cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Reflection on wallowing after the "Two Faces of 'Smartness'" workshop at the Creating Balance in an Unjust World conference

So yesterday I was at the Creating Balance in an Unjust World conference on math and social justice in San Francisco with Jason Buell (@jybuell) and Grace Chen (@graceachen), and I finally got to meet Brian Lawler of CSU San Marcos (@blaw0013) and Bryan Meyer (@doingmath) in person. They are (of course!) both terrific. I came away so impressed with Brian Lawler — a wonderful math education teacher and researcher as well as a fun guy and a total mensch, in addition to being my friend Sophie (@sophgermain) Germain's mentor. You should definitely follow him on Twitter if you're not already.

He and Jason and I crashed the "Two Faces of 'Smartness'" workshop session yesterday right after lunch, which was beautifully given by Nicole Louie and Evra Baldinger It was glorious to do math on the floor with Brian and Jason at the back of a classroom where about fifty math teachers from around the country had crammed ourselves in because we wanted to learn about this and well, honestly, we just didn't care about having to sit on the floor.

What was wonderful about it?

Well, first they are both such amazing, caring, reflective teachers and mathematicians. We were given an Algebra 1-style complex instruction group task and we worked on it deeply, in our own ways, for 15 or 20 minutes. There was so much respect for the others in the group, along with deep listening and amazing mathematical and teacherly thinking.

Some of that wonderfulness was wonderful for me was because of my own issues over the years with shame about my own mathematical thinking processes, which are usually quite different from those of other mathematicians and math thinkers I work with. Even after many years of intensive work, I still have a conditioned habit of abandoning my own thinking in favor of somebody else's — anybody else's — especially if they seem confident about their thinking. I have a sense that this is similar to what our discouraged math students often experience, the ones who prefer English class or music or social studies, because I was one of those students myself.

Jason is a middle school science teacher, so he also has a slightly different way of looking at math than Brian or I do. At one point he suggested that we verify our idea by counting the squares. Brian and I looked at each other dumbfounded for a moment, since that had not occurred to either one of us. I exclaimed, "What a great idea! It's so science-y!"

We laughed, counted, and continued our work together.

There can be such joy in a group task like that, but not if the group's working structure is set up with rigid norms that limit individual students' participation. Frankly, I just hate the "assigned roles" kind of group work because I find that it fails to reflect -- or prepare students for -- the kind of group work that happens in a real-world collaborative setting such as a software design meeting. There, engineers and product marketers and managers come together but are not restricted in their participatory roles. No one is limited to being a "recorder" or a "task manager." One person presents a starting point to kick things off, and from there everybody just jumps in with the best they have.

That's how we were working on the floor together yesterday. It was an organic, free-flowing process, and as a result, both the learning and the mathematical conversation were far more authentic than I've usually experienced in this kind of work.

There were also rat-holes — glorious rat-holes! — we chased down. At one point we had even (temporarily) convinced ourselves of the possibility of a quadratic formulation of the rule, even though we'd been told (by the title of the worksheet) that this was a linear growth function. After a few minutes, we punctured the balloon of that idea, and felt a little deflated ourselves. We'd been working for several minutes straight but unlike most of the other table groups, we had still not called the teacher over for even our first of three check-ins. I hung my head in discouragement. "We are fucked," I said. But then we laughed again, brushed ourselves off, and picked back up where we'd last seen something productive.

The end of the workshop activity involved reflection on what the others in our group had contributed to the process in a method known in complex instruction as "assigning competence." You highlight one of the key competencies that another group member demonstrated and you tie it to a positive learning consequence to which it had led us. For example, I appreciated how Jason had brought in ideas from the real-world thinking of science because it had added rigor and a verification mindset to our process. Brian appreciated how I'd been able to stay with my confusion and keep articulating it in a way that made my process visible and available for investigation.

This pleased me because it is something important I think I have to contribute. I call it my process of "wallowing." I have a deep and self-aware willingness to wallow in my mathematics.

One of the other teachers in the room asked me to say more about what "wallowing" meant, and at first I felt overwhelmingly self-conscious about speaking up. But then I remembered that (a) I was being asked by other math teachers who are passionately interested in understanding different ways of reaching students who have their own unusual relationships to mathematics, and (b) I had Brian Lawler and Jason Buell on either side as my wing men, and come on, who wouldn't find uncharacteristic courage in that situation?

So I told him that for me — and in my classroom — wallowing means learning how to be actively confused and developing a comfort and a willingness to stay present with that confusion while doing mathematics.

In much school mathematics, appearing confused is a frequent and constant source of unspoken shame. And so most people with any amount of self-regard quickly learn how to cover it up and hide it from view. I went through much of high school disguising my confusion and shame as thoughtful reflection. I became a master of avoiding humiliation in class by keeping my confusion well-hidden. If I didn't get *caught* being confused, then I couldn't be humiliated or shamed about it.

Later I would work through my confusion privately so I could show up in class always and only being able to raise my hand about something I felt I understood cold.

So I believe there needs to be a culture of allowing for wallowing in active confusion in our math classrooms. We should not be too quick to dismiss confusion or try to resolve it or spackle over it.  I would even argue we need to consider it a badge of honor and an activity worthy of our time, consideration, and cultivation. The only way to cultivate curiosity is to cultivate an environment that is supportive of wallowing — active engagement and presence in the process of being confused.

It is the deepest form of mathematical engagement I know, and it is thrilling, inspiring, and honoring to be a part of it. When a student experiences that euphoric, lightbulb moment of authentic, personal insight, we can be assured that the understanding it signals is not only deep but also durable. This is true because when you are actively confused about something, you are fully engaged in making your own mathematics. Whether it is a "big" idea or a "little" procedure, these moments of insight are the source of all intrinsic motivation. And isn't this the kind of reflective, metacognitive insight about student learning processes that we are hoping to cultivate?


  1. I love your posts!

    And I want you to meet my new friend, Angela, who writes about shame and math.

    (Also, I am so bummed that I didn't know ahead of time about the conference. I loved it last year. However, I am recuperating from a very long-lasting cold, so maybe it's best I stayed home...)

  2. p.s. What was the problem you all were working on?

  3. I've been trying to remember to specifically "assign competence" to my students since I first heard the term last year, but I never thought about setting it up for them to do it for each other. What a powerful addition to group work!

    Also, I had no idea there was a conference on math and social justice. SOunds like something I will have to try and get to next year!

  4. I want to know what problem you were working on as well. Pretty please?

  5. Your observations about wallowing are spot-on for me. I worked very hard with my 11th and then 12th grade students to help them become more willing to persevere and struggle with their own msthematical thinking tasks. It took about a year, but it really paid off big time with most of the students.