Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Questions Worth Asking; Answers Worth Hearing

As teachers, we ask questions constantly. “Why didn’t you participate in class?” “What’s ¼ + ½?” “Who saves Scout and Jem from Bob Ewell?”  The questions go on and on, all day, all week, all year.

We know from our teacher-training that wait time is hugely important. The great Bob Marzano has said so, and who are we to question him? (Actually, we have every right to question him, and all the rest of our gurus, but that’s a topic for another day.) We need to give students ample time to process our questions and formulate their responses, and our sense of time is often very different from theirs. Every teacher I know has had training in this concept, but very few teachers seem to get much professional development on any other aspect of questioning, which is really shocking.

Questioning is the heart and soul of what we do. Questioning is teaching, and has been, all the way back to Socrates, who never did anything but ask questions. One could argue that in online schools, questioning is the primary “value add” that the teacher brings to the equation. After all, the core curriculum is already written, and the system “teaches” it to students without much direct involvement from us. Sure, we need to develop supplemental lessons, remediation lessons, and so on. But our most consistent and meaningful contributions to learning are the questions we ask our students, whether we ask those questions in a classroom, over email, by text-message, or on the phone.

The time we reserve for instruction is at a premium—for teachers as well as for students. We want to make sure that time spent is time well spent—for all of us. So the question for us to ponder, as educators, is: are the questions we’re asking students really questions worth asking? Why are we asking them? What are we hoping to get from them?

Looking back on my own classroom practice, I realize that a lot of the questions I asked were simply confirmation questions. I taught them X; I wanted to see if they learned X; so I asked them X; and they told me X. I call that a “confirmation question.” because I wasn’t really using it as formative assessment to learn anything new or interesting about student thinking. In fact, if I was looking for X and I got Z instead, I often said something like, “not quite,” and moved on to another student until I got my X.

Crazy! The most interesting data in the room was that Z….or that Q, or whatever wrong answer I was getting. And I passed right by them, surfing over all the wrong answers until I got the answer I wanted…which was the one piece of information I already knew.

Are we asking questions to get the answer we’re hoping for—confirming what good teachers we are? Or are we asking questions to uncover misconceptions or procedural errors so that we can help students learn?  If it’s the latter, then we should be crafting our questions in much more interesting ways, to deliberately uncover goofy or mistaken thinking. Our “aha” moments as teachers shouldn’t come from the boring right answers; they should come from the interesting wrong answers. Even simple, fact-based questions can reveal so much about what students are thinking, if we set them up properly. Elizabeth Green talks about this at length in Building a Better Teacher.

And what about the questions that we don’t know the right answers to, because each student will have a unique and different response? Those are beautiful, wonderful questions—and as a profession, we don’t ask nearly enough of them. I’m thinking of questions like:

  • What makes you think that’s true?
  • Why do you think that’s important?
  • How did you figure it out?
  • How else might you have been able to do that?
  • What if I changed this one little fact? How would that change your answer?

These are the questions that give us insight into students’ minds, and help us see not only what they’re doing, but why they’re doing it. They are questions that focus on process: thinking process, problem-solving process, argumentation structure. They are questions that help students think about their own thinking, which is such a critical part of growth and maturity.

Yes, they take a long time. When we ask questions like these, we have to think, too, because there is no one, pre-ordained, correct answer that we can check off somewhere. We have to consider each response, sometimes probe for further information, reflect on what it all tells us about the student, and then take action on whatever insights we glean. But ultimately, that analysis, reflection, and action is exactly what requires us to be in the room with students, even if the room is an interactive whiteboard (or an asynchronous discussion thread).

Socrates had nothing but a patch of grass, a tree for shade, and a set of infuriating questions. How much more do we really need?

Monday, October 8, 2018

All Learning Time is Not Created Equal


When I talk about something like engaging math students in problem-solving discourse, somebody always says, “But what about time on task?” When I write something about argumentation using textual evidence, when I do presentations on growth mindset—really, no matter what the topic might be, somebody always want to talk about time-on-task. If students simply spent more time engaged in their work, they would learn more. Is that not so?

