Motivated: Designing Math Classrooms Where Students Want to Join In

Motivated: Designing Math Classrooms Where Students Want to Join InStudents tend to weigh the social risks before taking any kind of action in math class. Staying silent tends to feel safer. So it’s important to create climates where students feel a sense of belonging and want to join in. In her new book, Motivated, Ilana Horn explores connections between the five motivational features of math classroomsilluminating strategies that can make math more meaningful and foster students' sense of belonging.

We started our conversation with social risk. In Motivated, Ilana, who goes by Lani, opens the book with an examination into the big question of why students don’t want to talk in math class?

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See below for a full transcript of our conversation


Lani: I started the book with that idea because as a researcher, and somebody who's worked with teachers on both pre-service and in-service, this seems to be a really, really common problem. And I wanted to open with a problem that a lot of teachers could relate to, are familiar with, to lay the groundwork for what came next.

Brett: How could we break the social risk idea and design instruction that is motivating for a math class?

Lani: Let me just back up a little bit and say that the idea about social risk is that … This book kind of draws on this exact intersection of adolescence, and adolescent development. Mathematics is a content area in its status, and then sort of the social psychology of trying to get kids to talk and participate. And the central claim, as you pointed out, is this idea that adolescence is a pretty vulnerable time in terms of kids' identities, and math class is a pretty challenging place in terms of the potential threats that it poses to kids sense of competence and smartness. And, that that combination in particular needed some attention to think about what do you do when there's a risk to kids … Kids feel vulnerable participating openly in a content area that they may not have felt successful with, or even if they've felt successful with, they're worried about maintaining that sense of success, or … So all of those things that I'm describing are … Kind of account for that social risk. The threats to their identity, to their sense of competence in front of their peers, which is, you know? A classroom is still with your peers. It's not just you and the teacher.

Brett: And on that point, you also talk about, you know, the quiet students. And you talk about how important it is to engage them. Why is that so important?

Lani: Well, when I talk to teachers and they read the research about how important it is to build instruction on students ideas, they say, "That all sounds great, but my kids don't want to talk." And we know that the kids are talking outside of school. They're talking to their peers even in school in the hallways, in the lunchroom, or maybe even in other classes. So I think that I wanted to take some time really thinking through different kinds of quietness, 'cause not all quietness is equally corrosive to the idea of getting kids to participate. Some kids are being quiet 'cause they're thoughtful. They need to kind of think and process before they contribute. Some kids are quiet because they're really reluctant to participate. Those are really different kinds of quiet. Then there's children who are learning English as a second language. They already speak another language fluently, but they're not confident enough in their English yet to participate in an English language lesson, a lesson that's being conducted in English, rather. So I really think it's important to take the time to distinguish between different kinds of quiet, because those differences require different strategies on the part of teachers.

Brett: You also sort of balance that out by referring to the talkative students. So how do you match that balance between both the quiet and the talkative ones?

Lani: Right, exactly. You know, if you talk to teachers, any experienced teacher who's … Especially secondary teachers, since they'll often teach the same lesson to different classes, they'll often talk about class dynamics. That they know a lesson will go a certain way with one group of kids and it'll not go the same way, predictably, with another group of kids. And those kinds of things are class dynamics. And a lot of that has to do with personalities. A lot of it has to do with these issues of quietness or talkativeness. So in addition to thinking about the different kinds of quiet, I think that there's different kinds of talkative, and there's ways that teachers can be strategic about using the strengths of the talkative students to sort of sew the seeds of conversation, productive math talk, in their classrooms while honoring those children's style of thinking and processing, and also not allowing them to dominate the class. 'Cause sometimes that can be a really negative dynamic if you have really talkative kids who sort of fill the space and don't really leave room for the quiet students to get a word in. It's just a perennial challenge for teachers of all subject areas.

Brett: Speaking of kids that are talking and trying to get a word in edgewise, you talk about how important it is to be listening and to be focusing on ideas. Why is that so crucial?

Lani: Well, again going back to this idea that, you know, decades of math education research says that the best instruction happens when we build on students ideas. So to build on students ideas, that means that we have to have a classroom culture where students don't just share their own ideas, but they know how to respond to each other's ideas, which is a really challenging thing to get kids to learn how to do. And to make a classroom design, and a set-up where the norms are in place, where it's not just about you talking when you're called on, it's also about you listening and responding when other students contribute as well. And that way, as a class, we can develop an idea about whatever it is we're exploring, whether it's linear functions, or geometric shapes, or different properties of probability distributions. Whatever it is we're studying, we need to kind of hear each other's ideas. And that gives kids an opportunity, from a learning perspective, to think about whatever that central object is of study from different perspectives, and that can be really productive for everybody's learning.

Brett: What's really the difference between sort of motivating a student with a carrot versus sort of motivating the whole classroom?

