Early childhood mathematics development is finally getting the attention it deserves. As researchers and educators understand more about how young children learn math, schools are implementing curricula that extend far beyond the 58 seconds of rote counting that had been casually sprinkled throughout traditional preschool days. We now know that early number sense is crucial for later, more advanced math and that developing skills such as subitizing strengthens students’ abilities to think flexibly and truly understand the concept of quantity. As a result, math practices have become far more robust, focusing as much on the processes of student thinking as on the accuracy of the results.
One of my favorite math games for making student thinking visible and developing the mathematical practice of constructing a viable argument is called “Which one doesn’t belong?”, originally created as a children’s picture book by Christopher Danielson. The book contains sets of pictures that prompt students to notice the properties of shapes and then provide justification for their observations about which one doesn’t belong with the others. The best part about the activity is that there is no one “right” answer. There are many ways that one can justify their answer, allowing students to hear different perspectives and consider new ways of thinking. With puzzles that extend far beyond shapes, the activity has become wildly popular. People across academic disciplines regularly share new ideas and thinking on social media through #WODB. It is amazing to see just how creative people are in compiling a group for comparison, and equally remarkable to witness how children of all ages can identify patterns and present arguments utilizing precise vocabulary.
I love what this activity does to develop critical thinking and communication skills. So, I struggle with the lingering feeling of unease that I have maintained since the very first time I watched a teacher facilitate the activity with a group of young students. It’s the language. “Which one doesn’t belong?” is difficult to accept when looking out at a classroom full of children that are moment-by-moment authoring their identities with the language we use. My unease became further strengthened as I witnessed a group of Pre-K students looking at a “Which one doesn’t belong” poster, and I found myself sympathizing with the one African American child in the group listening to someone say “the black one doesn’t belong because it isn’t white”.
While the shapes presented for comparison in this activity are not people, the process of identifying what is the same and different transfers easily in young minds that are building background knowledge and shaping ideas about how the world works. As a natural process for keeping up with the abundance of information we face every day, our brains rely on what we’ve experienced or what we have come to believe is true to make decisions about new situations. Also, natural is the desire to associate with people like us. So with that in mind I wonder, are we inadvertently promoting the identification of and, more disturbingly, exclusion of things that are different by asking for what doesn’t “belong”?
I’ve been thinking about what else we could ask students that would still promote critical thinking, pattern recognition, and communication skills. If we asked, “What can you find that is the same?”, students would be able to acknowledge at least one basic way that all four pictures are related before beginning to focus on their differences. They are all shapes. Or we might ask, “Which one is different?”, because it gives us the opportunity to talk about how everyone is different, and different is not bad. Neither of these questions is quite as succinct as “Which one doesn’t belong?”, but I’d like us to consider them and others anyway.
As educators, we work carefully to integrate academic and social-emotional learning, because research shows that they cannot be separated. In order to learn, students must feel safe and connected to their learning community. Knowing that words matter in how we shape identity and view others, educators must be mindful of the questions they ask and the responses they might elicit. So, how can we adjust this activity to be sensitive to the girl, the student of color, the non-athletic boy, or __________, who will hear a description of themselves when the class is asked to describe which one doesn’t belong?
This post is not a critique of any individual, idea, or practice. It is an attempt to build awareness and prompt discussion about how we can intentionally use language to develop flexible math thinking and relational thinking. I realize that after reading this, some people will naturally want to step back from the “Which one doesn’t belong?” activity out of fear or discomfort. Please don’t. Lean into that discomfort and be brave. This is what being a reflective practitioner is all about.