There’s more than one way to solve a math problem
On this episode of the Texthelp Talks podcast Joni Degner, Texthelp Territory Director and UDL expert, chats to Louis Shanafelt, EquatIO Product Manager, about how to make the math classroom a more even playing field for every student. They’ll explore topics like setting goals with your students, helping everyone to understand what’s expected of them during the lesson. They’ll also look into how students arrive to class with preconceived barriers to learning and what you can do to both plan for those and design your instruction to address them head on.
Louis: All right. Welcome to the Texthelp Talks Podcast. We've got a couple of experts. I don't know. It sounds weird to call myself an expert. I'd say Joni is definitely an expert. I'm thrilled to have her on the call with me here today. We're going to be covering a range of topics from education right through into the workplace. So make sure you subscribe through your preferred podcast player or a streaming service so you never miss an episode.
Joni: On today's podcast, we're taking a look into how Universal Design for Learning or UDL can help time stretched teachers provide that real one-to-one instruction that kids need in math. Not only is it important to get this right in general, but there's never been a more pressing need than when we're not standing right over our students in a physical classroom each day. We know that many students right now are learning from their living rooms and their kitchen tables, so it's more important now than ever to really get our math instruction right.
So before we dive right in, I just want to take a second to introduce myself and my co-presenter for today. I'm Joni Degner. I'm a full-time Texthelper and a territory director, which means that I support schools in Indiana and Michigan. I'm also a Universal Design for Learning, again, I hate, Louis, they use the word expert, I'll call myself an enthusiast. I really dug into universal design for learning when I was a classroom teacher myself. I've spent a lot of time as a consultant and as a partner for CAST and the UDL-IRN organizations spreading the universal design for learning theories and practices throughout schools across the United States and in parts of Canada.
So I'm really, really happy to be with a company like Texthelp, who I think aligns nicely with universal design for learning, which is this idea that every kid can be an expert in their own learning. And with the right tools, the right design, we can help every student reach their full potential.
So I want to also introduce my co-presenter today. My co-presenter today is Louis Shanafelt. Louis is our product manager for EquatIO, which is our math and STEM solution. He's our product evangelist. And I'm going to let Louis tell us a little bit about himself.
Louis: Yeah. Thanks, Joni. She's selling herself short. She's definitely my expert today with UDL, so we're going to let her really coast through this. It's going to be a little more challenging for me, but I come from a similar background that Joni did. She and I actually joined Texthelp around a similar time. And thrilled to be here with you all today. And as Joni said, my background also is in education. I spent 20 years working for a large school district down in the state of Florida. And building professional development, teaching students are some of my passions prior to joining Texthelp.
And as Joni mentioned, I am the EquatIO product manager and evangelist. So I did spend 13 years teaching in the classroom and then eventually graduated down to the district office. And my primary role there was building out professional development for basically our digital learners, which obviously is everybody now. So it's really, really a unique opportunity to join a great company like Texthelp and to be able to dive in and help you all with some of these UDL practices and show how they can be beneficial to learners in a math classroom.
Joni: Yeah. So as we get into talking about UDL, one of the first things that people talk with me about or they ask about when they get to universal design for learning, I think they look at the framework and they start thinking about what they know and what they do in their own practices. And they wonder like, "Where do we start?" And when I'm talking with people about UDL, the first thing I talk about is goals. It is so critical for teachers to articulate clear and flexible goals in that student-friendly language.
And to be perfectly honest with you, when I was in the classroom myself and people started talking to me about goals, I don't know if you experienced any of this Louis, but I had this perpetual confusion between goals and agendas. I would put my agenda on the board and then I would have a department chair or something say, "Yeah. Where's your goal?" And I'd say, "It's right up on the board." Because to me, I'm thinking those are the things we have to do today.
Joni: But the thing about agendas is that they're really teacher centered. Those are the things I need to accomplish today. We got to get through chapter two. I got to collect the worksheets. I got to make sure I hand this out. I got to remind them of deadlines. That's a real teacher-centered approach. When you start really articulating clear learning goals, what you're really saying to kids is, "Here's what you need to be able to do. Here's what you should know or be able to articulate by the time you leave here today."
Joni: And so one of the things about that is that they have to be flexible. Louis, what do you think about when you think about flexible goals?
