Assigning Competence: a weapon used to fight status

NOTE: This is the fourth in a series of posts about Complex Instruction

The first time I went into a classroom after reading an article about status, I felt like Neo beginning to realize his power in The Matrix. I saw things that had been right in front of me for years that I had completely missed. I started noticing how students perked up or tuned out depending on the status of the classmate who was speaking.

Once I learned about status, I never saw a classroom the same way again.

Students who self-assign low status within a group may sit back and play a very passive role even though their ideas may be valid.

Elizabeth Cohen, Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom

Notice that Cohen writes “self-assign”. Peers may assign one status to a student, but students may self-assign a completely different one. In my experience, the default self-assigned status for math is as low as Samwell Tarly’s Season 1 self-confidence. In my class, however, I want student ideas to be judged on their merit–not the status of the person to which the idea belongs. I want to value the voices of all students. Part of the way I do this is by establishing a multidimensional classroom, so that students learn to recognize the many ways they are like an expert mathematician. But status is especially dangerous because it is the perception of students’ abilitiesnot the reality. Teachers need a weapon to counteract the inexorable attack of these perceptions and the damage they inflict (particularly  in math classes to females and underrepresented minorities).

Assigning competence is that weapon.

Assigning competence is a form of praise where teachers catch students being smart.

Lani Horn, Strength in Numbers: Collaborative Learning in Secondary Math

To assign competence, Cohen explains that the praise to a student must be:

  1. public
  2. intellectually meaningful
  3. specific to the task

Because status is all about perception, the first of these seems obvious to me. However, I constantly battle with myself to make sure I’m doing the last two components. How many times have I told a student “That’s amazing!” or “Good job”? I’m embarrassed at how often such meaningless compliments come out of my mouth. My friend Sam Hilkey has really helped me to be more aware of this through our intense discussion of the implications of Carol Dweck’s Mindset, but I still have a long way to go.

Another mistake I’ve made is not posting the “An Expert Mathematician,…” list publicly in my room. I used to do it, and I need to do it again this year because it makes it so much easier to be intellectually meaningful when I can use the exact wording referenced on the document.

Lastly, many teachers incorrectly believe that assigning competence is a remedy for low-status students. However, I assign competence more for its effects on the group than the individual because I’m trying to change the group’s perceptions.


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