Earlier this week I was part of a team that led professional development for all of the secondary math teachers, some EC & ESL teachers and a handful of administrators in our district. The session was the first of three that are meant to prepare our staff as we move toward implementation of the Common Core State Standards next school year. For this first session, we decided to focus on the standards themselves and the mathematical practices that are part of the CCSS. As an introduction to the practices, the groups of teachers and administrators were asked to respond to the following: “Write a few words or phrases that describe an excellent mathematics classroom.” We allowed them a few minutes to discuss, then we asked them to share out. The responses were pretty much as we predicted. Many mentioned motivation, students listening and working together, students trying and not giving up too easily. Some mentioned technology. Almost all focused on student behaviors.

After all of the groups had shared, we revealed that the three of us who were facilitating the discussion, had asked our students to respond to the same prompt. We shared a few of the student responses. (The complete list of responses can be found here http://goo.gl/6WYtc) The reaction of the teachers was interesting to watch. Some were surprised, some were shocked. Some couldn’t believe students could so clearly articulate what they felt an excellent mathematics classroom should look like. While many of the teacher responses focused on student behaviors, most of the student responses focused on the learning environment. Almost all of the students mentioned working in groups, collaboration, or teamwork. Practice 3 states that mathematically proficient students “justify their conclusions, communicate them to others and respond to the arguments of others.” In addition, this same practice says, “Students at all grades can listen or read the arguments of others, decide whether they make sense, and ask useful questions to clarify or improve the arguments.” It is interesting to me that what the CCSS says we NEED to do in order to produce mathematically proficient students is exactly what the children are telling us they WANT to do in math.

The content is important. The standards are necessary. However, the learning environment we establish is what leads to student engagement and thus learning. We say we want the children involved in their learning, yet we remain convinced we know what the best learning environment is. If we really want to know what an excellent mathematics (or any other) classroom looks like, we just need to ask the children!