Louis: Yeah. So my mind went right back to when I was in the classroom, Joni, when you started to talk about that because one of my last years actually in the classroom was I taught three preps, and it was very, very challenging to get my board set up in a manner which would encourage students to obviously look at the board, understand what my teacher-centered goals were for the day, but then also to understand what their goals were. Joni, I actually had to go to work an hour early before I even saw students just to get my board done for three preps.
Joni: That's the life of a teacher, right?
Louis: Yeah. And I remember how challenging it was just to be able to articulate things in a way where not only I understood what my goals were, I understand what the student's goals were and making sure that those were articulated at the beginning of every lesson. And also my administrator wanted to know, "Hey. When your students leave the classroom today, what is it that they're expected to take with them? What were their goals?" And the flexibility piece could be challenging because everyone learns in a different learning style, and you might have a vision of how your class is going to go, and it's just going to go completely bonkers and not the way you expected.
One of the things I always offered as a classroom teacher for me was to provide morning tutoring and afternoon tutoring and some of those things that we tried to have a flexible learning environment. There were certainly instances where I had to be at the board and do a lot of the teaching. And then once it became the opportunity for students to get together in their collaborative groups and learn from one another, that provided that flexibility for students to say, "Hey. I know this student over here in my group of four is really, really strong with this skill. So we're going to lean into what their knowledge base is and see if we can't learn from them because Mr. Shanafelt is done teaching. He's given me a few examples that I can take home with me and use in my notebook later at night, but I really need to try and grasp that skill today."
What do you remember for your flexibility and how your students sat in your classroom and all that good stuff?
Joni: So one of the things I think about when I think about flexible goals, one of the best pieces of advice that I was given is, "Look. You'll know if your goal is inflexible if you have built a product into your goal." So if you've said, "Well, my students will demonstrate knowledge of three-dimensional geometric shapes by filling in the worksheet or that they will demonstrate knowledge of direct and indirect characterization or Romeo and Juliet by completing the packet." That if you were building in that product, the truth is what you're saying is there's one way to do it. It's the worksheet or it's the packet or it's the whatever.
And what we know is that there are lots of ways that students can demonstrate mastery. I might demonstrate mastery of three-dimensional geometric shapes by drawing them for you, by pointing them out. You give me a bank of shapes, and I will pick out the three-dimensional ones. By explaining it to someone, or maybe it is the worksheet. Maybe that's one of the ways.
Louis, one of the things that you probably know is like, look, I have filled out a ton of worksheets in my life about things I knew nothing about, and our students do the same thing. They learn how to "play school."
Joni: So when I think about, especially with what you're talking about, Louis, getting kids talking and getting them really using the language of the classroom and saying, "Well, here are my thoughts about this, and here's how I would like to demonstrate mastery, and here's how I can explain it, or here's how I can best show it." I think what we're really doing there, what we're talking about is engineering opportunities for discovery, discovering what I'm good at, discovering a new way of doing something, discovering a new language of talking about learning. And ultimately, with regard to UDL, discovering ways that I can be an expert in my own learning, discovering great resources, discovering strategies that work for me.
Louis: Right. Yeah. And I don't want to jump ahead. I know we're going to talk about scaffolding and differentiation and things like that, but when I think about just in general, this talking point here is I used to think also in terms of what I put on my board, Joni. I used to have to provide a scale for students so they understood, and that was a way for me to take an informal pulse or an informal formative assessment to find out where they were in the lesson. So I know that once we set those goals and we have those expectations, we have to revisit those throughout the learning experience, and we have to make sure that even throughout the 45-minute block, where are we on the learning scale now, even though it's only 20 minutes into class?
And then when the students are ready to move to that next class, our goal, at least in the district that I taught in, was geared towards getting students to a level three. So we would have levels one, two, three and four. Obviously, we would love to get them all at a four, but that was probably not a realistic goal, if you will. Being a teacher, you know they're all not going to reach that perfect, proficient standard that you hope that they get to by the end of class. It's definitely, when we think about this, it's imperative that goal setting is not only done by the teacher but obviously as well by the student.
Joni: Absolutely. And when we set those clear and flexible learning goals for our students, again, it gets into what you're talking about, Louis. We're modeling for them, this is how you will move forward in your work as an adult that is either moving into a career field or in post-secondary education. Right?
