Part 5 of our conversation with Deborah Ball, education professor and founder of TeachingWorks

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Here is the transcript.

– Hi, and welcome to PLtogether Lounge Talks. I’m Adam Geller, founder and CEO of Edthena. Today we’re talking with Deborah Ball, she is a scholar. She is a professor, she is an author. She is the founder of Teaching Works, and she’s also a math teacher. Deborah, thanks so much for joining us.

– Thank you.

– We’ve had the opportunity to talk together several times and, I wanna talk now about the issue of equity, which I think we’ve kinda dipped our toes in a little bit. But, I wanna take a little bit of a different approach, ’cause I feel like a lot of the energy right now is, people ringing the bell to say, “Don’t forget, we have to make sure things are equitable.” And that is obviously so important. But I wanted to talk with you about, so what can we do? Right, if I’m a teacher, and I am trying to think about what is equitable for my students, you know, I have limited tools available. I may not be able to see my students. I may not be able to talk to them. So, what are some of the things that I can be thinking about as a teacher to help ensure that my students are on a more level playing field given the current situation?

– It’s a great question, Adam, because we know that things begin by being inequitable in the ways that schools orient around math and around instruction, and a lot of really important effort has gone into ensuring that most or many children have access to the internet and have a Chromebook or have some kind of device, and that is unquestionably important, but that sort of only gets us back to where we were anyway, right? That isn’t equitable by itself. So, this is a great moment to take advantage of something that we have already learned a lot, which is to think much more about using problems in math that have a very wide range. Sometimes they have, people have given these different names, like, eased entry, high ceiling. I don’t really like any of those kind of labels, but basically, what we mean are, problems that for whatever grade or grades you teach, you know, it isn’t gonna be differentiated so much by different opportunities kids have had, like it’s just, there’s a way the kids can get into them, and there’s a lot of space to work. The more that we try to tailor everything to things we imagine to be levels, the more we’re likely to actually limit children during this particular time, the more we can create spaces for kids to do math that kind of has enough open space. I talked another time with you about a problem where kids were writing equations for ten, like, basically anybody can do that and, they can start sort of moving around that space and writing more and more complicated equations. We know that one of the interventions we have to make is to work against the kind of stereotypes about who’s good at math and about, you know, it’s boys, or it’s white children, or it’s children who are middle class. Like, how do we change the images about who gets to be good at math? And one way we can do that is by changing the kinds of tasks and the kind of space that kids have to do in them. The ways they can represent their thinking, the kinds of range of answers. Fewer problems that have just one answer, more problems that have lots of answers, lots of solutions. Doing that is gonna create a space where we’re not even further being pulled into thinking of how kids are behind or ahead of one another. Because that’s gonna replicate some of the current systemic structures of inequality that we have, so, I’d start by looking for problems that have a lot more flexibility and openness to them, where we as teachers can be surprised by what kids do, and change the way we’re treating children, which in itself will be a disruption to equity issues. I think we might wanna think about things we can encourage and support children to do, depending on what age of children we’re working with, that we can support them to be able to do on their own, that don’t have to be quite so dependent on who has time to work with this child, what those resources are that a family can bring to bear, and I’m not here trying to assume anything about which families will supply what, but the minute you’re relying on that, you’re sort of building in both predictable and sometimes unpredictable sources of big differentiation. So the more we can think of things that don’t rely a lot on things we have no control over, but things we can predict kids can get into, and supporting them, the more likely we are to be disrupting some of the patterns that reproduce themselves. We could be thinking more about, are there opportunities to meet with kids in really small groups? Pairs or trios briefly, to get them launched into something and do a check-in? And then bring them back together to compare, and just, I think thinking about the task is one important place to be working right now. And then maybe we can think of some other ones as well.

– I love how you got us to talk about the technology issue which is on everyone’s mind, and in some ways you immediately pushed past that right to the content of what we’re asking students to do. Because ultimately that’s, you know, that’s what makes the difference. You could have, it doesn’t matter if you have all the internet and all the computers in the world, if the thing you’re being asked to learn is not the right thing then, you’re inherently not doing the right kind of learning.

– No, we know about this from classroom teaching, we know for example that a very powerful practice is to do what’s often called assigning competence. This comes from complex instruction. And this is a practice that teachers use when they deliberately disrupt status hierarchies in their classrooms by naming something that a particular student has done that’s mathematically really cool, and what’s great about this practice is that a teacher can combine naming something that’s mathematically valuable, so kids are basically learning, “Oh I didn’t realize that was a smart thing to do!” so it broadens their idea of what math is. You strategically name a student whom other kids probably might have developed an impression isn’t smart, either because of a stereotype or some other reason. And you do it in a way that elevates that work, so it’s like a really powerful practice. There’s no reason that can’t go on in the various versions of online teaching. A teacher could be like, looking to see who’s done something and then say, “So and so, would you mind holding “your problem solution up “so people can see it?” And then, “What I wanna point out right now is, “what is really more important about what she just did “is the way that she arrayed her answers. “And that’s a really important thing to do mathematically.” So you’re right there, intervening on that child’s own sense of identity, positioning that child around with other children, and for everyone naming not only that that child was competent, which is maybe not what they were thinking, a kind of pattern they’d fallen into, but also broadening everyone’s idea about who gets to be smart and what being smart includes. That’s a practice that can be done, it’s really important, it’s great in face to face instruction, we shouldn’t forget how powerful it is, because it can be done in all kinds of versions of asynchronous and synchronous teaching.

– Okay, I’m gonna go back to my role of summarizer because there is a lot here. So we’ve got, as a teacher, first and foremost, I’m gonna summarize as, don’t get caught up on the technology. Spend your most energy on what you’re asking students to do from a learning perspective, how you’re positioning the problems that drive their exploration of the material. The second is, sounds like, this idea you just shared where you’re like, don’t forget all of the practices and habits that we work to develop as teachers, that promote that kind of, as you said, the disrupting the pattern type thinking inside the classroom, and then how you can translate those to these new environments. The other thing I wanna call out, which you had said before, which I think is really powerful and it caused me to reflect, ’cause I’m realizing that a lot of my questioning, it’s always presumed and assumed that we should be leveraging the adults that are nearby the students to, you know, as a primary tier of what’s happening to support those students and, those adults’ and students’ lives can be so important but, you almost defined it as that the kind of true locus of control for the teacher in this situation is in that relationship that the teacher can develop between the teacher and the student, and really putting the onus of the learning on the student in that independent way, which really I think resonated with me. I think back to my time in the classroom and, with middle-schoolers trying to kind of wake them up to, “Hey, “this is gonna be on you when you’re in high school. “It’s gonna be on you to choose if you want to go “down path A or path B for your life.” You know, that kind of discussion that you have in middle school is the same kind of on the student positioning that you said, you know, treat them as those independent, high-functioning learners and let them grow and blossom in this time of independent learning. Well that was, that was a lot. I’m not feeling ready to solve all the problems of the world, but that was really helpful. I hope other people’s teaching has been shaken a little bit by these reflections as mine has. Deborah, thank you again for joining us, it’s been such a pleasure to have you as a part of the Lounge Talks series. If you’re just joining us for the first time, you can watch more of my conversation with Deborah as well as others at pltogether.org. Deborah, thank you again.

– Thank you, Adam.

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