Well…it is and it isn’t. As David Berliner says, “What is wanted is a measure of time-on-the-right-tasks” (The Nature of Time in Schools, 1990, p. 18). All instructional time is not created equal, and, as it turns out, all “engaged” time may not be the same, either.

In a chapter from Perspectives on Instructional Time (Fisher and Berliner, eds., 1985), Linda Anderson describes a team observing eight different 1st-grade classrooms. The students appear to be extremely diligent and well-behaved, doing exercises in their math and reading workbooks, completing their work in the allotted time, and being kind and polite to each other and to the teacher. When asked questions about the work they’ve just done, though, a large number of the students don’t have a clue what any of it means. “I didn’t understand that, but I got it finished,” one boy says (p. 195).

His response appears to be typical. The same group of researchers observes a very happy set of students completing a fill-in-the-blank vocabulary activity, in which every blank is exactly the length of the word needed to fill it. Students had earlier learned how to complete this kind of activity without needing to learn any of the academic content. The procedure became the content. Completing the worksheet was the actual learning objective, regardless of what the teacher thought was going on. Time-on-task? Absolutely. Time-spent-learning? Not so much.

One definition of student engagement, drawn from six years of classroom observation as part of the Beginning Teacher Evaluation Study, is known as “Academic Learning Time,” or ALT (Fisher, et al., 1978). ALT is the amount of time during which students are actively and productively engaged in real learning. As Berliner (1990) defines it, ALT is “that part of allocated time…in which a student is engaged successfully in the activities or with the materials to which he or she is exposed, an in which those activities and materials are related to educational outcomes that are valued” (p.5).

Let’s slow down and look at some of the key words in his definition.

Engaged: The researchers in the BTTS study found that teachers who were more interactive in their teaching styles, who engaged students in academic discourse throughout instruction and skills practice, helped students perform at higher levels in both math and reading. Students whose skill practice was silent, isolated, and tied to a workbook showed slower progress and slighter academic gains. Berliner talks about the value of pacing a lesson briskly, to keep the discourse lively and the instructional movement exciting. It’s interesting how many teachers take the opposite approach, slowing things down to make sure everyone understands every word. I can’t help wondering if, at a certain point, understanding starts going down as boredom increases.

Successfully: Berliner and others who write about ALT stress that individual student success with the work must be a part of the equation—and they insist on very high rates of success; 70% or even 80% at a minimum. To them, this is a crucial difference between simply being on-task and being truly engaged in learning. After all, if students can’t demonstrate their learning, we can’t really say their time-on-task was spent doing any learning.

Related to Educational Outcomes: This touches back to our anecdote about the vocabulary worksheet. “Time-on-the-right-task” requires that student work be aligned with the topics and the rigor-level indicated in the teacher’s learning objectives and the related state standards. This might seem like a no-brainer, but there’s a difference between being aligned to a general topic and being aligned to a specific learning objective or standard.

That Are Valued: And, as the final cherry on top of the ALT sundae, we need to make sure that the objectives set by the teacher and the work being asked of students is valuable, meaningful, and relevant to both the school and the student. Worksheets and practice sets might be valuable and meaningful tasks for students…or they might not be. If it’s just busy-work, we may get compliant and well-behaved students, but we likely won’t get genuinely engaged learning.

Clearly, the more of our instructional time that students spend in ALT, the more they will learn. But how much of our class time do students really spend in ALT? Nationwide, the answer is pretty grim. Researchers have found that some schools dedicate as little as 50% of their Allocated (or scheduled) Time to instruction at all (after accounting for administrative tasks and classroom management issues), and that real engagement rates within that instructional time can range from 50% to 90%, depending on the skills of the teacher (Hollowood, Salisbury, Rainforth & Palomboro, 1995). At the low end, with students spending half of their class time in any kind of instruction, and half of that time in any kind of meaningful work, this means there are students who are spending no more than 25% of their time actively learning. One wonders what percentage of that time is spent at high levels of success.

