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Posted by Bank Street in Math Leadership on Jan 13, 2017

By Jannet Jang
Grade 1 Classroom Teacher

Although I briefly encountered Jean Piaget’s concept of disequilibrium in my undergraduate studies, I never related it to my own learning experiences. It had always been ingrained in me to equate disequilibrium with failure. This is partially because of the values my teachers and parents had placed on right answers. As a teacher who finds confusion unsettling, I find that I am quick to save a student with a math rule or strategy so the student does not feel the same way. The article, Disequilibrium and Questioning in the Primary Classroom: Establishing Routines That Help Students Learn, written by Susan Carter, helped me understand how essential struggling is in the learning process.

Susan Carter (2008) believes that teachers need to shift their focus to “the process of learning, not the end result or answer” (p.137). Often times, teachers and students both base their success on a student’s happiness. Carter (2008) emphasizes that “understanding that disequilibrium is normal gives students a foundation from which to struggle and move toward understanding” (p.136). The article goes on to describe Carter’s experiences in shifting a classroom culture by building routines around appreciating disequilibrium. As students and teachers begin to recognize and value struggles in problem-solving, the students have richer mathematical experiences leading to deeper understanding.

This past semester, I have used Carter’s ideas to try and shift the dynamics of my own first grade classroom. In the beginning of the year, I launched my math workshop with a class discussion on what it means to feel confused and how it is an indicator of learning. We charted questions my first graders could ask each other when they realize they are in a state of disequilibrium (see picture below). By accepting disequilibrium as a natural part of our everyday language and practice, my hope was that I could begin to focus on creating a safe environment where we value exploring mathematics without the fear of wrong answers.  I wanted my students to pursue answers by reflecting on their own mathematical processes.

Yet, trying to achieve this goal has been a slow process as I realized I am actually my own biggest obstacle. I must undo my own math experiences and values before I can improve my classroom culture, but this change has been more difficult than I could have imagined.  My students are also struggling in the shift, despite only being in the first grade. Unfortunately, many of the first graders have already had similar math experiences to mine. There are many math conferences where my little ones silently look to me, as if they are asking me to nudge them in the right direction. To this day, there is an internal struggle to refrain from spoon-feeding strategies and instead, ask an insightful open-ended question.

However, I know we are making slow progress. Just the other day, I saw a first grader ask a friend with a hint of pride in his voice, “I have disequilibrium, can you explain your thinking?”  Together, with my students, we are relearning what it means to learn. There are many days where I feel frustration in my own emotional ties to the way I viewed learning math, but fortunately, I now have the awareness of disequilibrium. I wonder how we can bring about more awareness of disequilibrium into our classrooms, not just for the students, but also for teachers like myself. By intentionally changing our understandings of this disequilibrium, wouldn’t we be encouraging perseverance while giving children more opportunities to think mathematically?



Carter, S. (2008, October). Disequilibrium and questioning in the primary classroom: Establishing routines that help students learn. Teaching Children Mathematics, 15(3), 134-137.

tagged bank street college, disequilibrium, grade 1 math, jannet jang, math leadership, primary math
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