Joni: That it's important for you to be able to set meaningful learning goals for yourself and to allow yourself multiple pathways to get there.
Joni: To connect this with the next thing I know that we want to talk about, which is this concept of different kinds of materials and tools that we use in the classroom. I do think also that, Louis, you're a math guy, I'm a language arts person, so we come at this from very different disciplines, but I love the conversations we have because I think that we bring some really great and very differing perspectives to this concept of different materials and tools that we use. A lot of times, I think when teachers come from the math or STEM background, I think sometimes UDL feels a little bit, what do I want to say, difficult to find the entry point because I think when you are teaching a skill-based discipline and somebody starts talking about flexible goals and multiple means of mastery and using different tools.
My guess is that if you're coming to it from a math or a STEM background, it's like, well, look, there's really not five different ways to solve the quadratic equation. There might be five different ways for you to show me what you know about direct and indirect characterization. But look, there's one formula here, and you've got to follow it.
Joni: Which really I think gets into this idea of, right, so it might be that there's only one way for you to work through this problem, so then how do we provide multiple tools so that students have access to the right tools and materials? How do we provide the right scaffolding to make sure that if there is one way to solve the quadratic equation, all of my students are able to get there? Can you talk a little bit about some of the tools that I think that people in the math and STEM disciplines would want to know about with regard to UDL and with regard to providing scaffolding, to make learning accessible when it feels like, look, I can't provide a ton of choice here?
Louis: Right. Well, you said it so well, Joni, and I know you were carefully choosing your words there but it was perfect. I just heard this from a teacher, and I remember talking to her about math and digital, and her response to me, which you know didn't sit well with me, Joni, was, "I just want my kids to write it down. Everyone just needs to put it down on paper and pencil." We know that the paper and pencil method, especially in the times that we're living now, has become something that's been more challenging. And we also know that there are tools that are out there that allow students to express themselves in many ways.
I often think about ... In fact, we can go back to the thing we discussed first, which was when I talked about the scales. I used to take a ... At the time, we used index cards, and students would turn in their index cards to me and show me where they were on the learning scale, and then there might be a problem or two that I ask them to complete. And I just remember thinking it was really neat, Joni, to get that index card that solved a problem so differently than the rest of the kids in class, and they used different approaches and different styles to be able to solve a problem.
But you're right. I think that we fall into this trap almost and thinking of math as, hey, there's only one way to solve this, when we know that really math opens itself up to allowing for multiple ways to solve problems. I didn't want to be the teacher that stood at the board the whole time. I wanted to be the teacher that used to able to walk around with my iPad and I could teach or hand that iPad to the student and let them write their manner of solving the problems so the rest of the students could see their interpretation of how they solve it.
I do think there's very few tools. There's a few tools out there that obviously allow this type of availability, if you will, for students to be able to access things that really we think are, gee, there's only one way for this kid to show their understanding. But it's always a great position to be in to be able to show other digital teachers and folks that are teaching math or STEM to students other ways to do math other than the old-fashioned paper-pencil approach.
Joni: Yeah. And the truth is now that we've transitioned into using more digital tools in remote and hybrid learning, I got to be honest, Louis. I think it's really tough to imagine transitioning back to being full paper and pencil with teachers carrying around stacks of papers.
Joni: I think it's tough to imagine going back there. But one of the things that I want to point out is that, Louis, that scenario where you're talking about, I like to be the person who's walking around the classroom and chatting with my kids, handing them my iPad, letting them work it out on their own. That really does embody the teacher experience of when you move into universal design for learning, one of the hallmarks to me when I was a UDL facilitator, one of the hallmarks to me of a universally designed classroom was that the teacher was very, very frequently ... I'd come to the classroom. They were actually hard to find. They weren't standing at the front of the classroom. They were either sitting down, and kids were at the front or everybody was in groups, and I couldn't really tell which group is the teacher sitting in.
Because part of universal design for learning really does ask us to share power with our learners, to say, how do you think we should best learn this? What are the tools you would like to have access to, to move forward with this learning? Who would you like to work with? What kind of a project do you think we could apply this to? That you start really engaging learners in the learning and giving over some of that power. It's hard to see, of course, in remote and digital learning, hybrid learning, but in the physical classroom, you can visually see that shift because the teacher becomes harder and harder to locate in the classroom. There's not that traditional the teacher is at the front doing a stand and deliver. It really is that guide on the side situation.
