Dr. Jessica Hunt, Building Asset-Based Learning Environments

Mike Wallus, Vice President for Educator Support


Take a moment to think about the students in your most recent class. What assets do each of them bring to your classroom, and how might those assets provide a foundation for their learning? Today we’re talking with Dr. Jessica Hunt about asset-based learning environments.  We’ll talk about how educators can build an asset-based learning environments in their classrooms, schools and school districts.

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Mike Wallus: Take a moment to think about the students in your most recent class. What assets do each of them bring to your classroom, and how might those assets provide a foundation for their learning? Today we're talking with Dr. Jessica Hunt about asset-based learning environments. We'll talk about how educators can build an asset-based learning environment in their classrooms, schools and school districts. Welcome to the podcast, Jessica. Thanks for joining us. 

Jessica Hunt: Thank you. I'm so excited to be here today. 

Mike: Well, I would love to start our conversation asking you to help define some language that we're going to use throughout the course of the podcast. 

Jessica: Sure. 

Mike: I'm wondering if you can just describe the difference between an asset-based and a deficit-focused learning environment. 

Jessica: I think historically what we see a lot of is deficit-based thinking. And deficit-based thinking focuses on perceived weaknesses of students—or even a group of students. And it focuses on students as the problem. And as a result, we tend to use instruction in an attempt to fix students or to fix their thinking. So, an asset-based learning environment means focusing on and beginning with strengths as opposed to what we think kids need or how to fix them. So, this means viewing kids as able and recognizing that the diversity of their thoughts, their culture, their experiences—all of these things are valuable and can actually strengthen and add meaning to classrooms and to instruction. I think asset-based learning environments involve a shift in our own mindset as teachers. And, of course, what we hope results from that is a shift in our practice. We talk a lot about growth mindsets for kids. I think I am referring to growth mindsets that teachers have about kids. We can ask, “What do students know and how can I use that? Or how can I build upon that through my teaching?” I've never met a kid that didn't bring something to instruction. Every student that I've met [has] had strengths that they bring to mathematics classrooms and to communities to expand their thinking and also that of their peers. 

Mike: It's fascinating listening to your description. I find myself thinking about how deficit-based many of the systems and structures… 

Jessica: Yeah. 

Mike: …and practices are, even though we do these things with positive intent. 

Jessica: Yeah. 

Mike: Can you just say more about that? How do you see deficit thinking filtering into some of the systems and then impacting the learning environments in our kids?

Jessica: Sure. I think two ways that I see deficit thinking filtering into, driving—and driving systems in classrooms—involve things like time and priorities. Time and how it's used in classrooms and schools is one area that deficit thinking can impact in a big way. How are systems recommending that teachers actually spend their time with students in the context of a particular day or a week or even a unit of instruction? And I ask that question because I think that it's one thing to state that we have an asset-based approach. Yet it's quite another to consider the need to develop meaningful habits within classroom spaces that can really promote student strengths. 

Mike: So, one of the things that you just said really struck me, which is this idea of habits in the classroom. I'm excited to hear what you're going to say about that. 

Jessica: I think one of the key habits that we have in asset-based learning environments is this idea of listening to kids. I've never met a student that didn't have viable and valuable ideas about mathematics. The key for me is having the time and space to uncover and understand what those are. So, we've got to have a way to listen to students’ thinking. When we do that, when we understand the reasoning and the strengths that they're bringing, that supports us in selecting instructional tools and strategies that leverage both their individual strengths and those that they bring to the group in order to promote learning. 

Mike: Let's pick up on that a little bit. This idea of listening to kids and understanding their thinking and understanding of what it means about the assets that they bring. For a person who might be listening, help them form an image of what that might look like in an elementary classroom. Talk to me a little bit about on a day-to-day basis, how might this idea of listening to kids or attending to kids’ thinking—and really considering the assets—how might that show up? 

Jessica: One way it shows up is this focus on learning. And before I go on with that, I want to talk a little bit about how learning and a focus on it is a little different than focusing on performance. So, focusing on performance as opposed to learning, risks looking at change as something that's fast and quick as opposed to something that grows and endures. So, part of focusing on learning means that we're looking more at the process as opposed to only examining quick outcomes or products of what students are experiencing in classrooms. It's actually interesting to think about that in terms of educational equity because there's some research that actually suggests that performance gains don't necessarily equate to learning gains. 

