Status & Mindset Interventions
In her book Strength in Numbers: Collaborative Learning in Secondary Mathematics, Ilana Horn writes:
“Judgements about who is smart based on prior achievement or social categories violate
a fundamental principle of equity and are consequential: learning is not the same as
achievement” (2012, p.20).
When students experience mathematics classes that emphasize competition, procedures and speed over conceptual understanding they often compare themselves to others and feel that they are not a math person. Additional toxic messages may come from the implicit biases about who is good at math from parents, teachers, and images in our broader culture that usually portray mathematicians as white and male. These biases are often internalized by students and can create status issues in the classroom. But don't take it from us, here are students explaining how it feels in their own words.
8th grade students share about their past math experiences.
8th grade students share about their current experience in a student centered classroom.
How can we address status issues?
Three big ideas guide our Mathematical Agency Improvement Community.
Everyone is a math person. Humans developed the tools of mathematics to explore the world around us. We notice patterns, ask questions, seek to understand underlying structures, critique different ideas, and design models to represent our thinking. We recognize that ALL students have mathematical ideas to contribute, and it is our job to recognize and celebrate these ideas.
Mathematics is a collaborative discipline. When our classes are set up so that students can use and develop their innate mathematical abilities – noticing patterns, engaging in discussion about mathematical ideas, creating models to represent their thinking, inventing problem solving strategies, and critiquing each other's thinking – they build their mathematical identity.
When students can bring their full mathematical selves into the classroom and have their ideas heard, discussed, debated, and valued, they develop a mathematical identity and agency. When students believe that their ideas have value for the community they feel a sense of belonging. When they have opportunities to reflect on their learning and see mistakes as valuable they develop a growth mindset, and when they feel intellectually engaged they feel that math is relevant to their identity.
Students discuss fixed and growth mindsets and how they apply to their math experiences.
Students discuss their beliefs about themselves and their math abilities after experiencing a student centered math class.
The resources below were curated to help teachers and students redefine what it means to be "smart" in math and support the disruption of harmful status issues that often prevent robust learning communities from developing in their classrooms.
This is a core culture building activity that can be used at multiple grade levels. This activity creates a shared experience that emphasizes the value placed on growth mindset and collaboration in math.
This activity is a shared reading that students discuss to expand their vision of math education. Students read an excerpt from Paul Lockhart’s text, A Mathematician’s Lament, and engage in a class discussion about what math education has been traditionally and what they hope it will be in the coming year.
Students are asked to write a letter to their teacher sharing their best moments in math, their worst moments in math, and their hopes for the school year. The letter gives teachers insight into each student’s identity and background as a math learner. It also establishes an informal baseline regarding students’ feelings about math, allowing students to reflect on the evolution of their attitudes toward math later in the school year.
The pile pattern group challenge is a task which acts as a multiple abilities treatment, encouraging and showcasing many kinds of intelligence. Students find patterns in different ways, justify representations, and make connections between representations. Students will leave feeling as though their own strengths and contributions in math class are valued, and students will view their peers as valuable resources.
The strategic use of public feedback can impact status dynamics in the classroom. When addressing status the teacher considers what they know about each student’s academic and social status to decide when to intervene and with whom. As students begin to feel intellectually competent, they will begin to take more ownership of the mathematics.
This is an activity to use with a youth or adult learning community or to reconsider what “smart” means. When students start to value more expansive ways of being smart, they start to value more people’s ideas in the classroom, which leads to a leveling of status, more shared ideas, more trust, more thinking, and deeper mathematical discourse.