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Make Math Moments Academy Forums Community Discussion Water Cooler Why are kids afraid to think?

  • Why are kids afraid to think?

    Posted by Dave Winkel on May 31, 2019 at 11:52 am

    Getting students to be engaged and really think critically about problems is something I continually struggle with.  I’ve began implementing many of the strategies and lessons that Kyle & Jon have shared, but the results have been mixed to this point.  I think a big reason why has to do with the culture you create in your classroom.  Since I did not begin the year doing all of these things, the students have not totally bought in to the new things I am trying.  I’m excited to start a new school year next year and begin building my classroom culture from day 1.  Even when teaching through problem & context, most kids still just want “the answer” as quickly and painlessly as possible.  Discussions are hard to sustain, and kids are too quick to throw in the towel and give up.

    Dave Winkel replied 3 years, 9 months ago 4 Members · 4 Replies
  • 4 Replies
  • George Garza

    May 31, 2019 at 5:21 pm

    You are right on the money when you identify classroom culture as being the key.  Kids need to know that their ideas are valuable, that they can have unique ideas, and that they will not lose face for making mistakes.  Also, the teacher needs to teach them HOW to participate in class wide and small group discussions.  What should they be thinking about?  What types of things are you wanting them to say?  How do they participate?  What happens if they are wrong?  etc… These are things they need to be taught.  It’s for this reason that Peter Liljedal recommends that the tasks you use during the first week of school should not be focused on the curriculum, but rather on setting and practicing the norms and routines for the group discussions.

    You mention that most kids want the answer and that’s it.  That’s because they believe that’s all that math is.  I’ve been thinking that tasks where the math is not clearly evident are tasks to help set this culture.  For example, the Which One Doesn’t Belong, Would You Rather or even Estimation 180.  There’s more too, but these can be used to kick off a conversation.  They are safe in that generally there are no “right” answers, so it would just be a matter of students giving, and backing, their opinions.  This is great training for what you want them to do for a “proper” math discusion.  Even as a substitute teacher, I’ve used Which One Doesn’t Belong and gotten a class conversation going.

    Looking foreward to the Fall!


  • Michael Rubin

    June 12, 2019 at 8:25 pm

    I think your title is interesting.

    In the podcast episode with Peter Liljedahl’s, he mentioned that so often teachers don’t think students can or will think. So they design their lessons on that assumption. So when confronted with doing something that requires thinking, I wouldn’t be surprised if students are genuinely afraid to think. It reminds me of when I got into a car to drive for the first time.

    I’ve spent the last 3 years as a Math Teacher on Special assignment specifically working with students with learning disabilities. I found that many students wouldn’t engage with a task, as you mention. When I probed deeper, it seemed they simply had no idea what to do to start. Their teachers genuinely wanted them to be successful so they broke everything down into formulas and procedures and took the thinking out of it.

    I’m curious, what strategies have you tried so far to support students in the thinking?

    A resource i’m planning on using next school year is Routines for Reasoning. These routines scaffold the three types of mathematical thinking and explicitly teach them. The routines can be found for free at, but the book has a lot of specific examples and details (bought it on amazon).


  • Kyle Pearce

    June 15, 2019 at 9:59 pm

    Hi @DaveWinkel – you’re right that it can definitely be hard to switch things up mid-year, however I tip my hat that you kept pushing it! 

    George and Michael have provided some great insight here and I’d argue that the belief that math is only answer-getting is a hard belief to shift. However, keep pressing and they will eventually come. 

    Like Michael, I’m also curious to know what strategies you’ve tried so far. Let’s dig deep here and get ready for that brand new class coming this Fall!

  • Dave Winkel

    July 1, 2019 at 9:56 pm

    I guess I haven’t really tried any specific strategy or resource, more so just talking to the kids on a regular basis about taking risks and being ok with making mistakes.  

    I tried to create an environment where student thinking and risk taking was celebrated by doing warm up activities that were open ended or allowed for multiple solution strategies and then praised students for sharing their solutions/strategies with the rest of the class.  I knew that developing this culture would take time, so I kept waiting for things to take root, but it seems like they never did.  The same students who always would try and stick with the warmups did, and the ones who didn’t engage and easily game up would still avoid diving in.  

    I use random groups every day, so I tried choosing a “group of the day” at the end of every class period where I would select a group that did a good job demonstrating the type of collaboration and perseverance I was looking for.  When I chose my group of the day I would of course acknowledge some of the reasons why I chose that particular group and then they would get a small treat/piece of candy at the end of class.  This seemed to work initially, but wore off over time so I eventually stopped doing it.

    Late in the year I tried having a series of question cards available whenever I was doing a notice & wonder task.  I would have a couple “starter” questions for groups that were having a hard time getting going in order to give them a little more direction without directly telling them what to do.  I would also try to have some “extension” questions available for groups that finished quickly and were ready to dig a bit deeper.  I was only able to try these a couple of times, but it seemed like it was somewhat helpful.  My fear with the “starter” type questions is that certain groups or students would just sit around and wait for me to give them these questions in an effort to avoid thinking or making mistakes.