This is why the “Aha Moment” is so important. That moment of connection and realization is a great signal to us that a student isn’t just “doing it,” but is actually “getting it.” if we think about those moments where we saw a light bulb come on for a student, it’s pretty clear (at least in my experience) that those moments come in the midst of challenging, productive work that the student is doing. They don’t often come in the middle of a lecture, and they don’t often come at Problem #11 in a practice set. They come when we’re pushing up against the outer edge of a student’s Zone of Proximal Development, challenging them to go deeper and further than they’ve gone before. They come after several failed or botched attempts, when the pieces finally fall into place, and the details fit together to reveal the big picture and big idea that the student hadn’t seen before.

Those “Aha Moments” are the brass ring. They’re what we ride the carousel for, year after year. They’re why our students are on the ride, too, even if they don’t realize it. They’ll never grab that brass ring if they don’t stretch out their arms and reach further than feels comfortable—further than they think they can reach. But once they’ve done it—once they learn what they can do—there’s often no stopping them.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Reaching for the Peak

When I was a young theater student, my greatest moment of learning came not from a book or from a lecture, or even from watching a performance, but from being left on my own to work with an actress on her monologue, and then having the director put the actress through an exercise that completely changed (and improved) her performance. When I asked the director why he hadn’t just told me to run the exercise that he wanted in the first place, he said, “I could have, but then neither of you would have learned anything, would you?”

There is a difference between telling and teaching, and the difference lies not in what the teacher does, but in what the student does. The student learns. That’s different from merely hearing, or even repeating. You are not simply witness to something, like the audience at a play; you have to participate in and be changed by the event. (Can you be changed by a play or a movie? Sure. Maybe that’s the difference between entertainment and real art.)

Yes--to learn is to be changed. Maybe it’s your content knowledge or your ideas about the world that change. Maybe it’s a particular skill that you develop or improve. A learning experience is a workout; it stretches the muscles and leaves you stronger or more limber. It works upon you and leaves its mark on you. And if it doesn’t, then it wasn’t really a learning experience. It was just a thing you witnessed, a thing that happened in your presence—perhaps entertaining, perhaps boring, but either way not effective (in that I had no actual effect).

As a teacher, how do you know you’ve had an effect on students? How do you know your lesson has been a true learning experience?  Well, you can do what we’ve all been told to do: assess, assess, assess. Assess formatively. Assess summatively. Assess informally, with periodic check-ins. Assess formally, with quizzes and checks. Assess without grading, because you want to diagnose, not punish. No—assess with grades, always, because otherwise students won’t take the activity seriously (yes, we do a great of confusing ourselves).

Assessment of skill or content knowledge is certainly important, but there’s something else we need to be on the lookout for—and we need to be watching for it while we’re teaching. I’m talking here about that moment of revelation and comprehension—that moment when the pieces all fit together inside the student’s head and reveal something big, conceptual, and important—that moment when it all makes sense. I call it the AHA moment, and I mentioned it briefly in an earlier blog post. I said it was the brass ring we all reach for, because it’s a sign that something is actually changing inside the student—that a new idea is forming, or a change of perspective is happening. It’s a physical thing, and we’ve all felt it—we’ve all felt that moment where something just shifts and changes, and we suddenly see things differently. It’s thrilling. It’s addictive. If our students had more of those moments, they’d show up for every class we scheduled, every day.

In their new book, The Power of Moments, Chip and Dan Heath talk about what makes certain moments memorable. They talk about how we tend to remember only the peak experiences and the end or transition points, while other, more mundane details fade from memory. They talk about how peak experiences usually involve four things:

  1.       ELEVATION—a sparking of joy, surprise, or delight
  2.       INSIGHT—a moment of revelation or changed perspective (that AHA moment)
  3.       PRIDE—a sense of accomplishment or courage in the face of challenge
  4.      CONNECTION—a feeling of being part of something meaningful

Riding Space Mountain can be a peak experience, remembered long after a hundred other details of a trip to Disneyland fade.  Winning a race you didn’t think you had a chance of winning could be a peak moment. Playing a difficult piece at a piano recital could be a peak moment. I’m sure you could easily identify several peak moments in your life—moments when you stretched yourself, learned something about yourself, felt real pride in yourself. None of those moments happened because somebody told us something or showed us something. Maybe the telling and showing helped us prepare for those moments, but the moments themselves only happened because of what we did.

