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Chapter 6 – Option 2 (Connection)

02/24/2019 3:21 PM | Karen Campe

On page 129, the authors state that when a teacher helps students who are stuck in the problem-solving process: “With the best of intentions to support students in their work, these teachers are actually doing all the thinking for the students, leaving the students dependent on the teacher in any future problem-solving situations.” 

Have you encountered this in your own teaching?  Share your thoughts.


  • 02/25/2019 10:29 AM | Alison Foley
    In NCTM's book "Principles to Action"(2014), one of the teaching practices is to "support productive struggle in learning mathematics." As a math coach, helping teachers give students the opportunity to productively struggle with mathematics is one of my most difficult charges. Teachers naturally want to help students learn and therefore, it is often instinctual for them to "rescue" students who are stuck. I have the exact same instinct but through my professional reading and professional development, I have learned the value of students doing their own thinking. I think one big change that helps teachers is not to focus on the answer but the students' thinking. I am excited to share the "Three Reads Strategy" with teachers as I think it will be a valuable routine in helping with empowering students to become true problem solvers in any situation!
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  • 02/25/2019 10:49 AM | Sarah Giaquinta
    This is a struggle I think I have been working on since I started teaching! I love to "help" and now even though I'm over a decade into teaching, I still have to remind myself to stop talking and let them think! I want my students to learn to persevere when they have challenging problems or get stuck. I want them to think of me as their last resort. My goal is to have them be comfortable with the unknown, and just realize it gives them something to work for!

    Over the last few weeks, I have been implementing the Decide and Defend routine in my precalculus classes. I have found a couple of pieces in this routine to really help with taking a step back and letting the students persevere. I love that they are in partners and have someone to talk to about their thinking. When my students inevitably call me over and ask me a question, my go to response has been "That is a great question. What does your partner think?" Because they know we are working through a structured routine, I have found less frustration and push back from the students when I give a response like this. On any other given day, I sometimes find that when I push back and don't really answer what they are asking, they can get frustrated and shut down. Hopefully, as we do more routines, they will become more comfortable with the uncomfortable.

    I think my favorite part of the Decide and Defend routine is "we're still not sure about..." when defending their thinking to the class. This gives students a great way to be comfortable not understanding everything yet. It takes some of the pressure off of what they put on themselves to understand everything fully. It also opens the doors to conversation and allows other students to jump in and give some thoughts. I found that reminding them that it is ok to still be contemplating parts of the proof I gave them made them more persistent in trying to figure it out, as opposed to giving up or deciding it is just too hard. I found that reminding them of this prompt made them feel the need to ask me less questions and rely more on each other. Kids put a lot of pressure on themselves, especially when it involves trying to explain their thinking in front of others. I think this is a huge motivator in asking me questions and hoping for answers. I will continue to practice stepping back. The routines are definitely making this much easier for me for sure, as they are built around the students doing the thinking, talking and working.
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    • 03/04/2019 7:19 PM | Todd Butterworth
      Asking kids to talk to each other and process together is really helpful and something that can help the kiddos learn so much. I think that's something I want to really focus on next year and build from the beginning of the. Essentially...don't talk to me if you haven't talked to your partner :) Often they assume their partner doesn't know the answer, but if they ask maybe they help each other, maybe they are missing difference pieces of the puzzle. They don't know until they give it a shot! :)
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  • 02/25/2019 8:43 PM | Luke
    I feel this is a constant work in progress. From reading ability to absences to homework success and struggle, I go into helping kids with these things, and others, in mind. This only compounds the process for myself along with racing the clock counting down our 42 minute periods. Depending on the type of math involved, I generally ask what the student has done to this point as a baseline for what I say next and so I know how far to push. I then go through the usual questions of did you read it, what does it say, any keywords, what are they asking you to do, etc. Any student response is matched with me saying how did you know, how do you show that to what does xyz tell you to do next, why do you think that, etc. Each of these types of situations is supported by me pointing to the board or referring to prior homework or nearby peers... really any resource other than me.
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    • 03/01/2019 12:08 PM | Sarah Giaquinta
      Good point bringing time into the conversation here. I always have that internal struggle of "if I just explain it, it will go much faster and we can get to what I was planning on teaching!" But if we put the time in up front for them to do the thinking, will this happen faster and more frequently? I need to work on the tone I set at the beginning of the school year. Make my expectations known, and stick to them, so when we are in the thick of it, it isn't such a surprise to them. They have that inner drive to figure things out more settled already, hopefully.
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  • 02/28/2019 2:45 PM | Cortni Muir
    I believe most teachers have experienced this. As a coach, I am always encouraging teachers to talk less and let students take the reins. That's not easy and takes lots of practice. Productive struggle is definitely important for students to experience. For me it's always finding that fine line between productive struggle and struggle that becomes frustrating and shuts students down or over scaffolding which takes away students opportunities to think. I think that we have to let students run the show a little in terms of opportunities to struggle and make sense of math, give them that chance to surprise us.