Lani: Those are really different ways of thinking about this issue. So the framework for motivation that I use in this book is, again drawing from social psychology, thinking about issues of design. And the example I lead with is this problem of trying to get commuters to take the stairs, which are healthier for people 'cause it gets you a little cardio on your commute, versus an escalator, which is easier and more mindless. This group called Fun Theory decided to encourage people to take the stairs by putting piano keys on a set of stairs in a subway station, and they found that that significantly increased the number of people who were taking the stairs. And I think that there's a real lesson in that for teachers, 'cause as teachers, we want kids to think. We want them to struggle. We want them to do the hard, sense-making, work that might be the same as, like, the stairs of our class, right?

Lani: And kids often want it the escalator ride, 'cause they don't have to think as much, they don't have to work as hard, they don't have to exert themselves. And telling them that the stairs are good for them is not gonna do it, but making that walk, that journey, that struggle fun, engaging, and inviting, even, is a design way of thinking about this problem of motivation. So it's not just about motivating an individual student with a carrot, but by thinking about the environment you create, and especially around this issue of social risk. Of how do we minimize that? So, okay, so maybe you're gonna get an answer wrong in front of the girl you have a crush on. You know? That doesn't have to be a mortifying experience if we all agree that part of how we learn and make sense of things is sometimes we say the wrong answer. But then, that's an opportunity for all of us to get better and to understand more as opposed to, "That's the end." And, "Oh my god. Now she knows how dumb I really am," or whatever the mortification consists of for that particular student. But we've all been there. We've all been in those social situations where we're afraid of saying the wrong thing and it really shuts down the flow of thinking and the flow of ideas that make for a lively classroom.

Brett: As you and I talk, we're at the beginning of a new school year, and many people could be listening to this either as they're about to start that school year, or they're maybe a few days or a few weeks into that school year. So taking a lot of what you've written here in mind, what's, maybe, some advice you can give a teacher, as they look at the start of the school year, to sort of better create this kind of environment?

Lani: I think that, you know, the framework that I offer has five components, and one of the first ones that I talk about is this idea of belonging. And I think belongingness is something that is crucial to establish at the beginning of the year. To let all students know that they're welcome, to let all students know that you're ready for them to learn with you, no matter what their prior academic history is. Whether it's stellar, or terrible, or something in-between, that you're gonna figure out a way to help them learn and that they are legitimate participants in your classroom. The other part of that belongingness is, it's not just about teachers relationships with individual students, but of creating the climate where students can be respectful with each other. So I think that those are, like, the really important beginning of year tasks for teachers to think about. To consider, "What am I gonna do in my classroom to let the students know that I'm welcoming them?" "And that I'm happy to have them here?" And, "What am I gonna do to sort of monitor and invite students to be kind, and respectful, and engaging with one another?" Which is hard. Which is hard when you've got a class of 36 teenagers who may have long histories with each other that involve not liking each other all the time. So it's not an easy ask, but I think it's one that's worth investing in.

Brett: You talked about belongingness, and in the book you also talk about meaningfulness. And you know when someone picks up this book, that may not necessarily be the first thing they would think of for a math classroom. Why was it so important to write to belongingness and meaningfulness?

Lani: It comes out of, you know, 20, almost 25 years now, of spending time in math classrooms and seeing what works and what doesn't. Seeing, especially, the literature about equity and inclusion, and who gets iced out of math classrooms and who gets kept in the pipeline.

Lani:There's a lot of stereotypes in circulation about who can and can't do math. I was a female undergraduate mathematics major, and I had to struggle with some of that in my own educational history, and I definitely see those kind of stereotypes operating around race, and language, and gender, and class in a lot of our secondary schools. So I think that that's just kind of, like, a very, very beginning place to start to think about these issues of belongingness. Meaningfulness is related to belongingness. It's separate, but related. Meaningfulness is also out of years, of decades, of math education literature that we know that kids remember, and retain, and can use knowledge more flexibly when they understand it on a deeper level, when they understand why things work, not just how things work. So that's rooted in a lot of things, but it's also, again, rooted in the social psychology finding that kids are just more motivated to learn when things have meaning to them personally. And again, linking that back to belongingness. If kids are able to kind of define their own problems, their own questions, and their own ideas have a place in the classroom, that not only makes the learning more meaningful, it makes their presence important, which gives them a sense of belonging. So all of these things are really interconnected.

Brett: I want to go back to something you just mentioned. You mentioned the importance of the inclusivity and race, among other things. You have a great entry on page 26 of the book, "Reflections on being a white teacher." Can you talk a little bit about that post and why it was so important to include that?

Lani: I may not have these statistics exactly right, but I think, like … Something like 80% of the teacher work force in the US is white, and our public schools are less than 50% white right now. Over half of our students are Latino, African-American, Asian-American. They come from all different backgrounds that are not white. And I think that that racial difference between teachers and students is really consequential sometimes in how it can play out. We've seen a lot of data about differential discipline that happens, especially when it comes to teacher judgment calls. It's based on biases that come out of these differences in race. One of my colleagues here at Vanderbilt did this study about gifted … Placement in gifted programs, and found that gifted African-American students are more likely to get placed in gifted programs if they have an African-American teacher. In other words, there's this bias about who belongs in gifted programs. So it works both in terms of the goodies school has to offer, like enrichment through gifted programs, as well as the punishments that school can meet out in terms of discipline and things like that, that the bias is operating on both ends. And so, as teachers, if we really want to communicate to our students that they belong and that we care about them, it's not enough to just have the sort of generic sense of care. We have to be aware of the differences, the potential differences between ourselves and our students, and what that might mean to navigate those together. Especially if we're really gonna listen to our students and hear their ideas, 'cause that maybe something … As the excerpt you're pointing to, that was written by Anne Schwartz. That she had to confront sort of a blind spot of her own in really listening to her students.

