Access, Equity, and the Bias of Brilliance

“Once educators recognize that they are biased against forms of brilliance other than their own, they can finally begin to truly teach.”  Christopher Emdin

A Confession

As a student, math class was mostly about taking notes, practicing algorithms and getting right answers.  And I loved it.  I really did.  I could hide.  It was safe and without risk.  I was comfortable.  “I do; we do; you do” was my jam as a student.  More importantly, in this teaching style, I identified as a really strong and talented math student because I learned algorithms and got right answers.  That’s what good math students do in class, right?  I never had to share my thinking, never had to learn from the thinking of others, never had to challenge the dimensions of my adolescent bubble of insecurity.  I never had to share (or listen to a classmate share) an interesting math question or an elegant solution.  I never had to be vulnerable.

When I started teaching, I created the same classroom culture.  I was safer as a teacher as well.  I could hide.  Never take risks.  Be comfortable.  I was the author of culture in my classroom.  They were the factory workforce with one job to do:  consume the algorithm and produce right answers.  And my teaching aligned to this goal.  Employing this style of pedagogy created a silent pact in my classroom:  If you sit there and do your job and let me do mine, I will never ask you to take a risk, to challenge the dimensions of your adolescent bubble of insecurity, to share anything unique or interesting about you or your thinking.  Time will pass and so will you.  We might be bored, but we’ll get through this together without ever knowing each other or our vulnerabilities.  Now let’s open up our textbooks and get to work.

This pedagogic model (and the resulting silent pact) is dreadful for a variety of reasons.

I was biased to my own math identity.  I was teaching to me, to my “brilliance” (to borrow from Emdin).  I created a classroom where I would’ve succeeded (as much as algorithms and right answers can be called “success” in a math classroom).  They weren’t learning math from me because they weren’t like me.  They had learning disabilities and/or emotional baggage around learning math and an anxious math identity.  They were often from a different socio-economic background and/or embodied a culture that was far removed from the cultural norms of my upper-middle class upbringing in small town New Hampshire.  Eventually, they would become a different generation from me.  Family Guy and Michael Jordan and even 9/11 references would become outdated.  The 1990s became an unlived and unremembered time for my students and my generational life experiences moved from being relevant to historical.

I was denying them their right to evolve and express their own identities. Furthermore, I was shirking my responsibility to create a classroom environment that invited risk, challenge, failure, and honored the vulnerability inherent not only in the learning-how-to-appreciate-math process but in learning-how-to-be-appreciate-our-humanity process.  I was hiding behind my pedagogy and my silent pact with students.  I was failing to honor their identity in the authorship of the classroom culture.

As I’ve reflected on my 12 years in the classroom, I’m most proud about my movement away from this style of pedagogy (algorithms and right answers and no risk) at the beginning of my career to a teaching style that honored, indeed required, a more collaborative classroom culture of sharing, risk, and student identity.  But even in my latter years, I would find myself (especially in the weariest of weeks) letting that silent pact take a seat in my classroom and permit me to make my teaching about me and my experiences and not about my students and theirs.

It’s always a continuous battle to question our biases about brilliance and to sustain the courage to teach our students in a way that honors who our students are and their own flavor of brilliance.

Why this Matters

We have a moral and professional obligation to provide learning opportunities in math classrooms for all students.  From NCTM’s Principles to Actions (page 59):

An excellent mathematics program requires that all students have access to a high-quality mathematics curriculum, effective teaching and learning, high expectations, and the support and resources needed to maximize their learning potential.  (Emphasis mine.)

I’ve noticed that many schools interpret this last phrase to mean offering intervention programs and other structurally (and legally) defined support systems and practices.  Those structures are important.

I’m suggesting that the most essential resource every student needs to maximize their learning potential is a classroom culture that invites them to grow their thinking potential.  And creating this classroom culture means that we constantly question our own biases about the brilliance of our students, the value of the contributions our students bring into the classroom, and what math thinking should look like in a lesson.

An Invitation

Returning to Christopher Emdin:  “Once educators recognize that they are biased against forms of brilliance other than their own, they can finally begin to truly teach.”  Someone took a picture of this quote from some presentation and tweeted it, and it’s been a worm in my brain for months.  (The power of #MTBoS!)

A question I’m asking myself is:  how do we support teachers in the work of questioning their own biases and invite them to create a classroom culture and adopt pedagogic practices that value and utilize the student experience in the learning process?  And how do we have those difficult conversations when biases about students want to go unchallenged or unchanged?

I know the #MTBoS community and others in the global math department have been engaged in this struggle for some time.  The resources, practices, and wisdom the community freely shares have been vital in furthering the development of math curriculum, teaching, and learning.  I’m wondering about the wisdom out there about creating classroom cultures that maximize all student learning and thinking.  My wondering is not so much about math instructional strategies that promote student engagement and discourse as it is about teacher choices and deliberate moves that create the classroom culture that best allows that engagement and discourse to happen.

How do you create a classroom culture that honors the diversity of student identities?

One thought on “Access, Equity, and the Bias of Brilliance

  1. As you know, this is a question I’m fascinated by… My working theory is that all teachers are instinctively teaching to the image or photo-negative of themselves as students. I’ve had interesting simple discussions with teachers around being “meta” about this… Have teachers vision who in their class this year most reminded them of themselves. Make a separate list for who feels exactly opposite. Take any lesson plan from the last week. Recall who you heard most from. Recall who was most engaged. Recall your feelings around these students in this class. What do you notice? What do you wonder? If you were to make a change to counteract bias in your classroom, what could it be? Conversations like this are sometimes scary to undertake with precious PD time, but nearly always are super well-received and productive. Even acknowledging the bias can be super powerful for teachers, I find. Interesting dig into an under-discussed issue! Thanks for the good read!

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