Let’s agree not to use these words

Obvious or obviously.

Clearly

It has to be

It’s the only way

Trivial

Easy

These words and phrases are pervasive in mathematics classrooms, and they are increasingly common the further we go in mathematics.

But each has a toxic effect on student engagement. Consider the following two scenarios.

Scenario 1: I don’t get it

If I don’t understand what others describe as obvious, I feel stupid and I disengage. I feel like I can’t do this.

scenario 2: I do get it

If I am feeling smart because I understand something, and then others describe it as obvious, I don’t get to feel smart anymore. The thing I worked so hard to understand is obvious to everyone else. I am likely to disengage and to feel like I can’t do this.

So what?

As a teacher, I have two roles related to this issue.

The first is to eliminate this language from my own teaching vocabulary. There is no upside to these terms, so I have to stop using them.

The second is to challenge the “obviousness” of what others claim to be obvious. Is it really that obvious? Is that really the only way to do it or to think about it? As the one who sets the tone for discussion in the classroom, I have a responsibility to include everyone. Sometimes that means pretending I don’t understand something I do.

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6 responses to “Let’s agree not to use these words

  1. jenny jorgensen

    Hi Christopher
    I was interested in your list of words not to use (Shawn Towle showed it to me) and I would add the word “just” and “all I did was”
    I think using the above to words/phrases can imply that whatever I might be finding hard is “easy” for someone else when they say, “I just…” and saying, “all I did was…” belittles the work and thinking that was done.
    I look forward to reading more on your website.
    Jenny

  2. Nice. I hadn’t thought about these.
    But on reflection, I know I have had the following exchange many times:
    Student: “I just multiplied this by that.”
    Me: “JUST? How did you know to multiply?”
    That reaction has come from the same place of wanting to honor, not devalue, students’ hard-won insights.
    Thanks for adding to the conversation!

  3. I used to use “dumb” and “easy” to mean “blindly following the procedure in the textbook.” I dropped those for “straightforward” a few years ago.

  4. A few years back, I framed Proof by Contradiction as an adversarial and sarcastic conversation. It worked well for them; one batch of students even dubbed it “My friend, you are an idiot” proofs. When students presented proofs, every step after the counterfactual started with a grandiose “clearly” or “obviously,” which was semantically equivalent to them saying “dumbass” every line.

    I make a conscious effort to strip those words out of my general teaching vocabulary after that.

  5. Hi Christopher,

    Thanks for the post. I love the care for students that is evident in your writing, something not always *obvious* in math classrooms.

    I think the risk of using the phrases you have banned is greater for those of us blessed to be good at math – to us it really is “obvious”, and I suspect that at times every math teacher thinks “surely you can see that?”.

    Thank you for the reminder that all students are valuable, and that teachers have an incredibly important role to play in letting them know that.

  6. Pingback: Ratcheting back the rhetoric on Common Core | Overthinking my teaching

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