Cultivating a Listener’s Mindset: A Case for Curriculum

In the last few weeks, I have seen articles about “mental load” circulating around social media again. The “mental load” refers to the invisible but burdensome job of orchestrating of all the household logistics.


from “You Should’ve Asked,” by Emma C Lit, 20 May 2017

Often the tasks are quite small — remember to put away the laundry, remember to add onions to the grocery list, remember to buy some new pants to replace the ones the toddler outgrew, etc. — but juggling all of these thoughts is challenging and enormously time consuming.

Teachers bear a similar mental load: did I hand in attendance? Did I remember to send Omar down to the nurse for his prescription? Why does Thomas look unusually tired today? Wait, are Emma and Lila sitting next to one another in spite of the no-contact clause of their “bullying safety plan”? Did I just write the wrong number on the board?

My curriculum coordinator sent out Michelle Russell‘s blog post about listening closely to students during math (@michel1erussel1).  In the article, Michelle ponders why she “gets so much more from listening to [another teacher’s] students” during a workshop than she does in her own classroom.

It dawned on me that, at the workshop, I wasn’t responsible for all the logistics that normally accompany the classroom experience… In my own classroom my attention is divided. At the workshop I was able to focus on the math learning process and really listen to what the students were saying.

– Michelle Russell, “Listening Closely to Students Talk About Math” (12.10.17)

I have experienced this same phenomenon. There are times when I have noticed myself play-listening. It’s like pretend reading, when someone goes through the actions of reading a page — eyes moving deliberately across each line in a march towards the bottom of the text —  but reaches the end without comprehending anything. Play-listening looks just like listening, with my head tilted and brows furrowed to convey concentration, but it’s mere mimicry. I am so focused on all of the moving pieces that I gloss over nuances in student thinking as long as it “basically sounds right,” or make assumptions about misconceptions.

But listening is important to me. I pride myself on being responsive to students, and I discuss it frequently in my work with teachers. So how do I let this happen?

More importantly: if we want teachers to be listeners, how can we help reduce the mental load?

No matter how much pleasure I derive from designing a lesson from scratch, or how good the lessons may be, my mental load will have increased. I may spend so much time planning the curriculum that I rush through the time I need to spend anticipating student thinking. I listen more when I have already thought about pathways for student thinking. Sometimes I do this beautifully while lesson planning. Sometimes… I don’t.

So here’s where I make the case for curriculum. (Well-written, coherent, student-focused curriculum, of course!) Curriculum can help reduce the mental load. This does not mean that curriculum reduces the need for teacher thinking. Even with a published curriculum, teachers still need to think about how to internalize and/or adapt the lesson. (All this, while still juggling the parts of teaching that aren’t going away any time soon — taking attendance, responding to e-mails, figuring out how to take advantage of social dynamics, etc.) I have found that with well-written curriculum, I am able to focus more on the mathematical heart of the lesson. I find time to make it my own and anticipate student thinking.

Screen Shot 2018-01-01 at 10.08.00 PMIf you have a solid curriculum as your foundation, you can devote more of your planning time to things like Smith & Stein’s five practices for orchestrating discussion!

Using a curriculum does not mean that a teacher immediately becomes a listener. I have seen teachers walk around the room holding the teachers’ manual, or assume that because there is some sort of “script” that a lesson does not need to be planned in advance. Some teachers may need to be sold on the idea that having a written curriculum doesn’t mean planning time converges towards zero. Having a curriculum means that we, as teachers, have more time to be deliberate — to anticipate student thinking, to make adjustments and changes for our style and our students, etc.

This does not mean I am sold on every curriculum. In my first year of teaching, my district gave me a math curriculum that involved students mimicking me and practicing computation. I mean, the publisher prided itself on the curriculum having “differentiated options” and “helpful tools” like graphic organizers. Check out a sample graphic organizer for fourth grade:

Screen Shot 2018-01-02 at 2.49.48 PM.png

a “graphic organizer” (©Houghton Mifflin, because they apparently want credit for this)

All snarkiness aside, I am not exactly certain what students are supposed to get out of this graphic organizer except practice writing the names for 3 multiplication properties one time each. So, yes, this curriculum did not win me over. In fact, I proudly — and obnoxiously! — announced to my colleagues that I “didn’t use” it.

…but it did provide me with some structure and some idea of sequencing and instructional goals. It meant that I was able to spend less time thinking about what students should know (e.g. how to “subtract across zeroes”) and more about pathways. (There was still a lot of work to do finding or creating new materials aligned to these goals. I am eternally grateful to Marilyn Burns and Cathy Fosnot for their work, which got me through those early years and helped me fill in some gaps when “30 subtraction problems on one page” wasn’t going to cut it. I should also offer apologies to my former coworkers for being a foolishly smug 23-year-old.)

