Adapted from Jo Boaler's foreword to In the Moment by Jen Munson
This wonderful book focuses upon one of the most important moments in teaching—the time when teachers and students talk together and there is an opportunity for students to learn. Much of the literature and research on teaching presents the act of teaching in more general terms—focusing upon curriculum, student grouping, content knowledge, decisions that can be made before any teaching happens. But so much of what is important in classrooms happens inside classroom interactions between teachers and students. This book is all about those moments, and because of this it is a rare treasure.
When Jen started her doctoral study of conferring interactions I was thrilled as I knew these were an understudied yet critically important time in teaching. We know that it is productive for students to struggle and to work on difficult work that will push them at “the edge of their understanding” but the culture of teaching in the United States has meant that teachers are more likely to jump in and “save” students when they struggle. This “saving,” which often means breaking work down into small manageable chunks, may feel good to students but usually empties tasks of their cognitive demand and robs the interaction of the opportunity for deep learning. But if teachers should not help students by breaking down questions into manageable sections, what do they do instead? How should teachers handle those moments of struggle? Teachers know that these are important times, when students’ self-esteem and confidence is often on the line. This book provides teachers with the important knowledge they need in these critical moments, with lots of rich and detailed examples of conversations to have, questions to ask students, and areas to focus upon.
One of Jen’s contributions to the field of educational work in this area is her identification of a process she calls conferring. In the pages that follow teachers will learn what to do in those moments, ways to probe student thinking, ways to interpret student ideas and, importantly, ways to push understanding to a higher place. The examples Jen draws from do not come from educational theory; they come from the actual teaching practice of the teachers she worked with and studied for over a year. This is why the pages that follow are so readable, so fascinating, and so important.
It is my firm belief that to improve students’ mathematical understanding in the United States, a clear area of need, we need to focus on and invest in teaching and teachers. In the last decade vast amounts of money and time have been spent on curriculum design and on standards. Both of these are important, but we have neglected the important interactions that happen inside classrooms where learning happens. In this valuable book Jen provides us with a tool to advance teaching and to equip teachers with the knowledge and ideas to try inside these moments. I expect that the pages that follow will be a guide that teachers will treasure for many years to come.
– Jo Boaler
Jen Munson is a postdoctoral fellow in learning sciences at Northwestern University, a former classroom teacher, and a professional developer who works with teachers and school leaders across the U.S. to develop responsive, equitable mathematics instruction. She is coauthor of the Mindset Mathematics curriculum series.