Assessment and Narrative

A logic model diagram of our assessment plan

Click on it if you really want to be able to read it!

One of my other hats at the university where I teach is co-chair of the “Integrated Assessment Team” of the newly renamed College of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies. We’re the folks who are working to assess our efforts as a college, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let the exercise be a pointless waste of time for everyone involved. Our team went to a great AAC&U insitutde this summer and spent some time really envisioning what we wanted assessment to be about. To me, the effort really paid off because we are framing assessment as being about storytelling. We have a logic model for our work, and in broad strokes it looks like this:

I believe that we can have authentic assessment in which we get curious about what we are doing and how we do it, and I believe that one of the best ways to do that is to pull faculty into the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning as a part of the assessment process. We’re presenting a talk on our work this summer next Tuesday, and we’ll see how people respond!

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Shame, Anxiety, and Mathematics

It is taken as common knowledge that many people hate mathematics, that it is a difficult subject in school, and that not everyone has an aptitude for math (Sam & Ernest, 2000). People’s difficulties with mathematics often get blamed on what educators and researchers call mathematics anxiety, the fear of doing mathematics. The term “mathematics anxiety” first appeared in the literature in the early 1970s (Suinn et. al., 1972; Nash, 1970), and was popularized by Sheila Tobias and others working in the late 1970s to address mathematics anxiety, particularly in women (Tobias, 1993). The frame of mathematics anxiety has problems, however. When an experience or set of emotions is classified as a psychological disorder, the experience and the response are pathologized. The reality may be that what is termed “anxiety” is a normal and reasonable response to mathematics education.  Additionally, anxiety is an individual problem, but we have a society-wide issue with mathematics in the United States (Ginsberg et. al., 2005), so it would be useful to view problems with mathematics in a context that can include community and culture (Lave, 1988; Apple, 1990).
In addition to anxiety, many other emotions play a role in math avoidance and negative mathematical identities, and these emotions are linked to learning difficulties (Ashcraft & Krause, 2007; Lyons & Beilock, 2011). Over the past year, I have become increasingly convinced that shame is a primary emotion that negatively impacts mathematical identity, and that it is shame that gives rise to anxiety about, avoidance of, and disinterest in mathematics (Bibby, 2002; Ingleton & O’Regan, 2002; McGregor, 2005).
Shame is an intensely painful and disruptive emotion in which a person feels a deep-seated failure or flaw in their core self; the feeling is often experienced as feeling exposed, small, worthless, or wanting to withdraw or even die (Lewis, 1993).  Although shame can occur in private or in public it is a an emotion that signals a threat to our social being (Bibby, 2002) and the feeling can be characterized as feeling unworthy of human connection (Hartling et. al., 2000). Because shame is a relational emotion, considering the role of shame in mathematics places mathematical difficulties in a larger context which includes not only the learner, but also parents, teachers, administrators, and the entire society surrounding the learner.
Shaming experiences can happen in all school learning, but students learning mathematics may be particularly vulnerable to such experiences. In a traditional mathematics classroom there is little ambiguity or room for interpretation in problems, and the learning is focused on products, procedures, and algorithms. This “right or wrong” nature of mathematics can prevent students from saving face, or otherwise deflecting shame experiences, and can trap students who are struggling in a repeated cycle of negative experiences that are eventually felt as a flawed self. Doing mathematics requires a student to perform in ways that call into question not just her memory, but also her understanding and intelligence, since mathematical competence is seen as a stand-in for overall intelligence and ability (Sam & Ernest, 2000).
Shame can render a person passive and helpless (Miller, 1993) which impacts his ability to learn and to teach. To be able to effectively do mathematics, a person needs to perceive of himself as powerful, which means that he must be free of shame. People have a tendency to be both unaware of shame (Lewis, 1971) and to “catch” the shame of others, feeling ashamed of their shame (Scheff, 1988). The collective shame that our society holds about mathematics impacts all of us, and pressure for change gets transmitted to politicians, school districts, teachers, and finally to students, as teachers and parents respond to the pressure and shame by hiding difficulties, avoiding problematic encounters with mathematics, or even unconsciously shaming students as they struggle with math.

There are many suggestions for how we might solve our “math problem” in the United States, and many of those suggestions have great potential. However, teachers and students cannot make effective use of inspired methods of teaching and learning without attending to affective and relational issues, and this includes shame. People have many responses to shame, from pushing for greater competence to secure social acceptance, to adopting being “bad at math” a part of their identity that may be accepted by others, to withdrawing and avoiding math, to anger at self or others, to manipulations that paint the self in a better light (Bibby, 2002; Brown, 2007). Many of these responses are disempowering and result in isolation (Hartling et. al., 2000) and failure to achieve academic goals (Turner et. al., 2002).
If people face their shame while staying vulnerable and authentic, they can reclaim power and heal (Brown, 2007; Hartling et. al., 2000). Math teachers deal daily with students who cannot handle failure, because failure is a trigger for shame (Brown, 2007; Turner et. al., 2002). It is crucial to publically identify shame as a source of disconnection and difficulty (Hartling et. al., 2000), and once shame and its triggers are identified, alternate methods of responding to those triggers can be developed. To create change on a broad scale, we need to get people collectively address shame and mathematical power, to listen deeply to those who have been disempowered by mathematics, and to transform the shame held by parents, teachers, and school administrators, since those groups have so much influence on young people.

* I have written previously about most of these ideas, but the version above is more succinct and better (although not comprehensively) referenced. I’m going to be working up a bibliography to share as part of a paper I am currently writing. References below the cut.

