Self-Awareness, Identity, and Thinking critically-Social Emotional Learning in the Mathematics Classroom: Part Three

This post was “supposed” to be published a little over a month ago…and I’ll get to that reason, which pertains to the conclusion of these series of posts a bit further. However, to move things ahead, this is the final post, of my three-part serious debrief and exploration, around the new Social-Emotional Learning strand in the Ontario 1-8 Math Curriculum 2020.

Part 1 focused upon: Emotions, Stress, and Coping Strategies.

Part 2 unpacked: Building healthy relationships, Effective communication, and Maintaining motivation and perseverance.

This final post, Part 3, will dive into: Self Awareness and Sense of Identity, and Critical and Creative Thinking.

So for a quick recap. This post will unpack the next two categories that have been set out in the new SEL (Social Emotional Learning) has been adapted into the new (2020) Ontario Math Curriculum for 1-8.

The entire six skill categories within the SEL Mathematics strand are:

  • Identify and Manage Emotions
  • Recognize sources of stress and cope with challenges
  • Maintain positive motivation and perseverance
  • Build Relationships and communicate effectively
  • Develop Self-Awareness and Sense of Identity
  • Think critically and creativity

Now on to; Maintaining positive motivation and perseverance and Building relationships and communicating effectively.

We don’t learn from experiences, we learn from reflecting on the experience

John Dewey

Developing Self-Awareness and Sense of Identity

It may be an interesting argument that humans were not created or built to know math, but rather figure out problems involving math. What I mean by this is math foundations, whether it be basic math facts or formulas and algorithms, can be extremely, and most times are; completely objective. Black and White. Right and Wrong. Pass and Fail. Two very rigid opposing outcomes that can make a student’s experience and/or feeling around math almost identical. In math I am: Smart or Dumb. Good or Bad. Love it or Hate it. I connect with this idea and my personal teaching experiences the most when investigating Self-Awareness and Self Identity when it comes to a student’s view, and how to model and foster a sense of ownership in their math learning from a teachers’ view.

As teachers, we always want the students to be their best selves, work to their full potential, and have belief in their abilities to build that self-intrinsic motivation to be a lifelong learner. We can give them all the tools, modelling, feedback, and support needed, but this is an area where it is them, and only them, that need to take the next steps. And they are hard steps to take, even for adults. Reflecting on yourself, your past challenges, and who you are. Zollman breaks these down into three main parts; a hope-for self, a feared self, and an expected self. Guess which “self,” math typically lands into: Feared self. Feared that they [students] have made mistakes before. Feared that they get the wrong answer on a test. Feared that they are stuck and don’t know what to do. We see it all the time in math. Students not openly willing to take risks. Not wanting to try and learn from mistakes. Not wanting to revisit a skill and move on.

It’s within the reflection process that students begin to change and alter their feelings and emotions of what they can and cannot do. This reflection fosters students to properly and authentically develop their own self-awareness of their abilities, make and set goals, and know what works for them and what hasn’t in the past. This reflection also supports students into creating and establishing their sense of identify to who they are as a learner. What supports they need, how they see themselves as mathematicians, and how they can overcome problems and struggles with more independence.

Being self-aware is not the absense of mistakes, but the ability to learn and correct them.

Daniel Chidiac

When we think of developing and encouraging a students self-regulation, self-efficacy, and metacognition in math, we ultimately want to foster their confidence, enhanced motivation, and also student success.

To support this outcome in your math classrooms, there are many areas that teachers’ can lean into, on a daily basis, to encourage and guide a feared self into a more hope-for self and even an expected self. Facilitating choice into your math lessons. Offering parallel tasks, choice boards, and the inclusion of open ended questions allows students to natural reflect on which choice they want to make, allow for shared thoughts and ideas on various strategies, and also narrow down an area of strength for a student to feel and share independent success. Along with this, teacher modeling and acceptance of how and why to select various tools to solve a problem, which strategies to use, why, and when, connecting material to similar taught skills. Students’ not have much time to reflect often these days, as their days are typically filled with busy and high cognitive distractions and stimuli through the day. Video games, social media, structured and scheduled play dates, events, sports and the list goes on. Kids don’t have a lot of down time, and when they do, they are more agitated and stressed on “not having anything to do.” I wrote a post a while back about the importance of being bored. This post fits well here when looking and investigating why this portion of the strand is introduced into the curriculum. This would be natural reflection time, but with the increase of digital and ongoing brain stimuli, teachers need to pay even more attention in this area now. Model how to reflect, why to reflect, and provide time and space for each student to do so. Another area which has been a very pendulum swinging debate within the past decade, has been the introduction to more modeled math, which would be known more commonly as the “new math,” “common core,” or even “process based learning.” This teaching style promotes the above; however, takes time, dedication, and investment to ensure foundation skills (math facts, mental math, estimation etc.) is not skipped or taken away. The model of the new curriculum provides a more connected approach to learning math, where units are not necessarily taught online within those strands. It promotes the ongoing spiral throughout the year to continue building on these foundational skills. This is set up so teachers can effectively work through fostering self-identity of a students math abilities in all areas, at multiple entry points, and assessment potential throughout the year.

