I am a dog person. I am one of those people who can’t help but smile at any dog I walk past and I greet the dog before its owner. I have two Jack Russell terriers and they are absolutely my babies. A few years back one of them developed the habit of becoming extremely timid of any other dog that we would pass. She would dig her feet into the ground and it would have been easier to continue walking if the anchor to the Queen Mary was on the far end of the leash instead of a small brown and white ball of fur. The answer to the dilemma came from the world of TV via Cesar Millan, “The Dog Whisperer”. It was not her causing the problem, it was me.
Cesar explains how the lead becomes a conduit for the emotions of the human on the end of it. Subconsciously I was conveying my uncertainty down the lead and she was reading these signals and responding with fear. I needed to change my mindset and convey calm confidence as we welcomed other dogs on our ramblings. Today she greets other dogs with a wag of the tail and her head held high but I know it is not that she has changed, she is getting positive messages through the lead.
We send our students many messages about learning, growth, ability, potential. . . Sometimes we are sending these messages deliberately, such as when we talk about growth mindset and the rewards of effort, persistence and risk taking. At other times the messages we send are accidental, incidental and unplanned; these are often the strongest messages we send.
Students are very adept at learning what ‘school’ is about. They see past the pretty posters, the motivational speeches and the rhetoric about learner attributes. They read the hidden message with great skill. The routines of the day send strong messages about what truly matters; lining up, walking silently to class, listening while the teacher tells you what to do. Assessments are another tool that tells a message about learning. We may say that risk taking and creativity matter but that message is sunk by the assessment that shouts at the students ‘there is a right answer and you need to know it’.
Mathematics provides a good example of the contradictory messages we send to students. On one level, we invite them to be creative, to think deeply about their solutions, to collaborate with their peers and ask questions when they are unsure. We say that we embrace mistakes as the path to learning and tell our students to have a growth mindset. We tell them that mathematics is beautiful and that mathematicians are finders of patterns.
But then we give them timed drills of mathematics facts. Speed and accuracy become the measures of mathematical fluency. We give tests with one right answer and repeated examples of near identical questions. We create blatantly artificial ‘real world scenarios’ in word problems designed to conceal the mathematical thinking required in much the same way that riddles hide their meaning. We teach prescribed methods and reduce mathematics to a sequence of steps to be blindly followed. We begin the exploration of mathematics with a broad array of concrete materials which allow us to see and touch numbers but as the concepts become more complex these are removed and we are left alone with only formulas to guide us. We understand little but know much. Recall of information becomes the visible substitute for understanding and the assessments we take require little else. We may pass the tests but we know that mathematics is not for us; we are not maths people.
No teacher sets out to send such messages. We do not want our students to perceive maths as a subject that is beyond their abilities or is only to be attempted by a certain type of student. We know that mathematical thinking is of great value and in a world that is increasingly shaped by data is a much needed disposition. Sometimes we are unaware of the messages we are sending, after all a five-minute quiz on Kahootz is just a little fun. We fail to notice that this quick quiz aligns perfectly with the mental image that our students have constructed in response to countless similar quizzes; that mathematics is a subject where success is measured in terms of speed and accuracy. At other times, we believe we are saving our students by providing them a quick and easy way to solve a complex problem. Why bother with the complexities of dividing fractions when you need only "invert and multiply”. Sadly, we should not then be surprised when our students don’t ever really understand fractions and are unable to contemplate an approach to any problem that is not dressed in its usual coat and hat.
We need to become whisperers of our own messaging systems. Only by being aware of every message that we send our students can we hope to change their narrative of what it means to be a learner. When we acknowledge that their story of learning is the one we are telling them, we can take steps to shift the narrative.
By Nigel Coutts