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Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

03.12.15When (Especially) to ‘Reject Self-Report’

Technique #1 in the new Teach Like a Champion 2.0 is “Reject Self Report.”  The idea being that we should listen for the moments when, having just taught something or explained a task, we ask students questions like:  “Everybody understand?” or “Everyone got it?”

These questions, we should realize, are functionally rhetorical. There is only one way for students  to respond to such questions: silent assent.  (Read more about why that’s true from Teach Like a Champion 2.0 here). We are acknowledging to ourselves that it would really make sense to pause and check to make sure everyone understands, but we are failing to do so (usually because we’re so busy).

I watched a lesson today that gave me two insights into Reject Self Report, specifically when it’s most important to use it.

In the lesson, the teacher had just assigned her class 10 minutes of independent reading with a very challenging text: Martin Luther King’s Eulogy For the Martyred Children, delivered at the funeral of three of the four girls killed in the 1963 Birmingham Church Bombing.

The teacher wanted her students to read an excerpt from the Eulogy and mark up the text in specific ways—to note when King used phrases and phrasings that were (deliberately) repetitive and to track shifts in who King’s implicit audience was.

Before she gave them ten full minutes to read silently and mark up the text, she decided to make sure they understood the task. Instead of using self-report—“Everybody understand what we’re reading for? Good. Go get ‘em.”—she rejected it and asked three students to summarize what they were supposed to do. It took her 14 seconds and she used the Cold Call technique both to make it faster and to ensure that she wasn’t just calling on the kids who thought they knew (but rather taking a more statistical sample of the class):

Teacher: “Nelson, tell me the two things I want you to look for while you’re reading this text?”

Nelson: “Repetition and shifts in audience.”

Teacher: “Good and Tina, What should you do when you see examples of repetition?”

Tina: “Box them in the text.”

Teacher: “And Gary, What should you do when you think there’s a shift in audience?”

Gary: “Note it in the margin and describe who the new audience is.”

I just want to observe how important this small move was. Ten minutes is a large amount of learning time. It would be incredibly easy to have 20% or 40% or 60% of the class set off earnestly to do the wrong task. Honestly, how many times have you begun a discussion at the end of a period of independent work to find out that some of your students did the task wrong? It’s smart to invest 14 seconds in testing to make sure your students understand.

Can this teacher now say for certain that everyone understood? Of course not. But she’s got a decent indication that her directions were clear enough and the class was attentive enough that 3 of 3 randomly selected kids could tell her exactly what they were supposed to do. At 14 seconds, that’s good insurance on a 10 minute investment.

Anyway, in discussing the lesson with the gang at Teach Like a Champion Towers we were also struck by the implicit guidance this example offers on when it’s most important to Reject Self Report:

The more time you invest in a task and the more autonomous your students will be in executing it, the more important it is to check for understanding (CFU) before you start.  Though this task wasn’t especially complex, the level of complexity is a third factor I’d consider in deciding on the urgency of CFU before I began. (A corollary is that the more complex and autonomous the task, the more disruptive it will be to stop and fix it if in fact some students don’t understand what to do.)

A final aside (that’s not really an aside but actually critically important):  I re-read King’s Eulogy in writing this post. Breathtaking. If you can read it without tearing up and/or feeling chills, well, I don’t know how. It’s a reminder of how important it is to read challenging and important texts. Why spend students’ time reading anything but the best that’s been written and from our greatest thinkers?

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2 Responses to “When (Especially) to ‘Reject Self-Report’”

  1. Dylan Wiliam
    March 14, 2015 at 7:13 am

    The key insight here is that students do not always (or even often?) learn what we teach, and we had better find out what they did learn before we teach them anything else. Once we accept this, a whole lot of other things fall into place. Asking for responses from students who have not raised their hand (what Doug calls “cold call”) allows you to get information from those from whom you would not normally hear. Asking for evidence of understanding rather than just self-reports of confidence tells you what they understand, rather than how confident they are. But even these approaches are still relatively weak, in that they give you little insight into the understanding of the whole class. That is why I recommend that, every 20 to 30 minutes of group instruction, we should get a response from every single member of the group, to a question that is so well designed that it is almost impossible for a student to get the right answer without having the desired understanding. That way you at least have a shot and meeting the learning needs of the whole group.

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