Louis: It also made me think back to all the times I did classroom walkthroughs. And you're right, Joni. I would say the majority of classroom walkthroughs, I could always find the teacher. And I was hoping as time progressed and people became more comfortable that teachers would start to release some of that teaching to the students. And I think over time, we did see that in my former district, so it was really neat to see actually.
Joni: And this gets into this idea of barriers because in universal design for learning, the premise is that every student will face barriers in their learning. It's not if. It's when. So even your brightest students, even the valedictorian of their class is going to face barriers and challenges in learning. And so that is really important to acknowledge that in a very proactive way and to plan for it and design for it in a very proactive way, to say that I don't have to wait, for instance, I don't have to wait for my house to catch on fire to have a fire extinguisher in the house. But I want to be as proactive as possible to know that, well, it could happen, so I'm going to put smoke detectors in the house and I'm going to have a fire detector, particularly if I'm doing the cooking, Louis.
Louis: That's right.
Joni: But always think that it's really about identifying the barriers as much as possible. So thinking about what if a kid doesn't have their book? What if they forgot to charge their device? What if they want to work alone and not with a partner? What if they ask for different tools? What if a student doesn't have prior knowledge? For instance, if we go back to the quadratic equation, what if they don't remember factoring? How can I put some scaffolding in for factoring so that doesn't become the barrier? But I can see that upfront, but the truth is not every barrier is as easy to see.
Joni: So, Louis, when I was in the classroom, a lot of times, the kids who came to me ... So I taught freshman English. I also taught senior AP English. So some of the kids in the AP classes, they elected to take that class with me. But my freshman English, everybody had to take that class. Nobody gets out of taking freshman English.
Joni: And so a lot of my students would come to me with a disposition or an academic esteem. That was the barrier, that they came to me feeling like, "I'm not a good reader. I hate writing. I'm not a good writer." That for them, English classes became like, "This is where I come to fail. So here I go again. I'm walking in here. I do not like this. I'm walking in here to not do a good job."
Joni: How do we plan for those barriers, Louis? Because those are not always ... I think we can predict them. I'll certainly have kids who feel that way, but how do we plan for them?
Louis: Yeah. That's interesting. I don't want to speak for you, Joni, but when you started to say your scenarios, I'm thinking that those 12th graders that volunteered to take your class, their attitude to coming to your class versus the ninth graders that were voluntold, you must go take Ms. Degner's class, probably had to work. And I don't know. You correct me if I'm wrong, but you probably have to work to build better relationships my guess is with those students, because they had to do it versus they elected to do it. Right?
Joni: Absolutely. Relationships were the ... And I still feel this way, that relationships are the most important piece of student learning.
Louis: Right. When we talk about students and their brain and how they process things, I would say that one of the largest content areas that contains stress and anxiety is probably most definitely math. But then I think back to the relationship building and the things that are most important for students. I think that was probably some of the greatest satisfaction I got as a teacher where, and I might've told you this before, students would oftentimes say, "This is my favorite class," and there was no greater reward to hearing that. They also told me they didn't like math but they liked me, which is why they liked the class. So that meant the world to me. The enjoyment was obviously the teaching and then learning.
Joni: To bring it back to UDL, to situate it back into UDL, the first principle of UDL, there are three principles of UDL. So it's providing multiple means of engagement, providing multiple means of representation, and providing multiple means of action and expression. So when I think about providing multiple means of engagement, the truth is that principle is designed to support the effect of network in the brain, which is the part of our brain that deals with the emotions.
And one of my good friends, her name is Allison Posey, she's a curriculum and design specialist at CAST, which is the mothership of UDL. Allison has always used this analogy of the brain as a fist. So I've seen her give this talk a lot of times where she puts her fist up, and she clinches it really tight, and she says, "The effect of network is essentially at the center of that fist." We want that effect of network to feel relaxed and loose and ready to receive information, ready to receive learning. And that when we feel threatened, because the thing is our amygdala, which is our threat center, the fight or flight or freeze instinct resides there. Right?
