“My Students Can’t Do That”

What is your reaction to that statement? How does this connect with your belief about education? When watching a webinar by Andrew Gael this summer, this slide was presented and the impact, for me, was jarring.

These are words I never want to hear.

This belief system prevents forward momentum.

When we operate from a deficit we fail to consider how we might make an opportunity accessible.

I’d like to talk about how we shift from “My students can’t do that” to “My students can do this.”

From NCTM Principles to Action (2014) we have the following statement:

“An excellent mathematics program requires that all students have access to a high-quality mathematics curriculum, effective teaching and learning, high expectations, and the support and resources needed to maximize their learning potential.” 

This means ALL students. It is the job of mathematics educators to make this a reality.

Students learn best when presented information that is well connected to their prior understandings.

Deep learning happens when students have opportunities to construct conceptual understanding through problem-solving as they struggle to make sense and make meaning of new information. When information is presented in multi-modes – verbal, visual, physical, auditory, it is more likely to be stored as part of the network of long-term learning. We know this. The opposite of this type of learning is to present rote procedural information that lacks problem-solving, struggle, connections, and conceptual understanding. However, this is exactly what is often done with our most challenged learners.

Mathematical goals are reduced to rote procedural learning with the belief that these students “can’t” make sense of concepts. So, they are told what to do, how to think, how to proceed. Cognitive demands of tasks are reduced to the very lowest denominator. Gael continued on in his presentation to share some statistics about the kind of opportunities and mathematics that is taught to students with disabilities. For regular education students, math teaching is comprised of 30 percent procedures and memorization vs. 61 percent conceptual understanding. For special education populations, we see 75 percent procedures and memorization and 18 percent of the time focusing on conceptual understanding.

Not only is this inequitable, it goes against how students learn best, and it deprives our most challenged learners with the opportunity for deep learning.

If we are uncomfortable with statements like “My students can’t do that,’ and if we believe in high-quality mathematics for all learners, we have to stop substituting problem-solving and conceptually based lessons with procedures and memorization. In classrooms where this is happening, we see amazing things!

So, how do we make these opportunities available to all students?
We get comfortable with struggle.
We present options for expressing knowledge.
We include real-world examples and use of manipulatives.
And we insist on the gift of time.
Time to make sense.
Time to persevere.
Time to ENJOY the struggle and the construction of knowledge.


And we redefine our belief system.


Supporting resources:

More from Andrew Gael

Universal Design for Learning