2017 NCSM Annual Conference, San Antonio

The case for ambitious mathematics instruction: What teachers need to know and be able to do to create equitable classrooms

2017 NCSM Annual Conference
February 2017

Session date/time:  4/5/17 at 10:00 am
By Deborah Loewenberg Ball

As mathematics educators, we often advocate for more ambitious math instruction in today’s classrooms. We know this entails supporting students to become both skillful and fluent in thinking, reasoning, and using mathematical ideas and tools. It involves changing what students are working on, and in what ways.

This matters because the ways in which people do—or, rather, could—use mathematical ideas and tools are broader and different from the common image of mathematics (e.g., a person solving complex equations with a long string of numbers, letters, and symbols that bear no resemblance to the problems, dilemmas, and challenges we encounter in the world). It matters, too, because mathematics has been a subject that has historically excluded large segments of the population, perpetuating a societal image of mathematical ability as innate and resulting in a demographically narrow group of students who are successful with math in school (e.g., White, Asian, male).

But the fight for more equitable and ambitious mathematics instruction is particularly challenging because most adults—teachers and parents/caregivers alike—experienced something else in the name of “math.” In fact, we are expecting teachers to teach something quite different from what they learned and in ways that are not like what they associated with math (a system of tools, ideas, and ways of thinking in abstract and everyday contexts vs. memorization of facts and operations in an answer-oriented, right or wrong construct). This means that just articulating visions, principles, or standards, or holding everyone accountable, can’t work.

In my spotlight session at the NCSM annual conference, I will focus on key high-leverage practices that mathematics teachers need to deploy skillfully to develop mathematical fluency in their students and to build equitable learning communities in their classrooms. These practices can and must be taught and should form the core of our teacher preparation programs. Examples include:

  • Choosing and using tasks that focus on meaning and that have multiple entry points.
  • Eliciting and interpreting students’ thinking.
  • Making mathematical explanation explicit and the norm.
  • Using specific inclusive practices to engage each student equitably into mathematical work.

My website contains links to a selection of video clips of my own elementary teaching (with additional supporting materials) that demonstrate these and other high-leverage practices. I encourage you to explore these resources, particularly the videos featuring Aniyah (Naming One-Third on the Number Line) and Mamadou (Mamadou-Half-Rectangle). When viewing these two videos, please consider the following questions:

  • What mathematics do you see? Who is doing that math?
  • What does each featured student know and know how to do?
  • What particular things do you notice the teacher doing to elicit each student’s thinking?
  • What does the teacher do to assign competence, even when a student has the incorrect answer? Why does this matter?

Building the capacity to change a subject and the ways in which it is represented, taught, and who is included in success depends on being able to create and support learning for teachers and students alike. I look forward to joining you at the NCSM annual conference as we work toward this collective goal.

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