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Teaching to Win

Gojak_Linda-100x140By NCTM President Linda M. Gojak
NCTM Summing Up, February 4, 2014

February is a month of recognizing accomplishments and achievements including the Super Bowl and, this year, the Winter Olympics. So, what does this have to do with teaching mathematics?

Much has been written on the psychology of playing not to lose vs. playing to win. Although the context for this work is usually sports or success in the business world, I am intrigued about the psychology of playing to win as I think about its implications for teaching mathematics. Our primary goal as teachers is to provide experiences and tools so our students become successful learners and users of mathematics no matter what their future career choice may be. It is not about competition; rather, it is about being the best we can be in the classroom to have the greatest impact on the learning and lives of our students.

As I consider teaching not to lose I think about minimizing risk in the choices we make as teachers. How will I prepare and present this concept? How much time will it take? Will the kids be ready for the test? Teaching not to lose  involves remaining in a safety zone that is more comfortable, less time consuming, and may result in some rewards (most kids pass the test) with little risk (instructional practice meets the status quo).

Teaching not to lose focuses on—

  • showing and telling students by giving them step-by-step directions rather than providing rich experiences to help them understand mathematics (and, if they do not “get it,” we show them bigger and tell them louder);
  • demonstrating skills and procedures rather than developing deeper understanding of concepts;
  • making mathematics easy for students rather than recognizing the importance of productive struggle; and
  • preparing students for the test rather than teaching for mathematical understanding.

Let’s face it. Most of us were taught mathematics this way. If we were fortunate enough to have a teacher who motivated us and got us excited about mathematics, we have experienced teaching to win. If we did not experience such teaching, ongoing professional development can enable us to change our mind-set. This gives us the chance to make a difference for our students by helping them to recognize the importance of mathematics in their lives and how to appreciate the beauty of mathematics as well as its challenge.

Teaching to win involves calculated risks. How do I present this concept to develop deep understanding and prepare my students to become mathematically proficient?  Do I believe that if I teach for understanding my students will be prepared for the test? Am I prepared to do things outside my comfort zone to challenge myself as a teacher and my students as learners?

Think about how different the above list could be if we were to change our mind-set from teaching not to lose to teaching to win. My list would focus on—

  • reasoning and making sense as the fundamental goal of every lesson;
  • maintaining high expectations for every student, aware that some students will need more time and support than others to be successful;
  • devoting the necessary time to develop understanding rather than “covering” the content;
  • providing rich tasks that prompt students to use strategic thinking and metacognition to develop mathematical content and practice;
  • believing that effective instruction is the best test preparation;
  • thinking about teaching mathematics as a creative activity rather than a mundane exercise; and
  • collaborating with colleagues to plan a coherent curriculum that explicitly connects mathematical thinking both vertically and horizontally.

This is not something we can develop overnight. It takes time to shift our mind-set from teaching not to lose to teaching to win. We must be lifelong learners. We must embrace feedback from our colleagues that helps us to determine if we are on course in changing our instructional practices to benefit our students. When the feedback doesn’t agree with our beliefs, we should reflect to justify what we do or to understand the need to shift our practice. We must sharpen our focus on what is important to teach, how we teach it, and how it connects to the mathematics that students have experienced before and will experience after our time with them. And, perhaps most importantly, we must understand that we cannot do this all at once. We need to develop a plan that allows us to make change in reasonable steps by prioritizing our goals, building those goals into our teaching practice, and creating a means of checking ourselves on the progress we have made.

As teachers, we may never aspire to win the Super Bowl or the Olympics. But when we teach to win, we are not the winners—our students are!

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