Brett: It's one of my favorite portions in the book. I love the whole book, of course, and what I really love about the book is how organized … How it's organized, really. We'll wrap up with this, but can you talk a little bit about why the book is organized in the way that it is? It's so user friendly.

Lani: Oh, good. That was one of my goals. Part of what I do as a researcher is I listen to teachers. I spend … I don't even want to know how long I've spent listening to teachers talk about the problems that come up in their work and try to figure things out. And so I really wanted to offer a framework for … That I think can apply to a lot of the problems that I hear teachers wrestling with, math teachers in particular. Issues of motivation seem to be … Come up a lot. And one of the things they say in the book is it's not so much as a "how to" book as a "why do" book. And I feel like right now, we have a lot of things out there that will offer particular methods, particular approaches, specify kinds of practice. And the funny thing, too, about situating myself as a researcher in classrooms listening to teachers is I've had the experience, many times, where teachers will say, "Oh, I'm using group work." And another teacher will say, "I'm using group work." "I find it works really well." "I find it doesn't work so well." And I've been in both their classrooms, and they're using the same language of group work to talk about what, to me, looked like very different kinds of teaching. And I see the same thing with curriculum, I see the same thing with, like, pretty much anything you can imagine. And so I really wanted to focus on the reasons that we do anything, whether it's group work, or curriculum, or problem based learning, or standards based grading, any of these things that get debated in education. The effectiveness of any of these things all end up landing on how well are teachers attending to and engaging these sort of motivational possibilities of these designs? So I really wanted to focus on belongingness, meaningfulness, competence, accountability, and autonomy, the five components of the framework. Illustrating it through six different teachers who are doing these things in really different ways. Very effectively, but in really different ways, to sort of move our conversation about good teaching past the specifics of methods to the specifics of purpose for kids learning.

Brett: Well, and I was just trying to find, you have in your introduction a quote from a teacher about how, you know, something might read well in a book, but the practicality can be difficult. And you address that right in the introduction, which I think is brilliant, and then you back that up with all of these stories from the teachers that you're working with throughout the book.

Lani: US schools, I mean, even the six teachers that I focus on in these books, they're teaching in such different kinds of settings. When we talk about teaching as if it's some kind of unitary practice, it's ridiculous. And the thing that makes teaching harder, again, is the particulars of the dynamics, the particulars of the resources, how much support do we get from administration, what are sort of the baseline rules of the school, what are the communities expecting of us as teachers and as educators? All of those things are different everywhere we go. I've taught in four different schools, not counting my university, but the 6 through 12 teaching, I taught in four different setting and then two different summer programs. And I can just tell you, what I was able to do in those places varied tremendously based on those things I just described. And so, you know, saying that all teachers should just do X is kind of a silly statement, in my opinion. I mean, unless you go to a really generic, "All teachers should respect students. All teachers should attend to student thinking." All of those things are true, but what teachers are really craving are sort of the nitty-gritty details of, "Tell me what I can do. Give me some suggestions."

Lani: So I was trying to find a balance between offering suggestions and illustrations of things that you could do in your classroom, but really trying to foreground why. Why would you do it? Why might you decide to use Elizabeth Statmore's talking points? Why might you instead try to use Christopher Lesniak's debates, right? So those are both structures that do very … Like, they look very different, but they accomplish a lot of the same goals. And one of those choices might be more of a sensible choice for a teacher in one setting versus another. So I want teachers to understand that that's the nature of designing a classroom. It's not finding the latest greatest, and using it, and hoping it works. It has to be more intentional. You have to say, "Look. I want to establish these things in my classroom. I want to make sure that kids have these kinds of opportunities. Here's what my school looks like. Here are the strengths of my students and communities. Here are things that we don't have as available to us, so this choice makes the most sense." So it was sort of an effort to empower teachers in making those kinds of design choices.

Brett: And I think it does, and again, I love the book. I'm a huge fan. I've been reading it a lot the last couple of weeks.

Lani: This was really a passion project for me. I mean, Heinemann editor Katherine Bryant approached me after I wrote a blog post on this topic of social risk and getting kids to share their ideas, and that came directly out of some professional development I did with teachers who were stuck on this exact problem. And so it's grown from my work with teachers very, very deeply, and it's illustrating and celebrating the work of incredible math teachers that I've had the pleasure and honor to get to know over the years. I hope that the enthusiasm, and the joy, and the hope of these incredible teachers kinda comes through and maybe helps sustain teachers who are trying to improve their own teaching and their own classroom practice. So that's kind of my hope for the book.


Be sure to follow Lani on Twitter @Ilana_horn and for more on her book: Motivated: Designing Math Classrooms Where Students Want to Join In
Click here to read Lani's blog: https://teachingmathculture.wordpress.com

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