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The Impact of Creating an Emotionally Supportive Learning Environment in Math Classrooms

15 Oct 2020 by Guest Blogger

We recently came across a really interesting article that examined both the academic and emotional aspects of teaching mathematics and we were excited when the lead author agreed to answer some of our questions about the study.  Read below for our conversation with Rebekah Berlin, Program Director for the Learning by Scientific Design Network at Deans for Impact. 


You recently published an article on the relationship between teaching practices that are common across subject areas and mathematics-specific teaching practices specific to newer College and Career Ready Standards. What led you to study this relationship? 

Sometimes, in conversations about teaching, I feel the pendulum swings far in one of two directions, where we’re either focused entirely on subject-specific pedagogieslike how to respond when a student says something that is mathematically inaccurate or we’re talking about teaching practices that are content-agnostic, like creating an emotionally supportive classroom environment, which is as important in a math class as it is in a social studies class. I think that sometimes, in that back and forth, we lose a holistic picture of the work of teaching and how to holistically support teachers’ development. 

So I was hearing these conversations about teaching happen in ways that seemed incomplete when compared with my experience as an elementary school teacher. When I was a teacher helping my students develop the mathematical practices outlined in newer college and career-ready (CCR) standards, there was very important mathematical work I needed to do with students, but there was also a lot of other work that wasn’t specific to math. This other work was about creating an environment where students felt comfortable taking academic risks like sharing their reasoning and being open to the mathematical critiques of their peers. We had to create an environment that was characterized by trust and mutual regard for that to happen. 

What did you set out to learn in this particular study? 

We were interested in whether there were examples of students doing mathematics in the ways outlined in CCR standards in classroom environments that were not emotionally supportive, organized, and engaging. Personal experience suggested there wouldn’t be, but we wanted to see whether that was true at a larger scale. We thought that if we found that the type of mathematical work outlined in CCR standards tends to only take place in emotionally supportive classroom environments, that would give us helpful information as we think about how we train and support elementary mathematics teachers—yes, you absolutely need a strong command of mathematics content and of mathematics-specific teaching practices—but you may also need support developing the skills to create an environment where rich mathematical engagement can occur. 

So, we looked at over 400 upper elementary mathematics lessons from Washington DC public schools and trained raters to score each with two different rubrics. The first was a mathematics-specific rubric called the Instructional Practice Research Tool (IPRT). This was designed to capture the shifts and mathematical practices outlined in CCR standards. It’s a content-specific rubric. You wouldn’t be able to use this in an ELA classroom; it’s designed to give you information about things like the mathematical logic and accuracy of students’ explanations or the way students connect various mathematical representations. We worried, however, that if we only looked through that lens, we would miss important information about the context in which these mathematical practices occurred. So, we also had a different team of raters score each lesson with the Emotional Support, Classroom Organization, and Student Engagement domains of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS). 

What did you find? 

The results were really interesting. Four main types of lessons emerged from the data. The first we called “Turbulent Learning Environments”—these lessons were characterized by lower productivity scores, higher negative climate, lower emotional support, and lower student engagement. During these lessons, there was no evidence of students’ engaging in mathematics in the ways outlined in CCR standards. In fact, in these lessons, there were significantly fewer opportunities for students to engage in any type of mathematics. The next group of lessons we termed “Inconsistent” because these lessons were characterized by mid-level scores on Classroom Organization. This meant the lesson included productive moments but also had periods of low productivity and even chaos. In these lessons, students had inconsistent opportunities to engage in mathematics in the ways outlined in CCR standards. For example, there might be one instance of a student responding to a peer’s mathematical thinking, but for the rest of the segment students just say things like, “I agree” or “I disagree” without expanding. 

The third profile we called “Orderly” because these lessons were characterized by high scores on the Classroom Organization domain. We used the phrase “Orderly” because these lessons took place in environments that were productive and highly managed, but that also scored lower on Emotional Support and Student Engagement. Someone might think this is exactly the kind of environment that you need for CCR-aligned mathematical engagement—one where students can engage in complex mathematical work without interruption. Our studyand granted it’s just one studysuggests that’s not enough. The mathematics scores on the IPRT in lessons we characterized as “orderly” were indistinguishable from those in the group we categorized as “Inconsistent.” This means there was no difference in the type of mathematical work students were doing whether they were in a productive, highly managed environment or an environment where raters observed periods of chaos. 

We only ever observed students consistently doing mathematics in the ways outlined in CCR  standards during lessons that were both orderly and emotionally supportive. That’s actually what we ended up calling our fourth profile—“Supportive.” In these lessons, students were in an environment that was emotionally supportive, well-organized, and characterized by high levels of student engagement. And again, these lessons with the “Supportive” learning environment were the only lessons where raters observed consistent CCR-aligned mathematical engagement. 

The other interesting thing about this was that individual teachers tended to teach in fairly consistent ways. It was not the case that after a turbulent lesson, the next segment we coded would be emotionally supportive. This suggests that teachers may need really different things in terms of support. It wouldn’t make sense to provide the teachers whose lessons tended to be orderly, professional development on Classroom Organization whereas it would make sense to provide them with support on Student Engagement or Emotional Support.  

What do you see as the main takeaways from this work? 

The teachers in our study were participating in a multi-year professional development program focused on mathematics-specific knowledge and practices. I don’t want to downplay the importance of this type of mathematics-specific support. As a former mathematics teacher, I can attest to the fact that teaching mathematics requires specialized knowledge and teaching skills that the average person does not enter the classroom with and will need a lot of support developing.

However, given that we only ever saw students doing mathematics in the ways outlined in CCR standards in settings that were emotionally supportive and engaging, it’s possible that in addition to that mathematics-specific support, some of the teachers in our study would have benefited from support focused on creating an emotionally supportive and engaging learning environment. 

So, one of the main things this work has gotten me thinking about is if we want students to develop the practices outlined in CCR mathematics standards—yes these are mathematics-specific standards—but students and teachers might benefit if our approach to supporting them was more than just mathematics-specific. 

We might want to think about a more holistic approach to teacher development, one that encompasses mathematics-specific elements of instruction and those practices relevant to any content area, concerning how to create an emotionally supportive, organized, and engaging learning environment.

Citation: Berlin, R. & Cohen, J. (2020). The Convergence of Emotionally Supportive Learning Environments and College and Career Ready Mathematical Engagement in Upper Elementary Classrooms. AERA Open, 6(3), 1-20. Read the article here

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