Using the Anonymity Function in Desmos to Uncover Bias in Math Class

My research focus this year has been equitable student voice. I have been using distance learning for the entire school year and this has given me some new perspectives on student discourse.  At the beginning of the year, hopes were high that students would be working in teams, just like in past years, with some minor modifications.  It quickly became apparent that without the opportunity to build familiarity and class culture in person, my students were very reluctant to speak up and teamwork did not go well at all.  

Since December, I have been using the Desmos Activity Builder (https://teacher.desmos.com/) exclusively to do my lessons. One of the interesting things that Desmos allows you to do is to make all of your students anonymous. Anonymity has provided some really interesting results as far as classroom discussions go.  I’ve never had the opportunity to lead a discussion where the participants were nearly anonymous to each other.  Students generally respond to my questions in the chat box and I am able to share student work without anyone knowing whose work it is.

One particular thing that has been happening is that whenever I share student work, no one can tell whose work we are referencing. When I ask students to react or respond to another student’s thinking, my students have been saying, “He … “ with the assumption that the person  we are talking about is a male. This is something I hadn’t noticed before. Not that it hasn’t been present, but just that I didn’t recognize it. This has made me wonder whether there are other assumptions that my students have been making that have been subtle or gone unnoticed by me. I have wondered about whether or not this behavior is having an effect on which kids participate and which kids are acknowledged as having credible ideas. I don’t know if I should be surprised by the original example or whether this is significant. Does this have any effect on the females in the class? My observation certainly has me thinking more about what equity looks like when students are anonymous. This has opened up new questions about my teaching practices. I am curious about instructional moves that may help achieve a more inclusive classroom, where more students are invited into the discussion. What else can I do to help students feel more welcome and motivated to take agency of their learning?

Here are two examples of equity/status issues that persist during discussions in my classroom: a) Once someone has been designated as the “smart kid” and I show their work, the class will often assume that the student involved is correct in their thinking without evaluating them with a skeptical eye,  b) On the other hand, when I try to use the work of someone who has lower social/mathematical status, other students often dismiss their solutions or ideas as incorrect.

Above are some examples of a task that we did in class this week.  Without knowing anything about the person whose work was being presented, my kids were able to focus only on the arguments that were being made.  I asked them to vote which pictures represented ¼ of a triangle.  Although it is difficult to get every student to speak, I was able to use many of my student’s ideas and pull from a wide variety. Our focus was on the mathematical thinking and not on the particular contributor.  I’ll be thinking very hard about how I can present work in a way that the social and math ability of each particular student is ignored as much as possible.

Our school has been in distance learning for the entire school year, so many of the kids have never met each other.  One consequence that is possibly positive is that other status issues that would arise in a normal classroom (social/ability) don’t seem to be as prevalent.  Also, since I am only listening and not having to monitor a classroom full of students, my ear has become much more sensitive to what students are saying, and I am not relying on my eyes as much.  It has been very rewarding; I see what kinds of biases I myself may be developing over the school year. As my research continues this spring I look forward to noticing and wondering more about things that I didn’t recognize in the past.

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