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Teacher Moves that Shift Power Dynamics in the Classroom

By the time students get to high school, they have pretty solidified ideas about who is smart, who is not, and what it means to be smart. These judgments are based on previous achievement as well as stereotypes related to race, class, popularity, and gender. If you observe almost any math classroom, you will notice that some students’ ideas are sought out and immediately taken up whereas others’ are ignored. In fact, there are many students whose mathematical ideas are not heard at all.


One of the invisible forces in any classroom is status. Status has to do with how competent a student feels and how that competence is perceived by his or her peers (Horn, 2012). While mathematical competence is about a student’s ability to complete a variety of mathematical tasks, status is about the perception of that competence. We have probably all seen some of the discrepancies between what a student can do and what a student feels they can do. Even more critically, students make these judgments about their peers. By being aware of how status plays out in the classroom, we can employ specific teacher moves to shift those power dynamics and disrupt some of the problematic and inaccurate notions about who can be successful at math.


We’re going to look at teacher moves in two categories:

  • actions that establish norms and center students in the work of learning math

  • words that invite student participation and position students in particular ways


These are of course not the only two ways we can categorize this equity-focused aspect of our work, but I find it to be a helpful framework in thinking about the practical steps we can take to disrupt normalized patterns in our math classrooms.


Actions


How we run our classrooms sends important messages about what we believe about students’ math capabilities and the discipline of math itself. By reordering a traditional lesson format and having students start by working together in groups, we communicate that students are responsible for and capable of constructing mathematical understanding. We position students as sense-makers and we position the work of learning math as a collaborative endeavor. This marks a shift in power dynamics by highlighting students’ agency and competence instead of reinforcing a reliance on the teacher as the sole source of knowledge.


Also consider who you are inviting to present at the board. Physical location alone sends a signal about power. Standing in the front of the class at the whiteboard puts students in a position of authority. Make sure a variety of student voices are given this opportunity and that these students differ from day to day.



Other actions that shift power dynamics are:

  • Asking students to write their answers on the board

  • Inviting a student up to the board to explain their thinking

  • Using curious questions while monitoring groups to understand what students are thinking (“Can you explain your approach to me?”“What are you thinking so far?” “Tell me more about that.” “What have you noticed?”)

  • Not answering students’ questions about if their answer is correct or not

  • Redirecting a question from one student to a different student

  • Not rushing in to help as soon as students indicate confusion; not stifling group work by checking in too frequently

  • Using tasks that have multiple entry points and feature a diverse set of mathematical “smarts”

  • Using tasks that require interdependence

  • Using wait time so more students have opportunities to participate

  • Not grading homework

  • Using rubrics to grade quizzes and homework where students earn points instead of having points deducted

  • Being aware of our own cultural biases and intentionally choosing to read students differently and with positive assumptions


Words


While our words play a part in shaping our classroom culture, they also have the power to elevate particular students’ status by highlighting their mathematical contribution publicly. Much of the phrases we will look at are ones that can be used in the debrief portion of the lesson. They are words used to facilitate a discussion and play an important role in deciding who gets to hold the floor.


How we orient the class’ work around that particular student’s ideas is equally important. We can do this by having someone in the class paraphrase the student’s ideas before they evaluate it as right or wrong: “Without saying if you agree or disagree, can someone restate Ni’asjia’s argument?”. The message we’re sending is that this student has important ideas that are worth taking into consideration, regardless of if the solution is actually correct or not. Maybe the student is providing a really persuasive argument, or the student is using rich mathematical vocabulary, or maybe the student thought about the problem in a unique way with a different strategy. We have to broaden our definition of what is mathematical and whose ideas are worth sharing. Then we have to let the class respond to the student’s ideas and not just evaluate it ourselves. After the class understands the student’s argument, they are invited and expected to ask questions of the students. This is where we do the important work of moving students towards the goals of the lesson through inquiry and discourse.


Here are some power-shifting words you can use:

  • “Zahraa, can you tell me more about the approach that your group took for this question?”

  • “Who would be willing to share an idea they had? We’re just looking for some rough-draft thinking. It doesn’t have to be a complete thought.”

  • “I’m going to give you a minute to think about this. Please don’t raise your hand yet.”

  • “Do you want to revise your thinking? It’s okay to change your mind in math.”

  • “What questions do you have?”

  • “I notice you two have different answers, could you each explain what you did to each other?”

  • “That’s a really important idea that you just stated. Would you be willing to share that in our whole group discussion later?”

  • “Am I capturing your thoughts accurately, Oakley?”

  • “Without saying if you agree or disagree, can someone restate Riya’s argument? It’s important that we all understand her idea before we decide if we agree or disagree.”

  • “What questions do you have for Bryce about his approach?”

  • “Who can add on to what Graham said?”

  • “I’m going to have you think about a new problem, and I’d like you to try out Haruko’s method.”

  • “Claire made a diagram that really helped her think about all the solutions to this problem. Claire, can you explain your diagram to the class?”


It is critical to consider the intentional and sometimes unintentional messages we communicate to students through our words and actions. Once we are aware of these messages, we can make intentional decisions to counteract them (or promote them) with some of these specific teacher moves. Which ones will you try this week?

 

References


Horn, I. S. (2012). Strength in numbers: Collaborative learning in secondary mathematics. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

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