The last and most important portion, in my view, to supporting and guiding students toward a more positive self-identify and awareness in their math learning is teacher and student provided feedback. The more assessment of learning, with formative and next step feedback, that can occur, the more support and guidance the students have to; try again, learn from mistakes, and continue to change their math perception for them as learners. This makes their math learning more personalized and “subjective” to them as they grow, take more risks, and and develop required new skills. With feedback, also comes the feedback from them. Allowing space and time for students to reflect either privately or publicly on their learning takes time and effort. Offering student blogs, reflection pages on tests, or an “exit ticket,” that allows them to share with the teacher, identify their own feelings and goals, and also take ownership of them, as learners, can be highly valuable. Start small, build on it, and the students attitudes and personal view on themselves as learners will change over time.

Too often we give children the answers to remember rather than problems to solve

Roger Lewin

Thinking Critically and Creatively

When I was searching for a quote to capture the essence of this final portion, there were a multitude of quotes around critical and creative thinking in all aspects of life, skills, and careers. The one thing I take away from this, and with all my work over the past several years is that our students today will not be requiring the same skills in which we needed or our grandparents required. Yet, we still focus on developing minds of future leaders the same way. Teachers have a lot to unpack when delivering a curriculum. Teachers have to plan timing to ensure all skills and strands are met and exposure is substantial enough to prepare for next grades, have to assess skills to provide feedback, and personalize experiences to successfully respond to the needs of individual students at multiple levels and entry points. What sometimes gets a lack of focus, is the promotion of thinking. When teaching mathematics, teachers should also spend time on teaching thinking. Sounds cumbersome, but it’s already there, built in, when you change an approach, model thinking aloud, and/or allow for the uncomfortable time in between. Of course teachers want their students to do well and succeed, and some students will struggle more than others. Teachers care how their students do, good teachers guide students to succeed, and even better teachers challenge students’ success to promote more thinking opportunities. It’s not a reflection on the efficacy of the teacher, but rather a journey of growth for each student. I’ve worked on this for many years, and I have dedicated time and my own personal perseverance as a teacher in this aspect, as I have written about in past blogs, especially when developing and fostering problem solving skills. In brief, #dontstealthestruggle, is and continues to big a big part of my teaching journey along with my students each day. I try to speak less, and allow the students to speak more. Not every student will be comfortable right away, but learning to be uncomfortable, is the true root of how to think critically and creatively.

Deep learning contrasts with surface learning, which focuses on facts and basic procedures (Campbell & Cabrerra, 2104). Teachers can address higher-level thinking skills through deep learning to allow students to make connections and integrate knowledge. A study conducted in 2003, (Hattie) found that expert math teachers focus 72 percent of instruction on deep learning, while non-expert teachers’ focus was the opposite (Irvine 2021). When teachers begin to “teach” deep learning, students are more able to use this knowledge and learning to new or unfamiliar situations with more independence and confidence.

When we think of the difference between critical thinking and creative thinking, we think of different thinking strategies that may not be within the anticipated responses. This type of thinking is very individual and can often be seen by teachers as more subjective. Not a skill that will naturally come to students, especially those with more rote style of understanding. However, this does not mean that any creative thinking exposure will be lost. There are three main ways teachers and students can look at thinking creatively: flexibility, originality, and elaboration (Lev-Zamir & Leikin, 2013). When students can work on creating their own solutions to problems, or finding a different strategy to solve a problem; they are being and displaying flexibility in their thinking. Additionally, when they share, generate, discover facts, or suggest rare or insightful solutions to a problem, they are displaying originality in their thinking. Finally generalizing ideas around math concepts, and connecting big ideas together, they are elaborating on their learning.

Promoting creative thinking in the classroom can occur in various forms. Providing opportunities to break up a question or skill into parts, to unpack what’s expected and change the steps to arrive at a similar solution, posing “What If” questions during instruction to prompt other ways to face a problem. This could include; what if I changed the lengths of the sides, what if I added instead of multiplied first, or what if we only grouped multiples of three instead of multiples of nine etc.) This provides a task, where students have to “think outside the box”, so to speak. Other ways to incorporate more creative thinking into lessons are: See-Notice-Wonder activities (no wrong answers, as long as you support your response), using shapes to build imaginative art, and “never-ending” problems, (problems that teachers can never anticipate where the answer may lead, but the students direct the thinking and learning, in forms of an inquiry-based approach.

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.

Benjamin Franklin

So now to the part that hindered me in getting this post out earlier. Assessment. After doing a deep dive into all six components of the Social-Emotional Strand within the new Ontario Math Curriculum, 2020, it’s work and purpose to being laid out with so much emphasis is apparent. Mathematical learning is not just knowing the right answer, it’s all about a journey of discovery to work through problems, find possible solutions, and building a healthy and positive mindsets about learning and discovering mathematical connections.

