Embracing Disequilibrium

There seemed to be two common threads among the majority of sessions at NCSM this week: CCSS and Standards for Mathematical Practice. It was close to impossible to find a session without those terms somewhere in the description. Whether you love them or challenge them, the CCSS offered a wonderful opportunity for rich mathematical discussions & examination into best practice.

It was Ruth Parker who closed her session by saying, “Looking ahead, we need to embrace disequilibrium, liberate students and teachers to step outside of their comfort zone.” This statement was NOT what you saw in every session description, however for us, truly captured the essence and heart of the conference.

Embrace Disequilibrium.

Not a phrase you often hear in education, right?

To help us along in our post-session discussion, we immediately pulled up our dictionary app: Disequilibrium (n) – loss or lack of balance attributable to a situation in which some forces outweigh one another. Synonyms: changeability, fluctuation, fluidity, unpredictability, variability…

As teachers, we like balance. We live on fixed schedules. We arrive at school at a specific time, each subject has an allotted time, lunch for 1/2 hour and so on. So for us, this thought of imbalance opened up a plethora of questions. What does that mean for math education going forward? Does it mean the same thing for everyone? Can you observe it in a classroom? How does it impact professional development for our teachers?

Disequilibrium in the way we plan our units of study: Plan for “the math” in a unit instead of planning how to teach students to solve the math at the end of unit assessment.

Disequilibrium in the way students problem solve: Don’t rush to rescue students from their confusion. Let them struggle. Allow them the satisfaction of learning something new and knowing they can do it.

Disequilibrium in the way we assess our students: Assessment opportunities arise often, take advantage of them at all times, do not just reserve assessment for “quiz/test day.” Make it formative and meaningful in guiding instruction.

Disequilibrium in the way students talk in the classroom: No more raising hands and sharing answers one at a time. Students create arguments, listen to one another, critique each other’s reasoning, and work collaboratively.

Disequilibrium in the way we pose problems to students: Engage them in meaningful math tasks. Pose investigations with student-driven inquiries and entry points for all learners. Make connections, discover relationships, and make a habit of asking, “Is it always true?” or “Does this always work?” to challenge the learners.

Disequilibrium in the way we organize our PD: No more one size fits all when we train our teachers. Design PD like you would want to see teachers teaching students. Be engaging, do math, involve administrators, use technology (shout out to Twitter here), coach teachers, create teacher leaders, model and reflect on best practice.

Marilyn Burns, Kathy Richardson, Jo Boaler, and many others by whom we were beyond impressed, all sent the powerful message that EVERY student can learn. We, as educators, must meet students where they are, embrace mistakes as a learning opportunities, engage students in challenging tasks with multiple pathways to a solution, and encourage mathematical discourse in the classroom. To do this, we must be fluid in our instruction and let student thinking create imbalance.

Embrace Disequilibrium.

Be okay with discomfort, be okay with imbalance, thoughtfully shake things up, be changeable, your students will thank you!

Mathematically Yours,
Kristin and Nancy, Math Minds

2 thoughts on “Embracing Disequilibrium

  1. Jan Parsons

    Ruth Parker is my hero. I read her book years ago and it changed how I taught 5th grade. We have remained connected and she is someone who is always thinking about how to motivate both students and teachers. Recently she wrote a book for parents. Ruth at one time was asked to talk to parent groups to help them better understand conceptual math. At that time in my career, the math wars were raging and I needed “words” to help me be understanding of parents. Thanks for sharing.
    Jan Parsons



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