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 The "Struggle" is Real: Math Training Leads to Student Growth

3/21/2019 8:00 AM

​Sometimes what teachers don't do — rather than what they do — can make the difference between students learning at a fast pace or getting discouraged. A new approach from Stanford Professional Learning is a common thread in grade-level growth in the district.

Stanford is about retraining teachers to allow struggle and mistakes in their classroom as a route to learning. About 600 teachers and administrators in the Rockford Public Schools have taken one or both Stanford courses since January 2017, according to Susan Uram, interim elementary math dean.

The goal is for students to see their mistakes as a path to other strategies that might work. "This isn't a course specifically about teaching math," Mrs. Uram said. "It's about how we approach learning, how we communicate with our students, how we lay the groundwork for their self-perceptions of their abilities and their limitations."

The fourth and fifth grade teams at Gregory Elementary School use the Stanford approach and have the highest Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test conditional growth scores for their grade levels in the district. Conditional growth measures the percentage of student growth relative to the expected growth of students at their achievement level across the nation.

Fourth grade teacher Nicole Gleason and fifth grade teacher Kelli Rundle credit the Stanford coursework with changing their perception of good instruction. 

Mrs. Rundle is in her 26th year as a teacher. She has had to break the habit of relying on students who give the right answers and instead allow other students to problem-solve. "I try to call on a bigger group," she said. "If they don't have the right answer, they can come up with the strategies for getting the answer." 

Mrs. Gleason puts all the answers in the class, right or wrong, on the SMART Board so students can talk through the methods they used. If it's adding 29+32, for example, the strategy might be to use a "friendly" number like 30 and then subtract. 

Another approach is to have students pair with a partner and share that partner's strategy for solving a problem with the class. That helps students become more engaged listeners and builds teachers' listening skills. Mrs. Rundle is no longer the talking head in front of the class. "It's a hard role to change," she said. "You wear one hat, and then you have to change."

The focus on exploration takes more time, but it pays off for students. Even high performers benefit by making the connections to move even further ahead. "That comes from the how and why and deeply understanding what we are doing," Mrs. Gleason said. 

Both teachers and Gregory Principal Kristine Leider credit a combination of approaches, not just Stanford, for their students' growth. Gregory is in its third year of Plan-Do-Study-Act and student goal-setting. The school also embraces a program called Zones of Regulation, which teaches students to recognize their emotions, put them in a color category and use yoga to calm themselves.

Students can't avoid difficulties, nor should they want to, Mrs. Uram said. "By nature, as teachers we are trying to be compassionate. We want to remove struggle from students because we perceive it as being difficult. We send a very distinct message that you don't want to struggle," she said. 

"Actually, the struggle is where we want to go, because that's where the learning happens."

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Nicole Gleason, Gregory Elementary School teacher
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