Jessup Encourages Educators to Recognize Students’ Strengths Over Deficits
story by Claire Miller
When teaching their students a new concept, mathematics educators could easily follow a formula: Show students a specific method for solving a problem and ask them to repeat that method in their homework assignments or on a test.
Naomi Jessup, assistant professor in mathematics education in the College of Education & Human Development’s Department of Early Childhood and Elementary Education, advocates for a different way of teaching math – one that encourages teachers to facilitate more conversations among students about how to solve mathematical problems and how that knowledge can be applied to students’ lives outside of the classroom.
“We are constantly giving kids strategies and we want them to replicate those strategies in a problem, but what if we allowed to build on someone else’s ideas in the class?” she said. “We have to allow kids to think and reason in ways that make sense to them. We have to give them context that allows them to think deeply about how math is connected to the world, but more importantly their lives.”
Jessup, who has more than 15 years of experience as an elementary school teacher and K-8 mathematics instructional coach, believes math teachers can engage in culturally relevant pedagogy that empowers students by including their students’ cultural backgrounds in the lessons they’re learning.
For example, elementary mathematics curriculum will often ask students to conduct a survey, create a graph and interpret the results. In Atlanta, teachers can take a culturally-relevant approach by asking students to analyze bar graphs reported by the Georgia Department of Public Health, and to answer questions and consider the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for their communities.
This teaching approach starts with educators moving away from a deficit-based approach to teaching – which focuses on what students don’t know – to one that emphasizes students’ current knowledge, strengths and cultural identities.
“My research is focused on how we can honor and build on the math concepts kids are bringing to the table,” she said. “Centering on students’ math knowledge allows for instruction that is responsive to their needs and is culturally relevant.”
Teachers can also apply this approach to working with their students’ parents. Jessup currently serves on the Georgia Standards of Excellence review committee for an upcoming update to mathematics curriculum in Georgia, and she will recommend that schools have conversations with parents about what the new changes will mean for their students.
These conversations are particularly important in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, when parents have taken a more hands-on role in facilitating their children’s learning at home.
Over the last few months, Jessup has spoken with educators and parents about future research projects that could highlight the role of parents and parental partnerships in math education, and she hopes she can spotlight Black families’ experiences and voices in engaging in math at home.
“We have expectations of what parents should or should not be doing and when we think parents aren’t living up to those expectations, that creates a barrier,” she said. “I think teachers need to be reflective and think about whether they’re coming from a deficit lens when looking at what parents are doing with their children at home.”