Joni: And so that when students feel threatened or when they feel put on the spot or when they feel like, "I'm not ready, or this is not a great place for me to learn," what happens is that effect of network, to go back to the fist analogy, it clinches. And when it clinches, well, nothing is going to be coming in or out. No learning really coming in, and no show of mastery coming out.
And so that idea of building relationships and creating safe places for learning and safe places for making mistakes and places where you can connect with your peers and have positive relationships, it becomes so critical to learning. For our listeners who are interested in moving that a step further, Allison Posey, who I mentioned before, Allison also has a book that is about this very thing, about emotions and learning, and it's called Engage the Brain. It's a brilliant book. If you're interested in digging in more into these topics, this is a really fantastic resource for digging into that idea of emotions and learning.
Louis: That's interesting. Yeah. I haven't heard of the book but certainly something ... I'm sure it's available and people can check out.
Another thing that I was thinking about is, and since you're my UDL expert, remember, Joni, from the beginning, is how do you think some of the ed tech tools that are out there and just technology in general support education practices? What comes to mind for you?
Joni: To me, I think about if we're talking about giving students information in different ways, letting them take in information in different ways, then to me, I think it's brilliant for students to have access to the audio of all of their text, to be able to get read aloud features, for students to be able to use dictation and predictive text. And those things are not available just in your literacy and humanities classes. Louis, you're the product evangelist for EquatIO. We actually have predictive text for equations, for putting in something like the quadratic equation.
But also, I think about, how do we start partnering digital visuals and digital manipulative so that students can get a deeper understanding of the things that they're looking at? Whether that's character maps, whether it's actual physical maps for their social studies classes, where those online chemistry labs or those digital manipulatives for math so I can start getting a better understanding of your fractions or whatever it might be.
I think that ed tech, it's funny because a long time ago, several years ago, Louis, I connected with Shauna Hanna. So Shauna is also one of our Texthelpers, who I adore, so I'll just go ahead and shout out to Shauna, but she asked me this question. Gosh, it may have been almost two years ago now at the UDL-IRN event. She said, "Do you think that it's possible to universally design a learning environment without tech?"
Joni: And my answer to Shauna was, "Hey, I think anybody can do it. Of course, you can." I don't know why you'd want to, because I think to myself, what a rich teaching and learning environment our digital resources provide for us. And I think about on a day-to-day basis, Louis, the things that I reach out and grab for myself as resources to help me move forward in my own work, whether that's work I'm doing around my house, work I'm doing for Texthelp, work I'm doing with the schools that I'm supporting. And I think about how much better and how much more connected, how much richer it has made our learning environments and our working environment. So I think to myself, can I universally design without it? Of course, I can. Teachers have been doing it for ages, but at this point, I'm not sure why I would want to.
Louis: Why you would want to. Yeah. It makes me think of all sorts of different ed tech products, and I've had experience in using several. There's several ed tech products that obviously open the door for students and especially give them a little bit more opportunity, if you will, to learn and to follow along that whole UDL approach. Supporting traditional education practices are things that we have discussed here, but I'm with you in the camp that now that we all are using these ed tech tools, it's like going back to paper and pencil, Joni, how do you go back to that? I often wonder, are people going to go back to that or try to go back to that? Because really, the reality is when all this technology started to come up, the goal was just to make things easier for us and make things more efficient. I don't write things on a sticky note anymore, from my to-do list, Joni. I put them on a reminder app.
Louis: So I use technology also outside of my job performance here at Texthelp. I use it in my everyday life. I see my children using different ed tech tools. And I just think by using those different ed tech tools really help students navigate their own learning. It makes me also think of the choose your own adventure books that I used to love as a kid. Hey, go follow your own path. And the ed tech tools that are available to students out there allow students to use the tools that work best for them, but they have to be provided that opportunity.
Oftentimes, we would go into classrooms, as I mentioned before, and look to see what opportunities students had in using and choosing the ed tech tools that were available to them. They might have three different types of tools that they wouldn't be exposed to, and the instructions from the teacher was, "Hey, go make a presentation but use this ed tech tool." Well, what if we told the teacher, "Hey, let them use a presentation tool, but let them pick the tool." That gives them more freedom, more flexibility to use the tool that they're most comfortable using. And I think that goes a long way, and I think you'll see better performance from the student by giving them that flexibility. It's always important to give the students choice, especially in digital and how they use their tools.