    I think the Three Reads routine will be something teachers can definitely try and sets purpose for students. It helps focus teachers and students to not just try and do the math but make sense of it.
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    • 02/28/2019 3:14 PM | Cindy Noftle
      I agree with you Cortni. I just completed the Three Reads routine with my classes and I definitely talked less!!! But my students did struggle and wanted to join in as a group rather than as a pair or individual. I was surprised at how many of my students missed at least one important piece of information in the problem. I will be doing more of the Three Reads routine so that the students can become successful with the math.
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  • 03/01/2019 8:44 AM | Dave Johnston
    As Juli K. Dixon (@thestrokeofluck) said on our twitter conversation, "We need to leave our capes on their hooks and stop swooping in to save they day." (And there are deeper issues here - which students do you swoop in to save? do you save some faster than others? who do you believe needs saving, and why? do you believe some students can 'get it' on their own, but others need you to step in?)

    A few years ago, our math department conducted a lesson study. We came together with research and carefully planned a 45-minute lesson. One of our teachers volunteered to teach the lesson with her students, and the rest of us came to class to observe how students were learning. As we debriefed the lesson, we were most struck by our behaviors as math teachers. As a group, we refused to allow students to struggle. We were so quick to step in and help. As the authors point out, we were the ones doing the thinking - not the students.

    We started working together to change our behavior, allowing students to think and make sense of the math for themselves. It was initially very tough. We had to overcome our habits, and we had trained the students on the whole campus to expect us to come save them. We were met with that old line, "You're the teacher, you're supposed to teach me, why won't you tell me what to do?" But we were able to move the dial. In my own classroom, I began seeing so much more student agency from that point on. This was just one part of a cultural shift in my classroom that began when I stopped acting like I was the sole source of math in the room.
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  • 03/02/2019 11:42 AM | Michele DeMaino
    I have implemented the Three Reads strategy a few times so far. Over so many years, I felt like students knew how to solve the problems and compute the math calculations but they read it incorrectly or didn't perform the correct operation. But after working with the students and helping launch the problem, then the students knew what to do. Students always said, "I don't get it" and then I would break it down more for them. Now when students say that at least they can remember the "Three Read" strategy and try that on their own to help make sense of it more on their own. So far this routine seems to help the students. Our 6th grade team of teachers attached it to a recent homework just so students would get used to using it on their own. We also made a huge poster of the "Three Read" steps for the classroom so students can refer to it while they work. I want them to independently use this on their own. Then hopefully the reading won't get in their way and students will be able to independently understand the word problem.
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  • 03/04/2019 7:15 PM | Todd Butterworth
    Kids get so frustrated when you don't lead them and help them. I try to help my students understand that when they're talking to me, if they're asking me to lead them, they're not actually doing the thinking, but they're using my brain. Some of my kids seem to understand this and appreciate that I'm encouraging them to think for themselves because when it comes to seeing they understand a concept, they need to do all of the thinking. I know it's really frustrating for the students and I try to support them in searching for understanding, but it's a delicate balance between guiding them and giving them too much balance. I think I have varying success in getting my students to take the lead; some classes really learn how to do that and by the end of the year I find myself an observer while kids ask and answer questions, which is really cool to see and shows me that I'm doing a good job in a class.

    I do find myself getting frustrated with students who won't do the thinking themselves. They want me to do so much work for them and lead them, but I know that won't help them find success, so they get frustrated and tell me I'm not teaching them :) Silly kiddos!
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  • 03/07/2019 9:53 AM | Jennifer Rianhard
    This quote is exactly what I had told my supervisor at the beginning of the year when she observed me teaching a math lesson. I taught my mini-lesson to the whole class and I wanted to keep it about 10 minutes. Then, I gave the students 10 minutes to work independently or with a partner. She saw me walking around looking at their math thinking. She asked why I wasn’t talking to them. I told her that I am so guilty of giving the students too much that it was taking away from their own thinking, which creates a crutch for those students to keep asking for help without trying the work on their own first. I wanted to see what the students could do on their own or with another student. When the time was up, we were going to discuss as a group their math thoughts. One last item that I need to work on is when I was walking around, not talking to the students, I should have been writing down which students I wanted to have share their thoughts because I always tell myself that I will do this and I don’t. Then when it’s time for them to share, I call on students that have the same ideas. By choosing students with different ideas, students can see different ways to attack the problem.
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  • 03/10/2019 4:44 PM | Katie Chuchul
    Yes, I have encountered this during my own teaching. I also have found that I have a select few students that do all of thinking for the rest of the students. Often times in whole class lessons, I'll try to push the thinking onto my students and a handful of students are able to share and apply that thinking with the class. However, when all students are left to solve independently, there are some who state "I don't get it" and don't have entry points to try the problem on their own.

