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Some Thoughts on Interventions & Answer-Getting

May 9, 2014

A long while ago, Andrew Stadel posted a call for ideas on Intervention Strategies and the only person I could see who valiantly answered was Michael Pershan. Then, more recently, this topic showed up again here and here. If there’s one thing I’m good at, its noticing trends in the blogosphere.

In looking at these posts, I found myself wanting to write something about interventions because I live in the world of intervention. For the last year, I’ve only been teaching an intervention class called ‘Math Lab’ to a group of sophomores who have (literally) failed math most of their life. I’m part of a brand new school-wide math intervention process designed to increase math fluency and confidence. I’ve been helping to develop the curriculum and identify effective strategies for my particular demographic. My students have built up mental walls and self-handicapping strategies and a slew of negative coping mechanisms to deal with their distaste and distrust of mathematics. Their issues aren’t only their skill deficits and cognitive issues – it’s their underlying behavior and mindset that causes the most issues. These are my students.

I want to contribute somehow to this discussion of intervention, but this post has been in the ‘draft’ status for months because I’m not sure who my intended audience is. Teaching in a class designated as strictly intervention with a 15-student cap is not the typical classroom setting, which makes some of my best strategies less feasible to the typical classroom teacher (which may be you). At the same time, in talking to teachers in town and across the twitterverse, some kind of school-wide intervention model seems to be the new attractive thing for schools and districts looking to respond to low test scores and the incoming PARCC assessments, which might make these thoughts attractive to someone who may be facing an intervention class next year (which may also be you).

In trying to find the overlap between these two audiences, I realized what I’d like to do is share my experience combating something I’ve started calling the Answer-Getting mindset. Hopefully this is something the typical classroom-teacher can relate to, and it’s definitely something that an intervention teacher will face head-first in their own classroom. In thinking of all the things I consider intervention strategies – from affective techniques to teaching strategies to grading systems – the underlying theme is how all of these are designed to defeat this Answer-Getting mindset that is developed in the students with the most need.

The Answer-Getting Mindset

I first heard the term ‘Answer Getting’ when Phil Daro came to talk at a local Math Educators conference here in Tucson. I remember the talk as one where he playfully chastised the audience, full of teachers, for using strategies which (in the long run) obscured mathematics but (in the short run) produced correct answers. Common strategies such as ‘canceling’ and ‘FOIL’ were skewered and shown to be short-term solutions that produce long-term misconceptions. You can see the gist of his talk in this video on Vimeo: Phil Daro Against “Answer Getting”. In the video, Daro addresses the problem of an ‘Answer-Getting’ mentality from a teacher’s perspective: how the pressures of curriculum and preparation and the need for progress has made most teachers rely on these answer-getting strategies almost exclusively rather than find ways to teach authentic mathematical content.

Years later, I found myself casually throwing around the term ‘Answer-Getting’ to describe some of my students. I remembered the term from Daro’s talk, but I’m not using it to talk about teachers – I’m using it to describe my students who grew up in these answer-getting classrooms. I’ m using it to describe a student who’s spent their entire educational career thinking that school is just an endless process of getting correct answers with no other purpose. I’m using it to describe a student who has been discouraged by this system and developed coping strategies that appear disruptive or apathetic but may just be hiding the feeling of “all people care about is the answer and I’ve never been the first one to get it”. These are the students who try to disappear into the back of the classroom or try their hardest to be disruptive so they won’t have to work.

A Student with an Answer-Getting Mentality will:

Blurt Out 1-2 Word Answers because eventually I’ll say the right thing and the teacher will acknowledge it and then move on with the lesson and I can stop paying attention. If the teacher asks me why, I can just say “I don’t know” and they’ll explain it or just call on someone else. It’s easy for me to give a quick answer and be wrong. It’s hard for me to admit I struggle with this and need time to work it through knowing that it’ll probably be wrong anyway.

Assignments are Turned In On-Time but are Incomplete or Incorrect because I just want to be done with the problems as soon as I can so we can move on to the next thing. Once it’s done, it’s done and I don’t want to think about it again. I’ll get it back tomorrow with a grade so my teacher knows I did it, but I already forgot what the problems were about anyway.

Take notes and do problems with the teacher, but becomes disruptive during those ‘investigations’ they make us do every once in a while. When we take notes, I know what I need to write down. When we do problems, I know what the answer looks like – I just look at the examples we just did. But when we do investigations, I never know what they want us to do. Most of the time we don’t even finish – what’s the point? And the next day they just tell us what we were supposed to do anyway. Just tell me how to do it so I can move on.

Avoid Showing Work because the answer keys just have the answers on them, so I guess I should just do as much as I can in my head. This makes it easier for me to copy too, since I don’t have to worry about all that scratch work. But, deep down, I know I don’t show my work because I’m not confident in all of the steps that lead up to the answer and I don’t want to admit that by trying to put it down on paper and letting other people see my mistakes. Mistakes are bad, right?

“I’ll do it because the teacher told me” mentality. All I want is for the teacher to not bother me and let me sit here and think about other things. If I turn in my work, they’ll leave me alone.