Joni: Louis, I'm really glad that you said that because the thing is when I think about, where are we now? Where have we been? Where are we going? And I think about the times that I was in school, when I was in grade school, I would say we were very much in the age of information. So people were disseminating information to us and we were taking it on. But the truth is right now, our students are growing up in the exponential age. And so in 10 years, they will not see 10 years of innovation. In a 10-year period, they will see thousands of years in innovation.
Joni: This is truly the age of choice, and what becomes most important is that students understand how to make choices for themselves. And our classrooms are such a great place for students to have safe failures, to make a choice that doesn't work for me, and to learn like, "Well, I used that ed tech tool. I didn't really like it. I found it difficult to navigate, so I'm not going to make that choice the next time."
Our classrooms have got to be a really safe place for students to become those experts in their own learning because as they move forward as learners in the exponential age and as they go in to career and post-secondary fields in the exponential age, it will demand that they're experts in their own learning. That they know how to set a challenging learning goal, that they know how to gather the resources that work for them, that they know how to develop strategies and grab pieces of strategies that will work for them, and that they're able to self-regulate and say, "I know how to stick with something even when it gets hard. I know what scaffolding and tools I'll put in place for myself because I know what's worked for me in the past."
Louis: Right. Yeah. So let's end this, Joni, by asking the listeners a question here.
Louis: And I was thinking of, I'll put you on the spot, I'll let you try [crosstalk 00:32:49] something.
Louis: But I was thinking to myself in terms of what I just spoke to you about. As our listeners hear this podcast and think about the lessons that they're creating and they're designing, I think it would be a good challenge for everyone to think about as students open up that math textbook or they open up or they're reviewing a PDF, what are the different possibilities that students have in terms of offering up that choice in your lessons? We don't want you to think, hey, every lesson should require technology because that's not always the case. However, we do think that by using ed tech tools and providing student choice, are you offering that in your next math lesson?
And if you're not offering it in your next math lesson, how could you alter it to maybe give students a better designed lesson, if you will, to give them the opportunity to be able to solve that problem in a different manner? It's like, I guess for lack of a better term, that white, there's no gray area. It's like you're going to solve it this way or not. So maybe trying to find some space in between the white and the black area there. Find that gray area where students are given opportunities in your next math lesson. So what comes to mind for you, Joni? What do you want to leave our listeners with?
Joni: Actually, one of the things that, I don't know, I can still consider myself to be a practitioner, even though I'm a full-time Texthelper. I feel so close to the classroom still. And one of the things that I love to do with the teachers that I've worked with across the years, and I love to celebrate the good thing that they're doing, so here's what I want to know from you. We want to hear from you, what is working? Because the truth is you've been doing some kind of hybrid or completely remote learning, whether it's been an intermittent or extended periods for the last several months. And so tell us, what's working for you?
If you've got great ed tech tools that are working for you, we want to hear from them, especially if they're Texthelp tools, but we'll take anything. But we really want to know, what's working for you? How are you engaging with your students, and how are you giving your kiddos maybe the opportunity to say, "Hey, could we try something like this?"
Joni: So we want to know, what's working? Because I think there's so much to celebrate. Teachers have done a lot of heavy lifting over the last several months. We know that. So with parents, so with teachers. And our families and teachers, I think ... I'd love to know, what are you doing for your kiddos that's really working?
Louis: Right. And by sharing what is working, certainly it can help others, and we're all about that.
Louis: It's in our name, Joni, Texthelp.
Joni: That's right.
Louis: So let's help others. So last part here is we don't want to forget to say goodbye. We encourage you to obviously subscribe to the Texthelp Talk Podcast, and we hopefully will look forward to seeing you on a future episode. So on behalf of Joni and myself, we will go ahead and call this an episode. So thanks, Joni, for joining. It's always a pleasure to talk to you.
Joni: Hey, great talking with you, Louis. And thank to everybody who joined us today. We're really, really grateful for all of you who joined us and for those of you that we get to partner with.
Louis: Yeah. Thanks a lot. Bye-bye.
Please respond to Louis and Joni's final question and share what's working for you by tweeting us @texthelp using #TexthelpTalks. We look forward to hearing how you're engaging with students!