieving students might also be struggling in ways that might not be obvious. Making sense of learning goals in mathematics in a way that supports access for all students requires a deep understanding of mathematics for teaching. As leaders in mathematics education, we need to help teachers to see the importance of knowing mathematics in ways that will support each and every student to be successful in mathematics. This presentation will provide a shared vision of how we can support each and every teacher to help his or her students reach their full potential in mathematics. How will we know if this has been accomplished? How will we define our success? Come and see…

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