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Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

03.26.18Right is Right Starts With The Way You Ask The Question

It starts with how you ask the question…


We had a great time at our Engaging Academics workshop last week, with a great group of educators from around the country (plus one from the UK) who braved what we all hope was the last Nor’easter of the year to join us.

I had an interesting moment in terms of self-reflection on the second day…. we were coming into the home stretch on Friday and I was anxious about keeping the energy level high in the room. Like I said it had been a great workshop and our attendees were amazing but our workshops are hard.  There’s so much to study in teaching–so much to learn from studying great teachers–that we want to fill every second and there have been times I will acknowledge when I think we just wore people out trying to cover too much ground.

Anyway, I suggested to Erica and Darryl and Colleen that perhaps we should skip a Right is Right practice activity we’d planned.  Happily I was out voted and we went ahead with the activity, which turned out to be one of the best things we did all workshop. Participants jumped into with verve, insight and enthusiasm and as i watched them practice I realized just how valuable this tiny move was. Typically, I learned the most from the activity i tried to drop!

The activity was designed to help teachers avoid affirming mediocrity or ’rounding up’ when they got an incomplete student response to a question in class.

Affirming mediocrity is calling an answer right when it’s actually not that good.  Seems silly but we do this all the time because we want to be encouraging or are in a hurry.  Or we just don’t think we’re going to get a better answer.  Rounding up is when we step in to add the salient details ourselves and then attribute them to the student who answered.  As in:

Teacher: Kiley, what is the relationship like between the Capulets and the Montagues?

Kiley:The don’t like each other.

Teacher: Right. As Kiley said, they don’t like each other and have been feuding for generations.

Kiley, of course, said none of those things. The teacher here did all the real work but told Kiley she had!

Anyway one of the keys to being comfortable pushing students to try harder and add to their answers is in the set-up.  How you ask the question can often prepare students for the normalcy of improvement. It can communicate the idea that the first answer is rarely sufficient.

So for example if I say:  “How is Jonas changing in this chapter?” or “What’s important to notice about asexual reproduction?” I set students up to see themselves as right or wrong. So asking a follow up may seem to them–and me as a teacher–like a negative judgment.

But if I say for questions that I know will be challenging and require refinement over time, “Who can get us started in talking about how Jonas changing in this chapter?” or “Start us off observing some of the key aspects of asexual reproduction?” I imply in the way I ask my question that I am likely to ask students to improve and develop the first response, pretty much no matter what answer I get, .

I can now say, “Thank you. Let’s keep developing that.” And have that seem entirely normal. I can communicate from that outset that for hard questions, the first answer is rarely sufficient.

Anyway our participants did this with a balance of rigor and warmth. And I realized (again!) that practice is the best way to energize a room during a long day or teacher training. especially a very focused practice that let’s people reflect on a small aspect of their teaching.

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