The Myth of “Exposure” and the Harm it Causes. By Sarah Ryan

As an elementary math coach, I regularly work with teachers who want to prepare their students for “the test”. “The test” may be a chapter test students will take next week, a mid-year assessment in January, or a standardized test in the spring. Regardless of which test, many teachers want help preparing their students for the most challenging or most confusing problems, ones many students are likely to misinterpret.

To prepare students for these most challenging problems, teachers often say they want to plan a lesson in which they “expose” their students to those types of problems. They want to present challenging multi-step problems, and “give students a strategy”. Not exposing their students feels like a disservice to their students. If there is a problem on the test that I know my students are unlikely to solve correctly, shouldn’t I spend at least a day showing them a strategy?

And the answer is no. The answer is no, because learning math is a complex process that happens inside students’ minds as they make connections and reorganize information around “big ideas”, and we, as educators, have a duty to meet students where they are. Doing anything else is a waste of students’ time and effort. In spite of tests and pacing calendars over which many of us have little control, we must learn to use our professional knowledge and judgment to assess what students know and understand, and plan engaging lessons designed to help students grapple with the next big idea, the next strategy, or the next type of story problem. Coaches can help teachers distinguish between what students are ready for and what is or might be on “the test”, and make decisions with our students’ best interests in mind.

Because what happens when we “expose” students to something they are not ready for? The teacher usually does most of the talking and the thinking. Larger lesson goals often get subsumed by the desire to help students get the right answer. The students that the teacher is most worried about become confused, check out, and learn once again that they are not good at math. And a day that could have been spent developing foundational knowledge or supporting students in understanding and persevering through a problem they could solve on their own is lost. Students who struggle most lose another chance to make sense of math, to feel successful, to realize that math is supposed to make sense and that they are capable of understanding and enjoying math.

Teachers and coaches cannot possibly “expose” students to all the permutations of problems they might see on state tests. However, coaches can help teachers assess what students know and understand, and help teachers plan lessons that provide opportunities for all students to make sense of math and to learn how to think for themselves. And in the end, aren’t these the outcomes we most value and the ones that will serve students best?

Author Sarah Ryan.

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