Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Teacher Response That Changes Everything

Do my responses to student responses throw a wet blanket or fuel on the fire of student thinking? What if there were one thing I could change to nudge the answer a little closer to the second option? I came across that one thing in my reading this week, and as soon as I did, it seemed like such a no-brainer. My husband calls it a BFO--blinding flash of the obvious. 

Here it is: When a student gives an answer I agree with, turn to another student and ask, “What do you think about that?”

That is so not what I do. When a student makes an insightful comment, I’m so excited I want to reinforce that thinking! I jump in and say, “Exactly--just like over here on page 47 where the main character said....” I think I’m modeling how students should interact, but I’ve just removed from their universe the possibility of having that interaction themselves. 

There are times that I turn to another student for his or her response. When? When the first student’s comment has been not what I was looking for--wrong, illogical, or off-base. By this practice I have signaled 2 things: (1) Follow-up questions mean the teacher disagrees and students need to be looking for a different answer, and (2) answers the teacher agrees with don’t really need support. 

What if every time a student gave a response, right or wrong, I asked for support, reasons, or another student’s reaction? What if I equipped students to always ask each other for explanation, support, reasons, and responses? To build their own case and decide with each other, for themselves, when answers were more or less helpful?

I can’t believe I’ve missed this all these years. I’m also wondering if I can really override that initial, knee-jerk reaction to respond ebulliently to student observations that are congruent to mine, and with reserve to student observations that aren’t. I suspect it may be more difficult than it seems. But this simple questioning technique--if I can make it mine--might be the single most significant shift in my teaching I can make this year. 

How can I help myself make it? Maybe the most effective way is to be completely open with students. 
  1. Make an explicit goal for students to carry out effective academic conversations that clarify, support, explain, and deepen understandings.
  2. Tell them that to accomplish this goal, they will need to become more proficient at the skills of both eliciting and contributing that sort of thinking. 
  3. Explain that I will help them with these skills by modeling the types of questions that elicit such thinking. 
  4. Make a commitment to them that I will begin by trying to respond neutrally to all observations by asking another student’s input. 
  5. Confess that this is not my natural response, that I will probably slip-up many times, but that’s what happens when we change habits and learn a new skill. 
  6. Enlist their help for me as I will help them develop these skills together.

I don’t have the book that inspired this blog with me as I write--I’m on the shinkansen on the way back to Tokyo from my vacation--but if you’re interested, it’s Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins. It’s short: 110 pages comprising 7 chapters. The first half of the book is about why and how to create good, unit-structuring, student-motivating, understanding-deepening questions, and the second half is about how to create and sustain a culture of inquiry in your classroom and school that will make the most of those questions. 

One of those chapters had a couple of lists of questions to use as a teacher and to teach students to use. I’ll have to dig the book out of my luggage when I get home and make a copy of those lists. Then I’ll have to dig out Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings by Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford, which I blogged on 3 weeks ago (“Learning to Discuss and Discussing to Learn”). I’ll compare skills and questions and come up with a short list of tools I can give students to start the year. But here is the most important tool--it’s mine to use, and it’s not complicated:

When a student gives an answer I agree with, turn to another student and ask, “What do you think about that?”

If I can remember to use it and learn to use it well, there’s hope for the students to learn new tools, too. If I can’t....Well, let’s not go there. The year hasn’t even started yet.

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