Learning behind the learning, or soft skills, is something that I feel I am on a continual quest to improve upon. These are the things that a teacher does to pull students into conversations, into the community, into the learning. There are so many soft skills needed in order to create a learning environment where students feel safe, valued and comfortable enough to take risks, that it often feels overwhelming. Add to that the fact that each group of students is different and every individual’s needs are their own, and you have a pretty heady task ahead of you!
I have found that I have to take it slow. In my masters studies I had the fortunate opportunity to learn one piece of pedagogy at a time. This made it possible to enact and tweak that piece for a semester before adding more skills to the mix. This provided me time to become comfortable enough with the practice to make it my own and it allowed my students the same chance. I am in a new teaching assignment this year where I am instructing middle school students with disabilities who have never been exposed to discourse rich, problem based learning. Therefore, I have spent a good amount of time slowly introducing them to my tools of the trade. Teaching students with disabilities has one distinct advantage in that I tend to have the same students for the duration of the time that they are enrolled in my school! This means that I don’t have to start over every year!
One of the first techniques I expose my students to is Talk Moves. This is a way to get students communicating about their thinking. A cardinal rule in my class is that every mathematician deserves think time. This means that no one blurts out, hands do not go up, and the answer is the last thing we talk about. If a student wants to contribute their ideas or strategies they are asked to put a thumb up on their desk. Once a student starts speaking, it is not uncommon that they lose their train of thought or confidence. They know that if another student has a thumb up that they may ask for their help by “phoning a friend.” If students have an idea, but do not wish to be called upon they may lay their palm flat on the desk, and if they are still thinking they put a fist on their desk. I have to be honest, we are half way through the school year, and students are still learning how to maneuver through our talk times. I wish we were further along in our talk practices as we spend the majority of our class time talking about math and our ideas!
In my classroom the concrete that provides the foundation for all of my soft skills is the use of Notice and Wonder. This technique is a wonderful tool that removes so many barriers, ensuring all have access to the math at hand. There is not a human being alive who doesn’t notice detail and wonder about connections! So with every problem, with every investigation, the first thing I ask my students is, “What do you notice, what do you wonder?” Almost every problem based question starts with noticing the non-math details, and sometimes the first exposure to the ideas I present actually have no math question attached. In these cases we wonder together what the problem may be asking us to mathematically consider. I love posing these types of notice and wonder problems at the beginning of a unit and then returning to the scenario throughout our explorations as the math is revealed!
I have to operate in full disclosure and acknowledge that this too is a work in progress. My students have spent so many of their learning years being told what to think, how to solve a problem, and procedures to do so, that I have to be comfortable in the silence sometimes. I have to practice my own cardinal rule of wait time, which means I may be counting in my head at times waiting for them to think and participate! I have noticed that my sixth grade students attack noticing and wondering without abandon. They jump right into the talk moves and are eager to share their thinking. This leaves me wondering if it is because they are younger and less impacted by peer pressure and adolescent hormones than my seventh and eighth grade students. I am thankful that they will be mine for two more years and I will be able to continue to challenge them to think, notice and wonder! These skills extend much further than my classroom walls, and if they can learn to approach life thinking, noticing and wondering, then there is no obstacle that will stand in their way for long!