What We Presume

I once heard an analogy that teaching is a lot like being a doctor…if the doctor had to diagnose and treat 25 patients all at the same time. It’s cute and helps drive home the point that the work of teachers is complex as they tackle the daily challenges of meeting the needs of many students simultaneously. However, this analogy hits too close to home as it reflects a shift in the profession I’ve been noticing over the past few years. The role of a teacher really has become more like being a doctor, and that bothers me.

These days, education is driven by capital D Data. Data, Data, Data. And why? Because like a doctor, we want to diagnose what’s wrong and help fix it.

And that’s where the problem lies. We presume illness.

This post from Tracy Zager exemplifies my concern. In the post, she recounts the diagnostic test her daughters each had to take on the very first day of 2nd and 4th grade.

Welcome to the new school year!

Unfortunately, nowadays teachers feel pressured to collect as much Data as possible as soon as possible so they can diagnose the illness and begin treatment right away. Does that really need to be our focus on day one? Or even day 2, 3, 4, or 5? As Tracy says in her post,

“On day one, I really don’t care if my students know the vocabulary word for a five-sided polygon, can tell time to the half hour, and can calculate perimeter accurately. I’d much rather know how they attack a worthy problem, how they work with one another, and how they feel about the subject of mathematics. I am much more interested in the mathematical practice standards than the content standards in the fall.”

The concern Tracy shares dovetails with the message Ken Williams gave in his keynote back in July at CAMT 2017. The overall talk was about disrupting the status quo with regards to labeling and limiting students. This message jumped out at me during his talk:

And yet this is exactly the kind of experience Tracy shared in her blog post! Ken Williams challenges this practice and the limits it places on our students:

When we presume there’s an illness – a problem with a student or group of students – then we’re setting our expectations about what we’re going to find. If we train ourselves to seek out faults and deficiencies, then that’s what we’re going to get good at finding.

Here’s what I’d love for us to presume instead. To quote Andrew Gael, let’s presume competence. Presume that when our kids walk in the door on the first day of school, they have funds of knowledge to draw on and the ability to learn even more. As we get to know our students, we’ll observe variation – it’s natural – and once we’re aware of what those variations are for individual students we can start brainstorming ways to accommodate to ensure each and every student can continue to have access to the learning in our classrooms.

When we presume competence, we aren’t looking for illness, we’re looking for strength. We’re sending important messages to our students from day one that we value who they are and who they can become as they journey with us through the school year.



12 thoughts on “What We Presume

  1. robertkaplinsky

    Really well put. I never thought about assessing students as deficit thinking, but I can see now how it might be viewed through students’ eyes. I’ll have to think about this more. Thanks for helping me reflect.

    1. bstockus Post author

      Thanks, Robert. I feel like I walk a fine line with this post. I definitely see the value in assessment and how it can be used to learn what our students do know and can do. CGI assessments, like those Kendra Lomax shares on her website are a great example: https://learningfromchildren.org/listening-to-childrens-thinking/

      I think what’s been bothering me is that we don’t always have that mindset with assessment. Rather, they can be used in a punitive way with a focus on what students don’t know and can’t do. This can lead us down a road of blaming (and even shaming) that I’d rather us not travel down.

      This is particularly troublesome to me if we’re kicking off a brand new year using assessments that lead us to asking questions like, “Did their teacher even teach this stuff last year?” “What did their parents let them do all summer, just watch TV?” or “Don’t they remember anything?”

  2. Elizabeth Frey

    Im not sure why Im responding to this blog when I was reading multiple articles about numberless word problems but this is the one Im suppose to respond to so here goes. I do not automaticly think illness I use my 15 years experince to help guide me to common misttakes and try and be proactive in my classroom.

    1. bstockus Post author

      Hi, Elizabeth. I’m unsure why you were supposed to respond to one of my blog posts, but I appreciate you taking the time and sharing your opinion. Thank you!

    1. bstockus Post author

      Thanks, Tracy. This has been rattling around in my head most of this summer. It was cathartic to finally get it out. I appreciate the support.

  3. Ramona Priester

    Thank you for the thought provoking article. We designed a summer school curriculum for our struggling students this year using strategies that emphasized critical thinking, problem solving, rigor, and some of the strategies we’ve been learning from the online math community (including number less word problems!). No worksheets or drill and kill to help students “catch up.” Lo and behold, these students were engaged and learning just as the higher achieving students would be. Expectations do make a difference!

  4. Pingback: A few of my favourite blog posts – to read… or inspire writing – Thinking Mathematically

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