And here’s where I stopped; Assessment.

As this is a new “strand” in the curriculum, there is still much work to do be done in how to assess a child’s growth in these areas. A sliding scale of learning, from one topic to another, with varying degrees of growth, goals, and benchmarks. I have more questions than answers. Where to start? What is grade appropriate? How to document and pinpoint moments of growth authentically? Formative feedback and provided examples, comments, and teacher-student conferencing help. As a teacher, this inevitably should be included in all subjects, not just math. I see the importance. I stand by its purpose and potential. I’ve yet to have more substance to monitor, share, and evaluate in a real-world context. I’m excited to put a more concerted effort in these components in my classes and those in which I support through coaching and mentoring. I’ve put time into looking and researching possible methods of growth assessment, and I’ve yet to find one that sits well for both, students, teachers, and parents. I’ve yet to see and find out what that could potential look like, feel like, and where it leads to moving up through the grades.

So here is where I currently land.

The ministry says: ” In all grades of the mathematics program, the learning related to this strand takes place in the context of learning related to all other strands, and it should be assessed and evaluated within these contexts.”

Great.. by how? Here’s another overview of my thoughts from “The Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning”, a publication from ETFO (Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario)

The ministry provides a visual organizer of the break up of components and required expectations. Take a look here. It’s pretty clear and provides a “so students can” direct expectation. Here’s what I see, notice, and wonder. I see clear examples of why and how these components are important. I notice that they are the exact same expectations in each grade. I wonder what exemplars of “assessment” and “evaluating” on these components and as a “strand” will look like in the future as more teachers also revisit the components in the ways and methods they teach a, organise, and plan their lessons. What I appreciate is the focus on what the teacher can do to foster all these important concepts around social-emotional learning their classrooms.

I’m looking forward to more feedback and examples of this strand in action. I’ll continue to add and share when I come across anything supporting. I also always encourage any of my readers to also reach out and do the same, to your peers, colleagues, and administrations to continue to talk, collaborate, and build on how we, can instill a love of mathematics for our current students, now and into the future.

Stay tuned!

Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all



Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. Henry Holt and Co.

Bobis, J., Anderson, J., Martin, A., & Way, J. (2011). A Model for mathematics instruction to enhance student motivation and engagement. In DJ Brahier & W.R. Speer (Eds.), Motivation and disposition: Pathways to learning mathematics. NCTM 73rd yearbook (pp. 31-42). National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Campbell, C.M., & Cabrera, A.F. (2014). Making the mark: Are grades and deep learning related? Research in Higher Education, 55, 474-507.

Dweck, C.S. (1999) Self-Theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Psychology Press.

Eccles, J.S. (2005) Subjective task value and the Eccles et al. model of achievement-related choices. In A.J. Elliot & C.S. Dweck (Eds.), Handbook of competence and motivation (pp. 105-121.) Guilford Press.

Irvine, J. (2020)The New Social Emotional Learning Strand in Elementary Mathematics: Part 1., Ontario Mathematics Gazette, December 2020 Ontario Association for Mathematics Education

Irvine, J. (2020)The New Social Emotional Learning Strand in Elementary Mathematics: Part 2., Ontario Mathematics Gazette, December 2021 Ontario Association for Mathematics Education

Lev-Zamir, H., & Leikin, R. (2013). Saying versus doing: Teachers’ conceptions of creativity in elementary mathematics learning. ZDM Mathematics Education, 45, 295-308.

Liljedahl, P. (2018) Building thinking classrooms. I A. Kajander, J. Holm, & E.J. Chernoff (Eds.)

Marzano, R.J., & Kendall, J.S. (2007). The new taxonomy of educational objectives (2nd ed.). Corwin Press

Salyers, F.S. (2017). Social-emotional intelligence is missing from school. Here’s why it matters. Education Week Teacher.

Zollman, A. , Smith M.C., & Reisdorf, P. (2011). Identity development: Critical component for learning in mathematics. In D.J. Brahier & W.R. Speer (Eds.), Motivation and disposition: Pathways to learning mathematics. NCTM 73rd yearbook (pp.43-53). National Council of Teacher of Mathematics.


  1. A perfect way to end the year, and an amazing three-part blog series! One question that jumped out at me at the end is, WHY do we NEED to assess SEL? Could we argue that giving grades in general is part of what adds to the stress and self-fulfilling prophecy of the identity of Good vs Bad in ____(enter subject here)?
    Just something I’m thinking about right now and continue to go back and forth with in my mind. I recently heard about a school in Toronto that has eliminated grades, even in Middle School….I’m intrigued!!


  2. Thanks Melissa for your feedback! I too, struggled with the “assessment” piece, as I was so confused and caught up on SEL being an actual STRAND in the new math curriculum. I agree it’s important, SO important, but curious to what lead them to make it a strand to be assessed….the new math mark is now only ONE mark, and as well…I’d be interested as well to dabble into a no grading system…maybe some summer reading?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s