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Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview: ‘Motivated: Designing Math Classrooms Where Students Want to Join In’

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 18, 2018 7 min read
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Ilana Horn, author of Motivated: Designing Math Classrooms Where Students Want to Join In, agreed to answer a few questions about her book.

Ilana Seidel Horn is Professor of Mathematics Education at Vanderbilt University Peabody College. She studies secondary mathematics teachers’ learning by looking at teachers in their workplace settings to understand the problems of practice they actually grapple with...

LF: I’ve done a lot of work on, and writing about, helping students develop intrinsic motivation. However, I’ve never done anything specifically about math. Do you think math, as opposed to other subjects, might carry any unique challenges for developing a “motivational classroom”? If so, what might they be?

Ilana Seidel Horn:

Indeed. We have so much mythology about who is smart in math. Especially in secondary classrooms, students enter with really strong preconceived ideas about whether or not they will even be able to learn, which, in turn, shapes their motivation and engagement. These ideas come from their prior experiences in math class, but also from cultural and family mythologies about who is (and isn’t) a “math person.” This draws on all kinds of racial, linguistic, and gendered stereotypes, of course, but it goes beyond that into all kinds of students saying things like, “I just don’t have a math brain.” Unfortunately, the ubiquity of standardized test scores, which always include math testing, provide even more fodder for these notions.

Additionally, there is often a terrible misalignment between mathematics, as a field of inquiry, and school math. School math primarily values one form of mathematical smartness: quick and accurate calculation. However, when we look at the whole of mathematics, as a field, there are so many other important ways to be smart: being systematic, noticing patterns, making generalizations, developing useful representations—just to name a few. We have students in our classrooms who are incredible at these things yet never have a chance to develop those deeply mathematical talents at school. When you ask mathematicians about what motivates them in their work, they very often talk about math’s beauty. When you say “math is beautiful” to a typical 6th grader, they look at you like you are insane. We clearly are not conveying the depth and richness of the subject in the way we tend to teach it.

A lot of times, people think that these issues only matter for motivating students who have a history of struggle. But these myths affect students who have been successful as well. Typically, they have been deemed as smart because they are quick and accurate calculators. Their mathematical learning is being shortchanged by not incorporating broader mathematical smartnesses so that they, too, can appreciate and develop the whole of mathematics. By making school math so narrow, we are shortchanging all kids—and limiting their motivation to learn it. I’ll never forget what one student said. He was a gifted high school junior, and my team was working with his math teacher to broaden the mathematics in her classroom. One day, while working on a problem, he declared, “This is the math I have been waiting for my whole life.”

LF: You list five features of a “motivational classroom.” Four of them—belongingness, meaningfulness, competence and autonomy—are representative of what many researchers have identified as critical elements that encourage intrinsic motivation, and I’ll be talking about them in my next question. You add “accountability” as a fifth component. Could you elaborate on what you mean by that, why you added it to the list, and what it looks like in a math classroom?

Ilana Seidel Horn:

A lot of the research on social psychology investigates how individuals do or don’t find motivation in things they do. That is where those more familiar components come from. When I talked to the teachers in the book, however, I noticed that they were really clear that they needed to motivate more than just single individuals: they needed to motivate whole classroom communities. For this reason, teachers need structures like norms and systems to get their classroom community working to sustain everybody’s motivation, so that all those tricky classroom dynamics get addressed. If we imagine a teacher who is really good at motivating kids one-on-one but then doesn’t intervene when students whisper insults to each other, that is going to work against a building motivated community. Building norms, having organizational systems to delegate responsibility—I put all of those things under the component of accountability.

LF: Now, getting back to four of those features of a motivational classroom—belongingness, meaningfulness, competence and autonomy. Can you give a quick example of what each one might look like in a math classroom?

Ilana Seidel Horn:

Sure! In some ways, these are direct responses to some of the most common complaints from students—and teachers!—about math class.

Belongingness happens when kids feel like there is a place for them in the classroom: who they are matters, their ideas, identities, and questions matter. I don’t know if you have noticed, but a lot of adolescent movies, if they want to represent a protagonist’s alienation from school, they often show a demoralizing interaction in math class. If you haven’t noticed this trope before, you will now, because it’s everywhere. I think it’s widely assumed to be a common experience.

Meaningfulness happens when students have opportunities to make sense of what they are learning and connect it to their lives. Sometimes this gets interpreted to mean that all math needs to have real world applications, but, again, going back to the experiences of professional mathematicians, there can be tremendous meaning in contemplating abstract ideas like infinity or seeing the beauty of geometric objects. Meaningful addresses that persistent question asked by math students since the beginning of time, “When are we ever going to use this?”

I’ve already talked a bit about competence: it means teaching ideas and skills using tasks that draw on a variety of mathematical smartnesses, not just the quick and accurate calculation that dominates school math. Experienced educators have long known how important strengths-based approaches are to keeping students engaged in academic work, so broadening the kinds of mathematical competencies valued in math class helps more students find their authentic mathematical strengths.

Autonomy means structuring activities and routines so that students can learn how to make their own sense of ideas. For example, teachers might structure groupwork with a routine that students can only ask the teacher “group questions,” meaning individual students can’t call a teacher over until they have checked in with all their groupmates. This presses students to use each other as learning resources before they turn to the “expert” in the room. Kids are often quick to take the path of least resistance and call the teacher over, but in working through problems together, they frequently figure things out and don’t need the teacher.

LF: What are some of the biggest obstacles to a teacher wanting to create a more motivational math classroom and how can they be overcome?

Ilana Seidel Horn:

Listen: math teachers, as a group, are under tremendous pressure. Accountability systems have hit them hard. College placement tests reflect students’ learning of their content. Curriculum wars rage on. And, to top it all off, it’s a hard-to-staff subject, so teachers can’t always count on students coming into their classrooms with solid prior instruction. It’s instructive to see how the teachers I feature in this book approach the challenge. They have few things in common. First, they are all curious and passionate math learners themselves. Second, they have a vision for what their classroom community should look like. It doesn’t look like that every day, but they hold fast to their vision, so when students inevitably pushback on being asked to think more or harder, they manage to gain students’ trust and build their confidence that they can change how they learn in math class. Third, the teachers are truly curious about students and their thinking. Their classrooms reflect that on every level. Teachers who aspire to create motivational math classrooms should engage their own professional learning to emulate these teachers.

Editor’s Note: Ilana gave me permission to share this excellent chart from her book that relates to this question:

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to share?

Ilana Seidel Horn:

At this point in my career, I have become really interested in understanding the kind of in-between parts of teaching. I know that educational writers have placed an increased emphasis on classroom routines and structures. And I get the appeal of that, especially for new teachers, who so often plead, “Just tell me what to do!” But I am really interested in going beyond what teachers do to understanding why they do it. I am interested in teachers as thinkers as well as doers. In an important sense, this book moves beyond the “best practice” rhetoric that dominates so much professional development.

LF: Thanks, Ilana!

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