Don’t do ‘the right thing’

Written by: Joel Wirth | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The language of learning and classroom talk about the process of learning are two key aspects that are too often missing, especially in the STEM disciplines, says Joel Wirth

When you are a born English teacher, the mathematics classroom is truly “Here Be Monsters” territory: the unexplored emptiness on the map where such exotic creatures as quadratic equations vie with Boolean Logic in pursuit of vast shoals of integers and denominators.

The science labs are the same. Visits there are akin to a trip to the Triassic.

Although, what has always struck me as the most glaringly alien thing about most mathematics rooms and science labs is not the exotically plumed language of stoichiometry and gluons, but rather the relative absence of words.

In terms purely of purposeful talk, they are often the quietest places in the school. And this is not a good thing.

I will go further. I am not sure teachers of mathematics and science as conclusively understand what it means for students to talk like scientists and mathematicians in the same way as history teachers implicitly “get” what it means to talk like a historian.

Before I am hunted down by enraged packs of chemists intent on titrating me to death, I fully accept that there will be exceptions out there. Some of you will know or be brilliant teachers of these subjects, whose classrooms positively hum with purposeful discourse, but many years of doing this thing called education have suggested to me that such colleagues are exceptional (usually in both meanings of the word). Allow me to defend myself. That bit in The Martian where Matt Damon’s stranded character resolves to “science the (faecal matter)” out of his quandary has become GIF-ably quotable. Because it is true.

Were I a mathematics teacher in the average class, I would survey my territory with a genuine sense of excitement at all the wrong answers which were furiously being generated by unsuspecting students.

“The Right Answer” in STEM subjects has become the only accepted currency. But the answer is only ever of interest as an articulation of students’ internal algorithm. Answers are arbitrary. Only the process counts. Matt Damon was right because he understood that science and mathematics are nouns only in the dictionary. In real life, and especially in classrooms, they are verbs. Here is a scene from many a classroom...

There is a question on the board. It is clearly hard and a quiet has settled upon the room flavoured mainly with awe but carrying subtle undertones of incomprehension and despair. Whiteboards are being stared at blankly. Some symbols are drawn before being wiped out. The teacher is circulating, addressing individual points of bafflement. The clock is ticking – and this is only a three-mark question.

The silence is the sound of the seized-up cogs of the algorithm. It is the action of science and mathematics (the verb of it) reduced to inaction. But no hands are raised. No ladder is requested to raise them out of the pit of their ignorance. The stakes are far too high for that...

What tongue-ties learners in STEM subjects is the terror of being wrong. That truth has very significant implications for how we teach these subjects.

Here are some practical first steps towards talk-rich, thought-based STEM lessons which celebrate errors and foreground the journey (not the destination).

  • Phrase all learning objectives as questions which the learning and teaching will help them answer (consider whether all lessons could answer an overarching question with learning objectives as sub-questions). Occasionally, before you dive in with your reasoning behind this, ask them what they think needs to happen or what new or old stuff they will need to know or what sequence they would choose, especially for older students (isn’t that what “sciencing” something should mean?).
  • Before answering questions from the board, get them to articulate through discussion exactly how this question will be challenging. Are their traps that have been set?
  • Get them going silently on a question from the off and circulate around the room. Identify students who have got it wrong or who are engaged in apparently fruitless struggle. Do not intervene. Celebrate wrong answers. Use them as the example in discussion. Better if there are three or four of them.
  • Create a culture of being wrong. Tell each student that your job is to catch them being wrong at least three times in the course of a year, term, week. Celebrate it with humour when you find it. You will feel the pressure lift in the room.
  • Do not always be the expert. Be the “useful idiot” who is sceptical of their understanding and critical of their thinking. Make them convince you by being ever more accurate with their language or scientific reasoning. Stop them all. Celebrate that it is hard. Co-construct the algorithm, sequence, logic that will locate the answer.
  • Never allow “I don’t know” (their ultimate “Get Out of Jail” card). Reply: “Brilliant. I’m still in a job then. Tell me what you do know.”
  • Do not routinely ask students for their answer. Ask how they approached the task or question. Check who had a different way. Get them to try each other’s methods.
  • Pause at salient points to allow the flux to settle. Ask someone to summarise what we have learned, the path we have taken, the thinking ahead.
  • Do not spring questions on them. Give questions time: “Right. I’m now planning on being really mean and asking you something about quarks. This is hard stuff so get ready. I’m going to ask at least four of you (Matthew, you will be one because of what happened last time we did this) about strangeness and gluons. I know – that is how mean I am feeling. I am only talking now to give you all time to muster whatever you have got lying round in your head about this so get something ready...” If you jump in by asking a student, most others have stopped thinking the moment they realise that poor Matthew has been landed with the question from hell.
  • Praise specifically what is done well and recognise genuine excellence. “Stop right there. I need you to say all that again Amy because everyone needs to hear what you did. Listen to Amy again everyone – no pressure Amy – and notice how she makes reference to the specifics of … especially …”
  • Insist on stage voice and full sentences. If a student timidly builds an answer with you, one block of knowledge at a time, get them to say the whole thing in its entirety at the end.
  • Insist that students vocalise complex scientific terminology. Make them say them out loud as a group. Knaster-Kuratowsky Fan. Muon. Prokaryotic – they should savour such words like boiled sweets.


  • Joel Wirth is a former teacher and senior leader who now works as a consultant headteacher. You can read the previous articles for SecEd via http://bit.ly/2FERRgR


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