Great teachers are always seeking to make their classrooms as rigorous as possible. Over the next three days, I’ll be sharing thoughts about three ‘common opportunities’ –things I see in place when I observe great classrooms that can often make a big difference—quickly—in good ones.
Common Opportunity #1: Improve the rigor of your classrooms by defining the means of participation you want, every time you ask a question.
Lots of times I’ll see a teacher ask a question and not specify to her students how she wants them to answer. Is this a raise-your-hands question? A call-and-response? A just-speak-aloud if you think you have it? A follow-up to the kid who just spoke? Over time this lack of clarity usually devolves into a situation of benign calling out. Kids interested in answering or trying to please the teacher call out answers.
This isn’t wrong on their part because the teacher hasn’t asked them not to, but their eagerness is definitely non-productive. When you don’t control the means of participation students use, you can’t use Wait Time for example, as Maggie Johnson does in this clip. Teachers like Maggie have built a system where kids know how they are expected to participate and this lets them manage time so students have time to think and develop their answers when necessary. This ensures that kids who like to take their time and like to think a little more slowly—which isn’t necessarily worse—also get to participate.
But there are more difficulties to a classroom where the expected means of participation is unclear.
You also can’t cold call or direct a question to a specific student, say. So participation is inherently asymmetrical—some kids participating constantly; others not at all—and you have no way to remedy it. By the time you say, “Asha, what do you think?” someone has already answered.
Finally, it’s hard to ask a follow up question in which you ask one student to develop another’s (or ever their own) idea as Art Worrell does here. You can’t follow-up like this when the original answer wasn’t clear. If three kids are calling out answers at once you can’t say: “Do you agree, Jasmine?” Or “Can you develop that, Jasmine?” when it’s not clear which answer you meant and whether Jasmine heard it.
In other words, to be able to do right by all students, teachers have to make it clear how they expect students to participate and then hold them to it.
That could mean making raised hands always the expectation or, if that’s too structured for you, making it the expectation that if you say “Hands” first before a question it means students must raise their hands and if you say “question” it means you will Cold Call. As in “Hands, What was one cause of the causes of the Civil War? Andre?” and then “Question: Do you agree, Emma?”
My own personal preference is for the simplicity and consistency of we always raise our hands unless you hear my voice rise upward to show I want call and response like this teacher does.
This allows you to have a much wait time as you want and also to cold call or follow-on if you wish. It also provides you with good data. Two or three kids calling out eagerly can mask 15 or 20 who are stumped. When I scan a room full of hands raised-or not raised—I get data on how well equipped students feel to answer. So again for me the unspoken rule is: hands unless told otherwise.