    I like the idea of posting and referring to the Ask Yourself questions with my students, especially for students with learning disabilities. I often think that once a student believes he/she doesn't understand the question, he/she shuts down and it is difficult to find out what the student knows or doesn't know. By having those questions posted, students know that they have some starting point (i.e. what the problem is about) and will hopefully feel more confident and start the process of thinking on their own.
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  • 03/12/2019 1:36 PM | Tofer Carlson
    This, I feel, is the constant battle of being a teacher. There's the innate desire to help in the immediate sense, even at the cost of growth for the one being helped.

    There are a couple of quotes that really resonate with me regarding this (well two quotes, and one mantra, I suppose).

    The first is what I think about as my own mantra in teaching - to be less helpful. Any time that I can stand back, and allow the student to struggle a little longer, and take an extra step without my support, is a win for both of us. The challenge is, that the classroom climate, the student's self-image, and the task need to be places where the student understands that they can be successful if they persist. Helping students develop their question-asking skills is critical too. There's a huge difference between a student who comes up to me asking for help because they say they are lost, or a student who is able to articulate where they have been, what they have tried, and where they are getting confused.

    The second is a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that I love. "People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them." Students engaging in comfortable knowledge and thought-processes are happy, but don't grow. It's my job to make them academically uncomfortable, and no matter where they are when I get them, push their boundaries and help them reach math they might not have known they were capable of reaching. It's also my job as a teacher to avoid complacency, and push my own boundaries to find new and better ways to help my students grow as burgeoning mathematicians and growing human beings. I'm not always successful at this, but each day I try again.

    The last is from a poem by teacher/slam poet Taylor Mali, describing an interaction between himself and a student struggling to write a research paper.
    "And it took four years of college,
    three years of graduate school,
    and every incidental teaching experience I have ever had
    to let out only,

    Well, that’s a real interesting problem, Lilly.
    But what do you propose to do about it?

    That’s what I want to know."
    Mali's mental anguish over this battle is wonderful, and so descriptive of this challenge, and to me, a great embodiment of the self-control necessary to avoid doing the thinking that the student desperately wants to avoid.
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    • 03/19/2019 8:12 AM | Laura Larson
      Tofer, I wanted to share with you that I may have to steal that Emerson quote for use with my students. (Of course, some of them will have you in a few years!) I really like the optimistic view on the value of striving for something (anything). Thank you for sharing it.
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  • 03/19/2019 8:10 AM | Laura Larson
    I really relate to those of you who have not only noticed this in your teaching, but find it is a perennial struggle to fight the urge to help. It's kind of why we became teachers, yes?

    My colleagues and I are constantly helping each other remember to try not to "front-load" our lessons too much. We've taught the lesson/problem before, and we know alllll the possible pitfalls and common errors that students encounter, and the urge is strong to save them from themselves. But realizing that it's not helpful to students to do that was one of the big epiphanies I've had since I started teaching.

    I also realize that the students in front of me may have come from years of having well-meaning teachers who are overly helpful, so when students want more help from me than is good for them, I have to remind myself that it's not really their fault -- they are not lazy by default. But if I stick to my guns the gains are probably going to be worth it.

    Any strategy that gives students an entry point, or a way to get un-stuck, is a win in my opinion, and I really like the Three Reads strategy for how it lets students chip away at understanding the problem in phases, with a purpose to each phase, so it's not just a question of reading the problem again for no apparent reason.

    I had heard of Three Reads before reading Routines for Reasoning, for use in any content area as a way to read for deeper understanding. I liked reading about it in vignette form in a math-specific context.
    (7th grade math)
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  • 03/26/2019 2:23 PM | Hala Sahlman
    I have a very difficult time finding the right balance of support with my students. Teaching in various settings (co-taught and small group) I often catch myself doing the thinking for my students in order to help them keep up with the pace of the curriculum. This doesn't help anyone as it makes students rely on me for help (more work for me!) and prevents them from approaching problems with appropriate strategies to solve on their own. I am learning to be better about redirecting my thinking into questions to help my students use problem solving skills. The three read strategy sounds like one that will be very useful for developing more independent problem solving in my students.
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  • 04/30/2019 12:24 PM | Kerin Derosier
    I find that setting the tone at the beginning of the year about my teaching style is extremely important to make sure that students understand that I am not being "mean" by not answering their questions, but that I am actually promoting them to be a critical thinker and problem solver! I tell them that I will never answer a question that they could answer themselves, whether it is a silly instruction/direction question, or something deeper that we are struggling through in math. It takes them some time and every now and then I will get an eye roll, but ultimately they learn to rely on themselves and their group more than just relying on me. The three read strategy is also a great thing for me to implement, because often their questions have to do with what the math question is asking.
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