Mike: I think that's fascinating. You're making me think of two things. One, and I'm going to reference this for people who are listening, is Taking Action, which is NCTM’s work. Really trying to say what do some of the really critical principles of high-quality education look like in grades pre-K through 5? And they have a really specific focus on attending to what do we want kids to learn versus simply what's the performance. 

Jessica: Yes, absolutely. 

Mike: I also just wanted to key in on something you said, which is that performance can be short-lived, but learning endures. 

Jessica: It sure does. If we want to focus on learning, it means that we have to be intentional in our classroom practices. And I also think that links to a lot of things. Like you brought up NCTM, and a lot of the things that they advocate for. I think there are some natural linkages there as well. So, for me, being intentional, one key part of that is ensuring that students are doing the thinking so that teachers can listen to and promote that thinking. So, we want the placement of the learning and the thinking on the students for a good percentage of the instructional time. We want to ensure that we're immersing students in content rather than simply presenting it all the time. And I think another part of that listening involves positioning students and the ideas that they're bringing forward as competent. So, I think, together, what all of this means is that we're supporting students to make meaning for themselves, yet definitely not by themselves. 

Jessica: Teachers have an intentional, key role. And part of that intentionality involves things like slowing down and thinking carefully about how to structure learning experiences. And taking more time and planning and ensuring that students have access to multiple ways to engage in and represent and express their thinking with respect to those tasks and activities that they're using and drawing upon to learn. And I think that asset-based learning environments allow for that intentionality. It allows for that time and space and planning. And in teaching, it allows for that immersion and thinking and listening and positioning of students as the sense-makers, as the doers and thinkers of mathematics. 

Mike: I think the connection that I'm making is this idea that there are some shifts that have to happen in order to enable asset-based listening and intentionality. One of the things that comes to mind is it really starts with even how you structure or imagine the task itself. If you're posing a problem, that problem isn't accompanied by a, “Let me show you how to find the answer.” That actually allows kids to think about it. And there might be some divergent thinking, and that's actually a good thing. We want to understand how kids are thinking so we can respond to their thinking. 

Jessica Absolutely. 

Mike: That's a big contrast to saying, “Let me show you a task; let me show you how to do the task.” It's pretty difficult to imagine listening in that kind of context because really what you're asking them to do isn't thinking about how to solve it. Does that make sense? 

Jessica: It sure does. And I think for me, or a hunch that I would have, is that that also goes back to this whole idea of teaching and listening and maybe even assessing, if you will, for what we think kids need versus what they're bringing us versus their strengths. I see some connections there in what you're seeing. 

Mike: Let's talk about that a little bit. 

Jessica: Sure. 

Mike: Particularly assessment, I think when I was getting ready for this episode, that was the first thing that came to mind. I found myself thinking about previous PLC meetings or data meetings that I've had where even if we were looking at student work, I have to confess that I found myself thinking about the fact that we were looking at what kids didn't understand versus what they did understand. And I tried to kind of imagine how those conversations would've looked from an asset perspective. What would it look like to look at student work and to compare student work and think about assets versus thinking about, “What do I need to remediate in the type of thinking that I'm seeing?” 

Jessica: Uh-hm. I hear you there. I think it speaks to something that if we really want to build asset-based learning environments, we need to make some shifts. And I think one of those shifts is how we look at and use data and assessment. Primarily, I think we need to assess strengths and not needs. I heard that a lot as you were talking. How can we focus on assessing strengths and not needs? I say that to a lot of people, and they're like, “What's the difference?” (laughs) Or, “That seems so small.” (laughs) But I think it winds up being a really big deal. If you think about it, trying to uncover needs perpetuates this idea that we should focus on what we see as the problem, which as I mentioned earlier, usually becomes the students or a particular group of students. And I think it's very problematic because it sets us up as teachers to keep viewing students and their ideas as something that needs to be fixed as opposed to assets that we can build from or learn from in the classroom. 

Mike: Yeah. One of the other ideas that we've talked about on this podcast in different episodes is the idea of relevancy and engagement. And it strikes me that these ideas about listening to kids for assets are pretty connected to those ideas about relevancy and engagement. 