This list is by no means exhaustive or really anything more than just my thoughts, but the underlying theme is: Someone with an Answer-Getting Mentality is fundamentally disengaged from any of the work we do in class. The student will say: I am an unwilling participant who will go through the minimum amount of motions before the teacher will move on. If I’m not explicitly told to do something, I won’t. If I have to turn something in, I’d rather turn it in wrong or incomplete than spend time trying to figure out how to do it. (Honest moment: I’ve been this person in some PD sessions I’ve been forced to attend over the years. I’ll do whatever you say as long as I can leave at 5)

In my mind, it’s not a coincidence that a lot of my intervention students have this outlook: a lot of these behaviors are coping mechanisms to avoid failure due to a poor foundational skillset. Passively admitting “I don’t know” is easier and more accepted than making an honest effort to learn and wrestling with the possibility of failure. Without understanding the intermediate steps between a problem and an answer, it’s much easier to focus on the final answer rather than all the little steps in between. It’s easier to turn things in incorrect and shrug them off than admit I was wrong and try to fix them. Asking for help is just one more way for me to admit I don’t know what I’m doing, especially after I’ve been faking it for so long.

One of the things I’ve realized is that any intervention strategy has to address both this Answer-Getting mindset (which, as I write this post, I guess I could also call a Failure-Avoidance mindset) as well as any missing mathematical skills. This Answer-Getting mindset acts as a wall between my classroom and any long-term understanding – before any real learning can occur, I need to break these habits. As long as a student lives in fear of failure, they’ll never be able to learn as effectively as they could be. My very first goal in any intervention needs to be breaking down this wall and creating some kind of intrinsic motivation and self-worth.

For the Comments: What does your Answer-Getting student(s) look like?

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10 Comments
  1. Hi Mathy,

    This really resonated with me. I have a large number of students who fit into this category of “answer-getting” to various degrees. I see two specific ones a lot — one is students who will find a way to do anything but math, for instance organizing their binder, or starting off into space and then when I move towards them they start writing their name at the top of their paper (very slowly, in cursive) so they can claim they are working. A second is students who give up or try to get the answer from me any time the question looks different than questions they’re familiar — or if it is different but looks like something familiar they seize on what they know how to do and don’t make sense of the question being asked.

    I’ve really struggled to engage these students. As an 8th grade teacher, I see it in particular in the bridge between arithmetic and algebraic reasoning, and the way my students try to make every question an arithmetic question–they even reject the formula for the area of a triangle because it has an extra step.

    I’ve really struggled to reach these students. I’ve had some success with patterns and number talks, but it is intermittent and it doesn’t get them up to speed on the grade level content that I unfortunately have to keep teaching. I would love to teach an intervention class like yours; not sure how to get there.

    Thanks for your post,

    Dylan

  2. That list under ‘answer-getting’ mentality is killer. I want thinking about the types of students we see in class and their actual motivations to be a required exercise in all pre-service programs.

  3. Shubbard permalink

    It’s worth noting that, while these problems are most significantly a detriment in the struggling students, this mentality can easily be acquired by the “bright” students as well. I was a well behaved and intelligent student, so I rarely caused behavioral problems for my teachers, but 3 out of five of those behaviors resonate with who I was until my fourth year of college or so. I refused to show work because I knew the answer and showing work was just a waste of time, the answer was what mattered and it was right. When I did homework it was only because I had to do it in order to keep my A/B not because I actually though it mattered. During investigation time I wasn’t exactly disruptive, but I never actually did my work. I always turned around and helped my friends. They didn’t /need/ it, but they did appreciate it and I didn’t want to do my homework, and the teacher no longer had to bother with helping out my friends, so we all felt better. I miss on partial homework because I just wouldn’t bother to turn it in if I didn’t do all of it, and I didn’t usually bother to do any of it, let alone all of it.

    I rationalized all this as, I’ll get an A on the test, why should I do anything for the class but attend and maybe stay awake. Though looking back at it, my motivation meshes quite well with your Answer-Getting mentality. It wasn’t until college that I actually learned the value of finding the answer, not just getting the answer. Most of that was because I was finally forced into problems where the answer wasn’t just direct application of an algorithm in the textbook.

    All that said, college would likely not have been an eight year excursion if, somewhere along the way, I had actually learned the value of the work and not just the value of the answer. Even smart kids can be Answer-Getting kids.

    – Steven

    • Hey Old Friend,

      Thanks for adding this – I think its important. I’m surprised and honored that this site is on your radar.

      -Schneider

  4. I’m teaching two sections of Math1 Support next year (kids who struggle with math get to take two math classes at my school), so I am certainly zoned into this topic. Two years ago I taught a similar course, called Algebra1 Strategic. It only really taught me what intervention wasn’t, rather than what it was. We used ixl once a week (khan academy like, but with written explanations rather than videos), which mirrored the topics they were learning in algebra. Then during class we mostly did extra practice on what they were covering in their algebra classes, which usually came in the form of review games I constructed. The bottom line was that the students who were lowest mathematically, stayed the lowest. The class didn’t touch them and they continued to fail and feel frustration. I did have two girls start getting A’s on their algebra tests, but I got the feeling they probably didn’t need my class anyway. So I concluded that intervention can not just be spending twice as long factoring. It can’t be a class where we do homework from their “regular” math class. It has to be a class that focuses heavily on remediation – and the presentation of material in a way that supports their other class, rather than mirrors their other class.

    It’s like instead of having them practice combining like terms, they work on explaining why you can combine like terms using diagrams and math symbols and manipulatives. That’s just a tiny example, but another could be instead of practicing a lot of simplifying expressions – we read things like the “chefs hot and cold cubes” and talk about why subtracting a negative is the same as adding a positive.

    I also believe the growth mindset messages have to be coming daily and we have to be very intentional about delivering them over and over again.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Number Sense – Math Anxiety | Five Twelve Thirteen
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