In this episode, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Sarah Powell. Sarah is Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Texas at Austin. She has become a go-to expert for research into interventions for students with mathematics difficulties, and she has co-authored an important paper with Elizabeth Hughes and Corey Peltier titled, “Myths that undermine maths teaching” which will be the focus of our discussion.
When I was completing my teacher training, I was told a lot of things about how math is best taught that, in hindsight, were pretty loopy. I was encouraged to reduce direct teaching as much as possible to make space for students to attempt lots of problems on their own. My early-career lessons often began with me projecting some sort of “rich task” or “thinking challenge” that was intentionally loaded with extraneous details on the board. I would then encourage my students to apply growth mindsets and resilience towards the “productive struggle” that they would encounter during the challenge. Then I’d say “go” and assume what I believed to be my rightful position of guide on the side.
At first my class would ignite with satisfying activity, but then, one by one, students would begin raising their hands, beckoning me to teach them the math, until everyone but my highest achievers – the ones who likely came to school already knowing how to do the math – could get no further on their own. I would try to provide as much “just-in-time” support as my students needed, but they would soon grow impatient from waiting for me to come around and help them and the class would gradually descend into copying and frustration, and what I’d now call cognitive overload.
I was eventually able to find success in my math block, but only after I cast aside many of my previously held assumptions about how students learn. Many of these assumptions are debunked in Sarah and colleagues’ myths paper, which include the following myths: (1) conceptual then procedural understanding, (2) teaching algorithms is harmful, (3) inquiry learning is the best approach, (4) productive struggle is important, (5) growth mindset increases achievement, (6) executive function training is important, and (7) timed assessments cause mathematics anxiety. After each myth is presented in our discussion, Sarah presents the “truth” behind the myth and what teachers can do instead to be aligned with evidence-based practice. I hope you enjoy listening to this fantastic episode of the Progressively Incorrect podcast.