Complaining about what students don’t know vs. learning how to teach that stuff yourself

It’s a lot easier to complain that students don’t know, say, their multiplication tables than to actually teach multiplication.

Setting aside the oft problematic mindset of a teacher complaining about what “these kids” don’t know for the time being, consider actually teaching to the gaps you feel are present.

Let’s be clear: not a single one of us have entered the school year 100% satisfied with where 100% of our students are at math-wise. There’s always something that was allegedly “covered” in previous years and for whatever reason was not retained by the students. A couple years ago I was at a relatively well-off suburban school where 99% of their students graduate and go on to college and even those teachers were complaining about what their students did and didn’t know.

Often under the guise of unspecific complaints about students “not knowing their basic math facts” or “numeracy”, teachers sometimes pass blame upon students, The Calculator, or their prior schooling. What I often don’t see happen is addressing those gaps in knowledge. Sometimes a cursory remediation worksheet is handed out, and after-school tutoring is offered, but many times I don’t see teachers actually teach to those gaps. Y’know: teaching kids these lugubrious “basic math facts.” Even more specific complaints about how students “don’t know how to do fractions” (whatever “do” means) are ripe for teaching opportunities, rather than tsk-tsk-ing.

Which is unfortunate because there’s never been a more robust cache of resources to remediate in a healthy, fun way. It reminds me of that bit from Arrested Development where Lucille Bluth brushes off her poor raising of Buster because “kids don’t come with a handbook.”

[Ron Howard voice] In fact, there are countless books that address the very learning gap you’re complaining about. NCTM has so many publications that would probably be perfect. Or go here and click on the grade lower than you. Shoot, just go to amazon and type in what you feel your students are struggling with.


If you feel your students lagging in a particular area of their learning, I’d suggest rather than complaining and sending them to a worksheet or instructional video, consider doing some learning yourself and find a book, blog, text, paper, resource, or teacher to teach you how to teach to this area. I’ve learned so much from my non-grade level colleagues about teaching number sense, rounding, fractions, ratios / proportions, and even an alleged area of expertise of mine: algebra (thanks Andrew!).

I mean, if you need a specific recommendation, I’d consider learning how to facilitate some number talks via Elham and Allison’s Intentional Talk and go from there. Or follow ’em on twitter and get their awesome advice for free! (But seriously, get their book.)

Also, we’re not talking about shutting everything else down classroom-wise, lest you’re worried about losing precious class time. While coverage is overrated, let’s put that aside for now, shall we? We’re talking 10-20 minute activities and discussion here, maybe a couple times a week. Stop complaining and start learning how to teach this stuff. If we want students to learn, we probably ought to do some learning ourselves, no?

Besides, teaching these skills and concepts is fun. This has probably been my biggest takeaway of the year so far: leading number talks is so fun, I’d do it even if I wasn’t addressing learning gaps.

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8 Responses to Complaining about what students don’t know vs. learning how to teach that stuff yourself

  1. Nate says:

    Love this post. I was just thinking about this the other day. I hear people say, “How can I teach Algebra when my students (these kids) can’t subtract?” I always think – teach them subtraction! It’s probably super fun! As a HS teacher I often get jealous of the awesome lessons and ideas I see in the #mtbos for middle and elementary school students. Taking some time to fill the gaps is worthwhile and probably really enjoyable.

    I think that HS teachers have a tendency to “let kids off the hook” too easily. Over the years I have raised overall expectations of my students and they have miraculously gotten better at remembering what they learned in previous grades.

    I’m also pretty quick to respond to gaps by sitting down with kids and assessing the severity of the issue. Many gaps can be filled pretty quickly if they are actually addressed.

    The statement “these kids can’t subtract” is never true. A few students are still having trouble with it. Others lack some foundational number sense. Some are intimidated by decimals and fractions. But for the most part the collection of knowledge in the classroom is more than enough to work with. Significant progress in gap filling and new content is always possible.

  2. Xavier says:

    I think that the complaining is an excuse many times. You have a lot of people with different requeriments. Our mission is to accomodate us and them to these requirements. The complain is a bad actitude. We could get more, surely, with “what can I do” actitude.

    Frequently, putting blame on other person is an excuse.

    Thanks for talking about that.

  3. Teresa Ryan says:

    Great post Geoff! Some of my happiest times in Algebra I, II and Geometry were the openers, or number talks where we took a step back and worked on how to understand some of the basic operations required for them to understand the current math class. I loved hearing the kids say, “Why didn’t anyone talk about this like this before?” or “Why did we only get to see one way to look at this?” knowing that they probably had seen some of this, but that having the discussion and allowing them to take time to really understand the concepts underneath the skills.

    Doing this gave me the opportunity to push them harder for deeper understanding of the algebra or geometry concepts, and to get buy in from them because they could see how it helped them to extend their thinking on the basic skills and to utilize those tools to dig in deeper as the math became harder. It caused me to work a little harder, but the rewards were well worth it.

  4. Casey says:

    I loved hearing this. Stop blaming problems on situations over which we have no control (the past) and focus the conversations around situations we can create for the present and future. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Reblogged this on One of Thirty Voices and commented:
    We HAVE TO reach and teach our kids where we are! now Quitchure Bitchin’ and get in there and teach them what they need. Thank you! Well said!

  6. Russell Helmstedter says:

    I’ve started implementing Number Talks after reading Making Number Talks Matter. Best thing I have ever done especially in intervention.

  7. Pingback: Teaching Kids What They Don’t Know: Literacy Edition | literacyforliving

  8. robertkaplinsky says:

    Just now found the time to read this post. If this isn’t an honest post, I don’t know what is. I think it comes down to the reality that dealing with our own issues and insecurities is so much more challenging than placing the blame elsewhere. Thanks for the laugh and connection to Arrested Development.

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