Jessica: Yeah, most definitely. I think, again, figuring out, we sometimes call this prior knowledge, but I look at it as when kids come to school, they bring with them their entire experience. So, what are those experiences and what from their eyes are things that are relevant and engaging and things in which they are passionate about themselves? And what do they know about those things? And how might they connect to what others in the classroom know about those things? And how can we, to borrow a term, how can we “mathematize” those things (laughs) in ways that are beneficial for individual kids and for the community of learners in our classroom? Like, how can we make those connections? I don't think we can answer those types of questions when we use assessment from this place of, “What don't students know?” Or, “How can I get them to this particular place?” If that makes sense. 

Mike: It does. 

Jessica: I think we can ask those questions from a strengths-based lens that is curious about and passionate about really getting at, again, this whole experience that kids are bringing with them to school. And how we can use that to not only better students’ learning, but better the classroom community and maybe even better the mathematics that kids are learning in that community. 

Mike: Absolutely. 

Jessica: That's, that's interesting to think about. 

Mike: So, you started to address one of the questions that I was going to ask, which is, I'm imagining that there are folks who are listening to the podcast, and they're just starting to think about what are some of the small steps or the small moves that I might make? What small steps would you advise folks to think about if they're trying to cultivate an asset-focused learning environment? 

Jessica: It's an interesting question, and I would suggest putting into practice some of the bigger ideas that we're getting at in asset-based learning environments themselves. And the first is, look at your own strengths. And when I say who I'm referencing there, it can be a teacher, it can be a school, it can be a district. If you look at your own strengths first, look at how your practices, your structures, your priorities are uncovering and using strengths. And if they're not, why not? Kind of looking at what's there, what capacities do we currently have that we can build on toward asset-based learning environments? And I think I would pair that with just a commitment to, to action, if you will. You know, start small, but start now. If you're a classroom teacher for instance—I tend to go to that (laughs), that grade size a lot ‘cause I still very much, uh, identify as a teacher—start with one task or one day, or part of a day, where you can slow down and use your instructional time to listen for kids' strengths. 

Jessica: What brilliance and valuable ways of reasoning are they sharing with you? And what kinds of activity or task or environment did you need to put in place to uncover that? What did you learn about it? What did you learn about yourself in this process? So, we learn about kids, and then we learn about ourselves. It becomes sort of this beautiful back and forth between students and teachers where we're all learning about ourselves and about each other. And I think that learning piece is the third thing that I would suggest. Again, going back to, let's focus on learning. Let's celebrate our own learning as teachers and schools and districts and et cetera. Reframing your practices and structures will take time. That's OK. But learn to celebrate the steps that you and your communities are taking toward this asset-based model of instruction. And know that, again, you know, when we work to do that, we enable kids as mathematical thinkers and doers. So, we take that problem off kids, and we place it as a challenge in our instructional design, in our experiences and our interactions between teachers and students. So, I think for me, I would really invite folks to take those small steps, uncover your own strengths, learn to listen, and celebrate your own learning. 

Mike: Before we conclude the episode, I'm wondering if you can recommend any resources for someone who wants to continue learning about an asset-based approach to elementary mathematics? 

Jessica: Yeah. There [are] so many good examples of this. I think about my own learning as a teacher and a teacher of teachers, (laughs) and a researcher. And I think about things like cognitively guided instruction or the work of the The Dream Project in early childhood or even TODOS, where I know they provide a lot of wonderful examples of asset-oriented resources. I'll also do a shameless plug (laughs) for my, for my own book, you know, myself… 

Mike: Plug away! 

Jessica: … (laughs) and Jenny Ainslie put together, called, Designing Effective Math Interventions: An Educator’s Guide to Learner-Driven Instruction. And that book came off of a project that I did with, uh, National Science Foundation support, where we looked at kids’ thinking over time and designed some tasks and activities to support conceptual understanding of fractions. But there are those. And, and so, so many more. But those are the ones that come to mind immediately. 

Mike: That's fantastic. And we'll share links to those things with the podcast. 

Jessica: Great

Mike: I want to thank you so much for joining us, Jessica; it's really been a pleasure talking to you. 

Jessica: Oh, thank you. It's been an immense pleasure talking with you as well. And thank you for inviting me. I really appreciate it. 

Mike: This podcast is brought to you by The Math Learning Center and the Maier Math Foundation. dedicated to inspiring and enabling individuals to discover and develop their mathematical confidence and ability.