It's Not for a Lack of Effort

  • It's Not for a Lack of Effort
    July 2024

    I wonder how often I've blamed my students for their lack of success. How often have I thought, “If only they would try harder?” I’m sure this happens more often than I admit, and I suspect I am not alone in this. When I move past the initial frustration stage, I realize it’s not that my students aren’t trying hard to make sense of the mathematics; instead, I believe it’s that I’m not meeting their needs. Sometimes, they don’t see the purpose of what they are expected to learn; other times, they have specific needs that I am not prepared to meet. For example, there are two specific groups of students who are putting forth much effort and are still struggling.

    The first is a group of multilingual learners. According to the National Education Association, by 2025, one out of four children in classrooms across the U.S. will be a multilingual learner. School may be the only place where these learners may hear English spoken. I think of how frustrating and scary it must be to try to learn new content in an unfamiliar language. Last summer, I spoke at a conference in Peru and attended one of the keynote sessions. The session topic was in English, but I found out very quickly that the presentation was being delivered in Spanish. Although I had some background knowledge of the topic, I knew very little Spanish. I decided to stay, and after an hour of trying to follow along and make sense of the presentation, I was mentally exhausted.  Imagine what multilingual learners experience all the time. We want to ensure that these learners get the support they need and are not being told to work harder!

    The second group of students have dyscalculia (whether diagnosed or undiagnosed). Dyscalculia is a specific learning disability that affects an individual’s ability to understand and manipulate numbers and number concepts. People with dyscalculia often struggle with number sense and with subitizing. Not all students with learning disabilities in mathematics have dyscalculia, but rather, dyscalculia is a subset. Because they often struggle with quantity and with symbolic notation, students with dyscalculia tend to work very hard to try to make sense of mathematics. Again, we want to ensure that these students receive support and are not being told to work harder!

    When considering how to better meet the needs of specific groups of students, in this case, those with dyscalculia or multilingual learners, we should look to those who have devoted their careers to researching and implementing effective programs, knowing that we can rely on their expertise and experience. Those knowledgeable education specialists can help us learn about the needs of students as well as educate us about issues our students are experiencing and how we might consider addressing those needs. Learning from educators who are experts in specific disciplines allows me to feel more adequate in meeting the diverse needs of students.

    As educators, we must continually work to build positive mathematical identities with all our students, and telling them to work harder will not accomplish this. Instead, we must learn more about our students’ needs and identify what we can do differently to better meet those needs. This is often difficult work, but it’s very important work that must be done through collaborating with others.

    Kevin Dykema
    NCTM President