Equity is a big word and a weighted issue. We hear it in different contexts. Depending on our own personal backgrounds, this word may take on different meanings for each of us. For our reflection together, we will define equity as providing high-quality instruction to all of our students, no matter the race, socio-economic background, or perceived ability of each child. Teaching with equity is not easy. It takes time to tackle. But equitable teaching is at the core of student success and we owe it to our students to make intentional decisions to keep equity at the forefront of our instruction. Together we can increase equitable instructional practices in our schools and districts. -
In 2017, I had the life-changing experience of hearing NC State Professor, Valerie Faulkner, speak on equity at the annual state math conference for NCCTM. I know that sounds a little dramatic, but hear me out on this one. This was the type of speech that had the audience in tears and participants rushing to debrief in conversations that nurtured collective meditation. It was that good. (Don’t worry, you can hear it, too, in the video resources.) But it was also heart-wrenching because this talk planted a lot of doubts in my own instructional practice and teaching philosophy. Let’s just say she kinda rocked my math boat.
The gist of her message is that when students are grouped by perceived ability (I’m using perceived here because it turns out we usually don’t get it right when we group students), they do not thrive as much as if they had opportunities to work with a diverse group of thinkers. That diversity of perspective benefits everyone. Yes, even the students that are typically proficient.
Oh, boy. That was not exactly at the core of my instruction. When I stopped to analyze my practices I realized that I was doing my fair share of ability-grouping. And moreover, my conversations with colleagues were consumed by a mindset that made perceived ability at the core of our instructional decisions. “What are you doing with the low students this week?” “Student A just can’t get it. They need something easier.” “I’m going to put my highest student with my lowest student. They will show them what to do.” “The AIG students will be bored with this. I think I’ll let them do a challenge instead.”
Now, don’t panic if you identify with any of those statements. It’s likely we all do! But here’s my take on why we should shift our thinking away from conversations like this. When students are grouped with peers that they perceive as being like-minded, they develop some mindsets that might actually slow (or prevent) their growth. These mindsets also often withhold quality instruction and opportunities for deep thinking from some students.
Let’s take a group that is perceived as the “smart ones.” They know everyone thinks they are the smart ones. They are used to getting the answer right and often quickly. They rarely have to try very hard. They also frequently rely on rote procedures (because they are really good memorizers!). Jo Boaler offers some research to us about why this is dangerous. These students will inevitably encounter a challenge. When they do, will they know how to handle it? Often not. Will they question their identity as a learner if something gets hard? Often yes. What happens is that students that are labeled as bright by teachers or peers can develop dangerous mindsets that getting something wrong strips them of their smartness. They struggle to allow themselves to listen and learn from diverse perspectives because they believe their role to be the answer-giver. Imagine how this can be harmful when on a collaborative job team later in life or when a mistake is made. Plus, frequently these students are not offered opportunities to develop conceptual understanding foundations that will support them in challenging problems down the road. Because the rote procedures come easily for them, we sometimes miss that they don’t really understand the mathematics underlying the procedure.
Now consider a group that is frequently perceived as the “never-gonna-get-it” group. They sit during whole group discussions and listen but rarely offer ideas. Why should they? Someone else will say the answer soon. After whole group, the teacher gathers them at the circle table. She works out a problem and then invites the group to practice a similar one with her. They dutifully copy the first problem, inserting the new numbers. There is a good chance they get the problem correct now that they have been shown what to do. Mission accomplished, right?
The intentions in this set-up are good ones. After all, we want to help our struggling students, we have limited time, and showing them what to do seems like the most efficient way to help them. But here’s why this framework lacks equity. First, in showing students who struggle a strategy to copy, we are only reinforcing a procedure that will likely lack conceptual understanding for that child. Essentially, we are building robots, not thinkers. When we throw in the issue that many students that struggle do so because of cognitive challenges like deficits in memory, we are reinforcing procedures that their brain structure will likely not support in days or weeks to come. The second issue with pulling the “low group” ever day this is that we are reinforcing a message that some students are only capable of doing math when the teacher leads them. The message, though unintentional, is that some students lack the math brain to think mathematically on their own. This can be very harmful throughout the child’s life. (Just think of all the adults you know that still believe the myth that they are incapable of being a “math person.”) Students also begin to notice patterns of rescue which stifle students in growing perseverance. They figure out that if they wait long enough, the teacher will swoop in and tell them how to solve the problem. If I noticed this pattern, I would have little motivation to hone my perseverance skills! I would also have little confidence that I ever had any mathematical to contribute. (Once reason why these students rarely contribute to whole group discussions.)
My examples are polar ones, but hopefully we can see connections to all the students in our classes. At the core of both examples is an issue that how we view student ability can stifle the equity in our instruction. But the good news is that it’s actually kinda easy to fix! Here are some places to start in our search for equitable instruction:
The resources under the Equity tab might challenge your teaching philosophy, as they have done for mine. I encourage you to read, watch, and discuss what you learn with colleagues. I recognize that creating equitable classrooms may also require shifts in some schoolwide frameworks and practices. Invite your principals to check out these resources, too, and engage in collaborative thinking about what makes sense for supporting equity for your school population. These shifts will also likely take time. So if you are interested in thinking through some shifts in your own classroom or school, give yourself the grace to do some in small steps. And keep the conversation going. It’s an important one.
This is the talk that sent me on a journey to learn more about equity. Though the quality of this video is sub-par, it is definitely still worth watching. You can find extensions to Valerie’s work on equity at this site.
Sometimes increasing equity in the classroom is as simple as making sure all students have time to process an idea. In part 1 of this three part series, students explain how increased time helps them in figuring out strategies for solving a problem. You can find more information on the importance of time in Part 2 (Time and Math Partners) and Part 3 (Time and Anxiety).
Dr. Melissa Crum, artist, education consultant and diversity practitioner, explains the inequities present in our schools and how teachers can use art and a process she co-developed called “Multicultural, Critical, Reflective Practice” to decrease these inequities in their classrooms.
Pedro Noguera, executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, discusses equity. He states, “The only way to create equitable schools is to really focus on that as you go and making sure that you have good leaders who have a vision that combines a commitment to academic excellence to a commitment to equity.”