Above, High school math teacher Mike Reitemeyer and his students show us why silence isn’t always golden.
We know that truly effective STEM learning is messy (as cognitive scientist Janet Kolodner explains) and noisy, allowing students to openly question facts, express ideas and deliberate with each other (the way the students do in many math class today). Research shows inquiry-based, student-centered learning where students are encouraged to be expressive, curious and problem-solvers, helps them to embrace STEM subjects and to overcome fear and self-doubt. Today, it’s all about active learning. And that means teachers encouraging students to express themselves and work together.
Silencing students in a learning environment can dim their light of enthusiasm and squelch their confidence. Yet, it’s still a dominant teaching practice. How can teachers help students embrace open (and sometimes noisy!) discussion in class?
In a recent post on his blog, Michael Reitemeyer (@mreitemeyer), a math teacher at John Dickinson High School in Delaware, shared his personal evolution from silencing students, to giving them a platform to find and express their voice. We’ve reposted his post below, with his permission.
Evidence of my evolution: Stopping the silencing
So a teaching moment I felt proud of last week I don’t think I would have even took notice of a few years ago. Here is the situation: I ask a boy, say Brendon, for his thoughts/share out on the problem he had been working on in his group (in a freshmen honors class). He talks for about 5 seconds saying what he did first and as he starts describing what he did second a more vocal member of his group whom we’ll call Sara, abruptly interjected, “No, no, no, what we did was…” I stopped her, thanked her for her desire to share and told her that I appreciate all of the insights she has offered to our group discussion (which is true). So truly walking on eggshells, being as gentle as I could be (I think I did this okay) I addressed the whole class about letting their classmates speak. And that unless we all hear what Brendon has to say we’ll never know how Brendon is thinking about the mathematics which will deprive us of the chance to possibly learn the mathematics from a new perspective, possibly help Brendon move forward from where he is currently stuck, or possibly learn a little bit more about how Brendon makes sense of the mathematics and/or the world. We miss out on these if we focus solely on getting the right answer most efficiently. But if our goal isn’t merely to “get” the correct answer, but to wonder about the mathematics publicly and to try to understand the mathematics more deeply as well as understand our classmates more deeply, then getting the correct answer quickly loses a lot of its appeal. I remember saying something while looking at Brendon, “Brendon, I honest-to-goodness want to know how you tried to make sense of this problem. I think the class can benefit from your insight. I promise you I don’t care if you have the right answer now or not.”
This sensitivity to the silencing of students has been brewing in me for the past few years, but I got viscerally upset watching a teacher whose video was being hosted/promoted by the Teaching Channel as the teacher repeatedly silenced his students in the pursuit of each group getting the “correct” answer as quickly as possible. It certainly reminded me of Max Ray’s 2 is greater than 4 talk (here).
A lot of this pedagogy is quite simple. If we want students to feel valued we need to listen to their ideas and treat them as though they are valuable; we need to create an environment where students are doing this to one another. If we want students to grow we need to listen to them to find out how they truly understand the mathematics and prompt them from there. I know too often I hear a student going in the “wrong” direction and I cut them off and lay the “right” direction before them. I think during those times I am often doing a disservice to those students for the sake of expediency and my own lack of patience.
Anyway, I felt proud that I think I helped Brendon not be silenced in this case, and that I’m promoting a culture where each student’s thoughts are explicitly valued. I am relieved that Sara continues to share regularly and doesn’t seem too off put by the situation which is also reassuring.
A personal goal I have for myself for this year is to watch for and interject myself to continue to further promote this culture in each of my classes.
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