Break it Down is one of the hardest Teach Like a Champion techniques to master. You use it when students are stuck, and you must follow-up with a question to help them get to the answer.
The idea is to give them the smallest possible hint to get them from an incorrect or incomplete response to a correct or complete one. You want students to do as much of the cognitive work as possible, but you also have to make this to happen in a timely manner without causing the student to give up.
To add to the difficulty level, Break it Down is primarily a reactive strategy, used on the spur of the moment, in reaction to a student’s struggle. You can’t predict when you’ll need it.
One of my favorite Break It Down tools is the rollback. Rather than repeating your question (not very effective) or giving a student a hint (which risks doing most of the cognitive work yourself on one hand or not helping on the other) you simply repeat the student’s answer back to him or her. This allows the student to hear it and correct it or hear it and continue it.
You can see that happen in this outstanding clip from Jessica Bracey’s classroom at North Star Academy
She’s reading a novel called Circle of Gold with her fifth graders. She calls on a student, Gavin, to analyze the character Toni’s actions. His first answer is solid and he observes correctly that Toni is a sneaky character and that she is trying to trick Angel and Charlene into revealing their dishonesty, so Jessica follows up with another: “Why is that important?” Gavin does well here too. It’s important because if Toni tricks them she’ll reveal the truth about a stolen bracelet and defend her friend Mattie’s honor. Now Jessica follows up again: “And what does that reveal about Toni as a friend?” This time however, Gavin gets stuck. He freezes and can’t answer. To some degree this is inevitable… if we follow up good answers with further questions–be they Stretch It or Right is Right–we are at some point going to get to the limits of what a student can answer at the moment. What then? How do we get the most out of them and foster success?
Jessica’s answer is so simple and elegant. She merely repeats Gavin’s words back to him: “So Gavin what you said is that Toni is sneaky and that she’s a tricky person and that she’s doing this because she is trying to get to the truth about who stole Angel’s bracelet. Why is that important and what does that reveal about Toni as a friend?” That’s the rollback.
From there Gavin picks it up easily and closes out his analysis: this reveals that Toni is a helpful and good friend. She’s trying to exonerate Mattie. He even uses the word meticulous.
It’s a great moment. Instead of being “stuck” and not only possibly feeling like he’d failed, Gavin persists and does another layer of analysis. He closes it out with success doing the cognitive work himself.
All it took was to hear his own words repeated back. He reconnected with the thread of his thinking with the reminder and went forward. Sometimes that’s all a student needs.
A couple of points:
Notice Jessica’s affect, which is neutral as she re-asks the question. She’s not annoyed with Gavin. There’s no negativity in the rollback but there’s also no sticky-sweet to it either. She knows he can get it. So she is steady at the helm.
She also doesn’t ‘tip’ too much. That is, she’s careful not to give too much away with her inflection. To understand how that might have happened, consider two options for a rollback in this situation:
You’re studying the water cycle and you ask for an explanation of what happens to water vapor when it reaches the atmosphere. A student replies, “You get evaporation–water vapor forming droplets that become clouds.” This is wrong of course. He has confused evaporation with condensation.
Saying “You said ‘You get evaporation–water vapor forming droplets that become clouds,’” without discernible emphasis on any word makes your rollback much more rigorous than if you said something like: “You said ‘You get evaporation–water vapor forming droplets that become clouds,’” with emphasis on the word evaporation. Emphasis on the word evaporation points the student to the fact that it is the error and he can much more easily make the correction. So managing inflection as Jessica does builds rigor.
(To be fair if your student still couldn’t answer your evaporation question you next move might be to add some emphasis, but you’d want to start with the least hint possible because you want your student to do as much of the analysis as he can.
Jessica then wraps it up with another nice move. She reinforces Gavin’s work positively–“That was really strong thinking” and then asks for even more extension from the class: “paraphrase and push it even further…”
It’s a great demonstration of a powerful but simple move that teachers can use in the face of one of the most common challenges we face: the stuck student. Thanks to Jessica and her class for the outstanding model.