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My mission in life

My mission in life is to help adults, students, and teachers to develop their mathematical voices and power. In my research, I am currently focusing on developing a theory of the way shame disrupts mathematics learning and impacts mathematical identity, and on methods of developing powerful responses to shame triggers. In the classroom, I am focused on examining the role of relationships and narratives in my teaching and student learning.

It has been about a year and a half since issues in my own classes started me thinking about the role of shame in mathematics difficulties. Because shame is a relational emotion, considering the role of shame in mathematics places mathematical difficulties in a larger context which includes not only the learner, but also parents, teachers, administrators, and the entire society surrounding the learner. My current work includes finishing some qualitative analysis of mathematical memories of adults, examining common story narratives including evidence of the experiences of shame. This academic year I am also working on two relevant research projects, the first a collaborative project that takes a grounded-theory approach to the effect of subject-based autobiography assignments on classroom environment and student development, and the second an analysis of a method of mid-term course evaluation that I have developed over the past several semesters, particularly looking at how the evaluation impacts relationships in the classroom, students’ perceptions of power in the classroom, and my perceptions of the class as the instructor.

I am in the process of developing a class for Spring 2013 designed to help adult students who have been unsuccessful at school mathematics to understand and make meaning their mathematical experiences and identities, while at the same time providing them with mathematical experiences in which they can stay connected and powerful. The semester-long course I am developing combines critical pedagogy (Friere, 2000; Frankenstein, 1987) and a method of feminist action research called memory-work (Crawford et. al., 1992; Onyx & Small, 2001). I combine these powerful methods for collective self-examination with lessons from relational-cultural theory (Hartling et. al, 2000), story-editing approaches (Wilson, 2007; Wilson, 2011) which allow people to authentically develop growth mindsets (Dweck, 2007), and with mathematical problem solving so that people can unpack their mathematical identities and place them in a cultural context while developing mathematical skills and having real-time access to emotions surrounding mathematics.

I am very interested in connecting with others around this research and classroom work. I’d love to have conversations about this connects to the work of others, to find collaborators, and to present my work as widely as I can! Next year I will have a sabbatical in which I plan to write substantial portions of a book tentatively titled Liberation Mathematics: Narrative and Number, and I believe that engaging with lots of other people inside and outside of mathematics will really help me to craft this work carefully and make it as useful as possible. I am also looking for funding that would allow me to take a full year of sabbatical for the work, so if you have any ideas (even if they are crazy ones), let me know.

Crawford, J., Kippax, S., Onyx, J., Gault, U., & Benton, P. (1992). Emotion and gender: Constructing meaning from memory. Sage Publications, Inc.

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House Digital, Inc.

Frankenstein, M. (1987). Critical Mathematics Education: An Application of Paulo Freire’s Epistemology. In I. Shor (Ed.), Freire for the classroom: a sourcebook for liberatory teaching (pp. 180–210). Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook.

Onyx, J., & Small, J. (2001). Memory-Work: The Method. Qualitative Inquiry, 7(6), 773 –786. doi:10.1177/107780040100700608

Wilson, S. (2007). My struggle with maths may not have been a lonely one: Bibliotherapy in a teacher education number theory unit. Mathematics: Essential research, essential practice, 815–823.

Wilson, T. D. (2011). Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. Hachette Digital, Inc.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (M. B. Ramos, Trans.) (30th Anniversary ed.). Continuum International Publishing Group.

Sabbatical Proposal

So, I’m preparing to apply for a sabbatical this year (and for promotion as well, but that’s another story). I’ve prepared a draft proposal for what I plan to do, but it still needs some help. In particular, I think I am being a bit chicken in my presentation and that I need to lead with what I want to do, not bury that after lots of discussion. I also need to make the project sound more exciting and vital — I think I tend to sound more excited in the preamble than I do when describing the actual sabbatical.

If you are interested, click below to see the proposal so far. Comments are welcome, criticism is welcome, encouragement is welcome, ideas are welcome, collaborators are welcome. You are welcome to talk to me more about it, or to suggest someone else I should talk to or something else I should do, and you are more than welcome to suggest funding sources!

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Mid-term Evaluation

A lot has happened this summer while I have been completely absent from this blog. I’ll give some updates about everything as I ease back into the semester, and I’m starting today with a project I’ll be working on this semester, which grows out of a mid-term evaluation process that I have developed. My intention is do a small SoTL (scholarship of teaching and learning) project this fall on my midterm evaluation process.

Right now, I’m working on the literature review. Right away, I hit something both obvious and interesting. I started reading a paper about course evaluations and the opening words were about the purpose of course evaluations. The claim was that the purpose of course evaluations was, essentially, the improvement of teaching. They provide feedback to instructors that the instructors can use to improve their teaching, and they provide information to supervisors that can be used to insure that the right teachers are assigned to the right courses. Of course, that got me thinking about my purpose in doing midterm course evaluations. I think that improvement in teaching is certainly part of it, but I wouldn’t call it my primary goal. Here’s what I’ve come up with for my goals in doing midterm evaluations:

  • To develop insight into how students are perceiving and relating to the course and me as the instructor
  • To provide me with time to change aspects of the course that need improvement before final evaluation at the end of the semester — to improve the course and my teaching in “real time”
  • To give students a mechanism for taking charge of their education, and to have them practice using that power through impacting the course
  • To enhance the level of safety and improve relationships in the course

I also got a useful new perspective. Why would we do this improvement in teaching? Presumably to improve student learning and outcomes, but student evaluation instruments don’t tend to focus on learning or on student outcomes! This semester, in the class I am going to be doing this evaluation project in, I am also going to have the students do two reports on their achievement of the course objectives. Essentially, these are a self-evaluations, and I would love to find a way to connect these self-evaluations with the midterm evaluation of instruction.