Nurturing a Culture of High Expectations

What is our tolerance for productive struggle?

What are the implications when we say “we believe all students can achieve given the right support” in the context of implicit bias? I had this thought the other day when I was at a math learning session and we were watching videos of students from grades 1 to 3 trying to solve what appears to be simple math questions.

Since going to work at the Ministry of Education, I have had so many opportunities to learn from and work with amazing educators focused on shifting practice in our province around math instruction. The researcher who introduced the videos explained that the research was done in an area where there was significant diversity, low socio-economic status, a high number of English Language Learners and many new Canadians. She explained that the school was selected because it would show to educators if the methods were successful there, they can work in any context.

Does that make you pause and think…hmmmm?

I watched the videos and these children were wonderful. They were engaged in their learning, problem solvers, thinkers, confident but what struck me was the prompting from the adults. The students were solving problems like:

If Debbie had 5 stickers and Kathy gave her 7 more, how many stickers does she now have?

The students had math manipulatives, paper, and writing tools they could access as needed. One student was drawing out what he believed was a way to solve the question and the facilitator re-directed him. She was kind but it seemed as though the child was taken from his path and onto another one. This happened several times through the video and ultimately his response did not make much sense.

How much time do we give our students in what is termed, productive struggle? Do we wait for the signs of frustration? Do we provide alternative entry points? Do our interventions honour the learning process or do we rush to “save” the student from that struggle? Do we impose our way of doing things or do we allow the student to find his/her/their way? Do we scaffold learning to ensure student agency and self-efficacy is central to the learning process?

Vygotsky wrote about the Zone of Proximal Development which is the space between what a learner can do on his/her/their own and what he/she/they can’t do at present. In order to find that space, we have to move into discomfort. Discomfort in learning, or productive struggle, is this magical space where learning happens. We must strive to be in that space.

Another model of learning is Gordon’s Ladder. This model recognizes the learning curve as beginning with unconsciously unskilled where we don’t know what we don’t know, then consciously unskilled where we become aware of what we don’t know moving into consciously skilled where we begin to develop competency but still require a conscious effort to do what we are learning and finally, unconsciously skilled where we have developed a fluency to the point where we no longer think about what we are doing because it is automatic.

Jo Boaler writes about The Self-Efficacious Learner and challenges educators to recognize that what we have traditionally thought of as support for our students is actually from a “fear based” paradigm of teaching. Number 1 on her list says, “Don’t understand your students’ way, so insist they use your way”. How many times have we done that or observed that as educators and as parents? Boaler boldly states:

Have the guts to really listen to your students and make sense of what you are hearing. You are otherwise just one more barrier keeping them from achieving their dreams. (

As I thought about what I was watching and hearing, I was suddenly struck with this reality:

Our implicit bias can sometimes be cloaked in our well-meaning support.

Think about that…

When we discriminate and make assumptions about ability, it can look like we are caring, supportive and kind. I recognize that it can be the complete opposite — we can be overtly biased and act upon stereotypes and assumptions about a child’s ability because of his/her/their race, religion, gender, sexuality and exclude, actively oppress and limit their ability to succeed. But, I began to see that we can have the exact same impact by acting in ways that we believe are good.

A math teacher, Shaka Greene, from Ron Brown College Preparatory High School calls this “the bias of diminished expectations” (From the Code Switch podcast series: Raising Kings: A Year of Love and Struggle at Ron Brown College Prep).

Thinking about this idea that our bias and assumption about our learners’ abilities can masquerade as support, I was brought back to a moment at another learning session. I am working with a team of principals and instructional leaders from schools within Indigenous communities in the northern parts of Ontario. We were working on a math game in small groups and I happened to be in a group with three of these principals, two women and one man. As we began working through the game the man sat back and didn’t take any action towards his own solution. I had spent the last two days with this man and I knew he was intelligent and quite skilled at math but for some reason he sat back and observed. I don’t even think he picked up the dice to role on his turn. Within moments of his turn, one of the women rolled for him. This went on for several turns until he called us all out because even though I knew he was more than capable of doing this himself, I began to step in for him too. He told us that he had done this intentionally to show us how learned helplessness develops in our learners when we step in as the saviour.

We need to step back, create conditions for learning, be prepared with alternative entry points and be willing to support our learners through productive struggle. We need to be reflective about our role as educators to jump in and “save” our students because we are likely not saving them at all.

I would like to push even further and suggest that we “save” our students differently. We make assumptions about their capacity for struggle — perhaps we let boys struggle more than girls, white children struggle more than children of colour, English speakers struggle more than English Language Learners. We must be reflective about our roles as educators in perpetuating learned helplessness and dependence rather than agency and self-efficacy in our learners. While doing this, we must be acutely aware of our patterns of support and how our implicit and explicit bias affect what we believe are kind and supportive moves as an educator.

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