When the curriculum aligns more with my principles — and high leverage, ambitious teaching — it means I get to spend even more time thinking about my students. Last year, I piloted the Illustrative Mathematics Middle School Curriculum with a group of sixth grade students.* One thing I love about the curriculum is that it helps me plan for real, live students, detailing some possible avenues of student thinking, and sometimes even a potential sequence of student work/ideas for a classroom discussion. This geometry lesson in the first unit really sold me on the idea of using curriculum to reduce my mental load.

Screen Shot 2018-01-02 at 3.02.06 PM.png

from Illustrative Math’s Middle School Math Curriculum: Grade 6, Unit 1, Lesson 3: “Reasoning to Find Area”

Here, I had an accessible task for students, and the curriculum even detailed possible strategies: decomposing, decomposing and rearranging, subtracting, and enclosing then subtracting.

I tried them out myself. I found the area of the shaded region in A quickly, without even making a mark on my paper.

test 2

…at which point I saw the parallels between my expressions: both were 3 multiplied by something. Then I started to see the area as decomposing and rearranging.


I wondered how my students would see it. I imagined most of them would image that vertical “slice” decomposing the shape and adding them. But would some envision a different slice? Or decompose it into 3 pieces? Or draw a larger 6 x 6 rectangle around the entire shape and subtract out that “missing” 3×4 array?


Most importantly: how did I want to synthesize this experience during the class discussion? It’s great that there are many ways to determine the area, but what mathematics did I want to draw out of it?

When I went to teach this lesson with my (real! live!) sixth graders, I found that I was able to listen to students — in fact, I was even more excited than usual to listen to them. I wanted to see if they thought about the tasks the way I had, or if they had even more strategies that I hadn’t imagined. I was excited to see Matt rearranging, and listen to Isabelle talk about her subtraction strategies. I was able to discern small nuances between Isabelle’s and Caleb’s work. Enthusiasm can be infectious, and good listening can be modeled. I felt like the kids and I nailed the group discussion and synthesis of ideas to close the class.

In the first half of the year, I had designed the curriculum myself, and found that my units were way too long — I wanted to include all the interesting things! — and that I was spending hours and hours each week developing tasks. This workload felt fine in September, when I felt fresh and optimistic, but daunting by November. (It didn’t help that I was pregnant and had a one-year-old at home; my family motivated me to be more efficient at work!) Even after starting the pilot, there were still days when I ventured off into routines and warm ups I created myself, but I felt more balanced, and my students were learning. In fact, both the qualitative and quantitative data I collected on my students looked better.

This is not to say that curriculum is magic. It’s not. But teachers aren’t magic, either, and we have a finite amount of energy to devote to our jobs. Let’s be deliberate about how we exert it.



*Full disclosure: in addition to my teaching position, I now work for Illustrative Math as a PD facilitator — a position I sought out because I am a huge fan of IM’s work. I think IM’s curriculum is powerful when enacted well. Other curricula are similarly powerful. Really, using a curriculum allows teachers to work on enactment more, and that’s the real key to learning.




  1. Sorry if I double post…tried to log in via WordPress and am not sure if it worked. I love Illustrative Mathematics and think my colleagues at Josiah Quincy Upper School would too. We’re in our seventh year of International Baccalaureate and struggling with increasing cognitive demand and student mastery of IB outcomes.


    1. IB is tricky! (…especially because the standards don’t always align with Common Core.) What curriculum, if any, do you use now? If it helps, Illustrative Math’s high school curriculum should be in the pilot phase next year, and ready for adoption in 2019-2020 (I think). It will only be Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2, but that’s a start, right?

      I’m sure you know about lots of task-based sites already, like MARS & NRich, but one concern with heavy supplementation is that it is still on the teacher/school/district to ensure coherence. When I have to design my own curriculum from scratch, I often try to include too many of these interesting tasks. It’s like we get sucked into a vortex of number theory or 3D geometry or statistics. It is beautiful, but time consuming. Then all of a sudden it is April and I realize we have only addressed half of the standards. Oops.

      Also: I used to visit your lower school back in the day! In fact, it was before you even had an upper school. I used to participate in my high school’s substance abuse coalition — SALSA: Students Advocating Life without Substance Abuse — and we made yearly treks to Josiah Quincy to do workshops with 3rd and 5th graders. Our motto was “Wild Sobriety.” For real. 😉


  2. Jenna,

    I agree with your post about the need for curriculum and how it can reduce the mental load for teachers. In our curriculum project, we have gone one step further and are implementing instructional routines within that curriculum for a similar purpose (among other purposes) of making it easier for teachers to authentically listen to children by delegating some of those things they might otherwise have to actively think about to long-term memory.

    I wrote a post about why we use instructional routines here and this point I bring up is Point #2 in that post. This same shifting of mental load also occurs for students when you use instructional routines.


    Liked by 1 person

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