Mathematics teaching and social, emotional, and academic development

By Abner Oakes

ISA's Director of Outreach


ISA’s work in the area of social, emotional, and academic development (SEAD) has been piloted by teachers and coaches in six ISA schools over the past two and a half years. The work in this project has been complex and nuanced, but the premise has remained simple: Students are human beings and, just like the rest of us, their receptivity and performance are affected by what’s happening in their lives and how they feel about their workplace—how their school and their classrooms make them feel. Below, Hewette Moore, National Programs Manager at ISA, chats with Nate Dilworth, Senior Mathematics Specialist, about how the work has transformed mathematics teachers and the students they serve.   

Hewette Moore: Before we jump into our conversation, would you mind introducing yourself, what brought you to ISA, and your professional history? 

Nate Dilworth: In 2005, with an electrical engineering background, I was looking for a profession that aligned with my strengths, energized my spirit, and fit me as a person. I found my way to teaching, through a friend, and started my career as a mathematics teacher at a public high school in the Bronx. In the summer of 2010, I transitioned out of the classroom but felt there were more opportunities for me to continue my work in the education field. This led me to coaching at various schools, working with a number of mathematics departments across the city. Eventually I was contacted by ISA, began consulting here in 2011, and came on fulltime in 2012.  

Please tell me about the mathematics work that ISA has contributed to over the past few years. What is it, and how has it evolved? 

At the heart of the work is developing a mathematics community across our schools amongst teachers, students, and coaches focused on furthering mathematical thinking through inquiry. Over the years, as district and schoollevel structures have shifted in the New York City Department of Education, the ways in which we engage with one another changes, but overall, we’re working towards creating experiences that help change the way students and teachers think about and think with mathematics. Through these collaborations, ISA mathematics coaches and teachers have developed a number of lesson resources, units, and tasks.  

For close to three years, ISA’s SEAD work has focused on the impact of two non-cognitive factors: academic mindset and learning strategies. Through your mathematics coaching lens, can you explain to me how our work around academic mindset supports what math teachers are trying to accomplish in their classrooms? 

To set the context, there are several long-standing myths that shine strongly in our country’s psyche when it comes to mathematics. One, for example, is “If a mathematics problem takes you more than a couple of minutes, you don’t know what you’re doing and must be stupid.” Based on my experience, students and teachers carry these beliefs into the classroom, and they inform how students and teachers behave towards and talk about mathematicsDue to these beliefs, some students don’t see themselves as mathematicians.  

What made the SEAD work exciting was that it acknowledged exactly what I mentionedthat there’s a social-emotional component to learning mathematics. It moves students’ social and emotional state to the forefront, including what they believe about themselves as learners and in the content of mathematical thinking and understanding.  

In the literature review by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Researchfostering positive academic mindsets in students is “particularly important in supporting students’ academic behaviors, persistence, and performance on academic tasks.” Additionally, according to the reviewstudents’ academic mindsets are comprised of four components: 

  1. I belong in this learning community. 
  2. can succeed at my schoolwork.
  3. My ability and competence grow with my own efforts.
  4. The work has value for me. 

Knowing how students feel about these statements forces teachers to be more cognizant of where their students are coming from, giving them broader perspective on each student’s whole self. 

One way I’ve worked with teachers on these ideas is through activities called Maze Moments. The Maze Moments activity is an activity teachers can facilitate at the year’s beginning to help normalize mistake-making and productive struggle as tools to develop understandingto provide a shared experience in which students compare notes and work together to learn from inevitable mistakes in order to overcome roadblocksto develop new language with positive connotations for naming moments when students make mistakes or feel “stuck;” and to name strategies for learning from mistakes and getting “unstuck.”  

What about the second non-cognitive factor: learning strategies? How did your work with mathematics teachers in the project impact their instruction and student outcomes?  

The learning strategies with which I worked with mathematics teachers to use were primarily reflection activities that happened at the beginning of, during, or at the end of class. Last week, we collected data from students to determine the impact our work has had on student work and student thinking. It was interesting to see how giving students regular opportunities to reflect in class helped them see their competency grow with effort. 

Can you give me a few examples? 

At one ISA school, students are self-evaluating their learning progress on a daily basis. For example, as students walk into the classroom, they are given an introduction of the lesson by the teacher and for the rest of the class and move between four stations for the remaining of the periodNovice, Practitioner, Apprentice, and Expert. Teachers at this school organize their units by creating four different experiences for their students to navigate.  

At another school, my work with a teacher focused on the language used in the classroom and as a part of the reflection process. Why? Because of those myths I discussed earlier, it was important that we used language to dispel some of the myths that generate the fear of making mistakes or getting stuck. Additionally, I strongly believe that there’s an important relationship between a classroom’s culture and the language that’s used in the classroom and that the lexicon of each classroom has its own shades and hues that shape the experience in the classroom. 

After an iterative process of looking at student work and reworking reflection prompts to better elicit student thinking, our latest prompts did a better job of helping students identify and discuss moments of success, moments of struggle, and the connection between themnamely, that moments of struggle were the gateway to moments of success.  

So, you’ve spoken about the ways students have had the opportunity to reflect on their learning and discuss their academic mindsets. How about the teachers you support? How have you supported teachers in accessing their own academic mindsets? 

As a coach, Im always thinking, What are the experiences this teacher needs in order to shift her thinking about her students, herself, and mathematics?” The most successful strategy I’ve used to support teachers to unpack their mindsets has been giving them experiences to reflect on. I’ve witnessed these changes, particularly when I take groups of mathematics teachers to visit other mathematics classrooms at other schools. After these visits, we debrief, and the teachers identifan aspect of their practice that they would like to change. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then seeing it is worth a million.

(The above photo is courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.)