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Embracing Diversity in the Classroom: Nurturing Mathematical Strengths

identity math community mindset Jan 30, 2024

Having spent considerable time in various math classrooms and providing support as a learning assistance teacher, I've come to understand firsthand the complexities involved in supporting all learners. This challenge can vary greatly depending on the unique composition of each classroom, its context, and the available support. This post aims to spark reflective thinking about what strategies might work best in your specific context, considering your individual circumstances.

Embracing Diverse Strengths in Mathematics

Mathematics is a multifaceted discipline, and the strengths of mathematicians can vary widely. I often draw parallels to writing to illustrate this point. Just as a writer may excel in conveying meaning and voice, yet struggle with conventions, leading to difficulty in understanding their writing, similarly, a mathematician may be proficient in certain areas while facing challenges in others. For instance, one child might excel in using efficient problem-solving strategies but struggle to articulate their reasoning effectively either orally or through representation, while another might demonstrate exceptional skill in representing their mathematical thinking but use inefficient strategies.

Consider this scenario: In the photo below, a child has meticulously organized their thoughts, presenting the entire multiplication chart of problems. However, the task's intention was to encourage students to utilize the relationships between the problems to enhance efficiency. In this case, the child didn't necessarily require the entire multiplication chart to solve the problems; a more efficient approach could have been to use the relationships between problems. Thus, the thinking is very organized (a strength), however less efficient (an area of growth).

Questions for Reflection:

  • What strengths are you looking for in your mathematicians?
  • How do you encourage children to recognize and leverage their individual strengths in mathematics, whether it be in problem-solving, reasoning, mindset or communication?
  • Who takes the lead in determining a child's strengths — the educator or the child themselves?
  • How are you celebrating a variety of strengths? Are you verbally celebrating only correct responses, or are you using a neutral response to honor and unpack all thinking?
  • In what ways do you foster a classroom culture that values diverse approaches to mathematical tasks and challenges?
  • What opportunities do you provide for students to collaborate and learn from each other's strengths in mathematics, promoting a sense of community and mutual support within the classroom?
  • What is valued in your math class that influences the children's strengths? For example, are you valuing multiple perspectives for problem solving or just one way of solving?
  • How do you assess and provide feedback on children’s mathematical strengths? 

Establishing a thriving mathematical community hinges on recognizing and supporting the strengths of all mathematicians. Setting clear math goals serves as an effective tool for aiding children (and educators) in identifying their strengths and determining their next steps in mathematical development. Regularly revisiting and reinforcing the concept of "What Mathematicians Do" (identity) throughout the year encourages students to recognize their mathematical strengths beyond mere problem-solving, such as the ability to build upon others' ideas or persevere in the face of challenges.

Below are some examples of children’s self-assessment of their strengths and growth as mathematicians (this is a year-end sample). 

Unpacking and supporting the complexities of a math classroom takes patience and time. It is best done in collaboration with others who can uphold the values and culture of your classroom. Looking for a collaboration partner? Contact me today for options about individual and small group coaching!

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