What are the moments you want your students to remember, a year from now? What do you hope they will look back on with happiness and pride? What AHAs do want them to discover?

The Importance of Shutting Up

Teachers like to talk. I was a teacher, and while I think of myself as an introvert at heart….I have to admit, I like to talk. My parents were teachers. My wife was a teacher. Talkers, all.

This shouldn’t be surprising. We know a lot of stuff, we’re passionate about the things we know, and we like to share. We love to share. My wife and I drive our friends crazy with constant book recommendations because OH MY GOD YOU HAVEN’T READ THIS YET? YOU HAVE TO READ THIS! In fact, my wife went through such painful book-talk withdrawal when she stopped teaching that she started a podcast, ten years ago, to talk about her favorite classic novels.

And me…well, you know what I do.

When we truly love the things we teach, there is something beautiful and wonderful in the act of sharing. A treasure is more valuable when it is shared and appreciated. And there is a long and distinguished history to this aspect of teaching: the passing-down of law or information goes back at least to Moses, if not further. Here, the teacher holds the gift of truth and gives it to the students.

But there is another, equally ancient aspect of teaching that we need to remember: not the dissemination of information, the giving of gifts, but the asking of questions and prodding of students to discover answers for themselves. This goes all the way back to Socrates, if not further. Here, the teacher pokes and prods and questions and re-questions, to challenge every assumption the student has, and make the student think their way past biases, misconceptions, and errors, to find the truth.

Both aspects are important and real; both aspects are things we’re taught to value. But the first one takes our attention so much of the time that we often forget to value the second one.

If we believe that learning involves more than hearing and repeating—that it requires some thinking, some processing, and some synthesis of ideas—then we need to provide some time and space for that to happen. We need to reduce our own noise and allow enough quiet space for students to speak.

If we believe that students are not empty vessels, waiting to be filled—that they bring rich lives and interesting brains to school—then we have to make sure we leave some space for students to talk to each other, and to us. And create a culture where they expect and want that to happen.

If we believe that teachers should be learners, and that learners can be teachers, then we need to rein ourselves in, from time to time, and do more listening than talking. It’s a scary thing, sometimes, but it matters.

If we believe that formative assessment requires us to get inside students’ brains and see not only what they’re thinking, but how they’re thinking, then we need to let them do more than answer a question. We need to let them talk, and talk, and talk—to explain their approaches and justify their solutions.

A great athletic coach knows when to demonstrate, when to watch performance, and when to step in with feedback or a minor adjustment. They spend a lot more time watching than talking, because they know that their performance isn’t what matters; it’s the players that have to play the game.

Most of our students come to us thinking that their job is to be the audience. We need to let them know that their job is to play the game.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Pesach 2018

It's hard to stand up against Pharaoh and demand your physical and spiritual freedom. But we tell the story every year, because it can be done and it must be done.
It's hard to pack up your things and leave a place where you have been abused and despised. It's hard to remember that you are valuable and important, when all your live you've been told you're not. But we tell the story every year, because it can be done and it must be done.
It's hard to cross the opened Red Sea and leave slavery behind, knowing that when the waters close behind you, you can never go back. It's hard to embrace real freedom, when all you're life you've been dependent on authority figures telling you what to do and what to believe--and rewarding your obedience with food, shelter, and protection. It's hard to take full ownership of your life, your beliefs, and your decisions, and know that, whatever comes, it's all on you. But we tell the story every year, because it can be done and it must be done.
May we all be brave enough in the coming year to tell off our personal Pharaohs, get out of whatever situations or mindsets we have enslaved ourselves to, and wander through whatever wilderness is required to get us to our promised lands.
Pass through it, pass under it, or Passover it. Let's just keep moving.