Teaching Kids to Stop Saying, “Oh, That’s Easy” is Easier Said Than Done!

Kit Golan

by | 07.2.19

Kit Golan is a teacher in New York. Follow him on Twitter @MrKitMath.

Some of my middle-school students love math and confidently tackle every challenge problem. But some of the kids who are struggling can’t imagine math ever making sense. One day I heard a student mention, ‘”If I hear somebody say, ‘Oh, that’s easy,’ about something I don’t think is easy, I just kind of give up.” Hearing that, and having read educator Tracy J. Zager’s work around the negative effect of that phrase in math classrooms, I decided to discuss it with my students.

We talked about what would happen if someone spoke to us in a language we were trying to learn: We might need to hear it again, slower, before we could understand. Hearing, “That’s easy,” wouldn’t help. That example helped them make the connection between one student saying, “That’s easy,” about a math problem and another student feeling shut down.

We brainstormed other ways to say what they meant – “I’ve seen a problem like this before,” or “I know how to solve this one” – and I hoped they would buy into the idea of using phrases like those instead. Some did, and now I hear them say, “Oh, I recognize that problem.” But others are still falling back on, “Oh, that’s easy.”

And that’s okay. In middle school, students are figuring out who they are and how they’re perceived, and language can play a big part in that. Sometimes students feel like they need to say something is easy for them when it’s not. Saying, “It’s easy,” is like a cover for them, and a more mindful phrase wouldn’t provide that cover. Other students are resistant to dropping terms like “that’s easy” and “that’s obvious” because they see how the math we’re learning builds on elementary school math, and they think everyone should know it “by now.”

I’ve learned that each of my students is shaped by their own experiences. They can’t all buy into a language shift at once, and they’re learning to try it out at their own pace.

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