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01.20.14TLAC 2.0, The First Page: Mostly for Therapeutic Reasons

snow drifting downSitting at my desk as afternoon turns to evening, snow drifting down.  I’m still trying to churn out TLAC 2.0. Writing, I want to say so someone hears it, can be an anguish of rolling rocks up hills again and again with slightly different syntax each time.   But just when you’re about to give up you find you are just maybe starting to make some headway.  [Insert something like a prayer here that I am feeling this way in two or three weeks.]  Anyway I thought I’d take a break from editing, drafting, editing, drafting, editing to share a quick “tease”” if only to make myself feel more productive.  Here, somehow, is the opening page of the new first chapter to the book, which focuses on Check for Understanding

Chapter One

Check for Understanding

Perhaps the most salient characteristic of a great teacher is her ability to recognize the difference between “I taught it” and “They learned it.”  She might have explained to her class the significance of the Stamp Act, but she knows what matters is whether her students understand it.  Do they know what happened and why? Can they explain how that relates to the American Revolution more broadly? As most teachers know, a series of carefully planned and even well-executed lessons may or may not cause this to happen.  The reasons why may not even be the teacher’s “fault.”  Fault, really, is irrelevant.  To teach to student mastery is the job, and ensuring that it happens is teaching’s immense challenge.

One of the first steps to success in this area is to engineer your classroom so you understand the events happening within it, so that you reliably and consistently know to what degree student mastery is happening and if it is not, what barriers are emerging. Check for Understanding describes the tools teachers use to make a determination about the results of their lessons, usually while those lessons are still in progress. Broadly, Check for Understanding can be divided into three distinct groups of tasks.  First, there are tools for gathering data. In my discussion of these, I focus only on gathering data in real time, which means during the lesson you’re teaching.  It’s common for teachers to assess the lesson after it’s over, but finding out then is, if not too late then at least later than ideal, so in this section I discuss actions that help teachers replace subjective judgments with more powerful impromptu data sets.

The challenges of gathering data are often logistical, but the challenges of acting upon it are usually psychological. An array of factors create incentives for us to “bury the data” – to see evidence of struggle but ignore it. The second part of the chapter, then, examines strategies for combating these incentives, as well as methods for re-teaching effectively when we inevitably realize that students have not yet learned what we’d hoped.

The last section in the discussion of Check for Understanding is critical to making the process a shared endeavor between teachers and students. In a classroom where one of a teacher’s primary tasks is to see and react to mistakes, the degree to which students readily expose those mistakes rather than trying to hide them has a direct influence on our success.  To more achieve that, great teachers make it safe to be wrong. They build a “Culture of Error” that respects error, normalizes it, and values learning from it.

In the first edition of this book Check for Understanding was a single technique. In this revised edition it has become a chapter, a move that reflects how much more I’ve come to understand about how champion teachers succeed at this core challenge and the breadth and power of the methods they use. The final third of the chapter, I am happy to say, details an area of Check for Understanding that is typical of that new understanding on my part. I did not know existed when I first wrote this book.  This of course isn’t to say the champion teachers whom I was watching didn’t know.  When I go back and look at the footage now, I can see them clearly using the ideas I now describe.  It’s just that I didn’t notice it then.

Although I discuss building this Culture of Error at the end of the chapter, many teachers will likely want to start implementing it even before they begin gathering data. Great teachers start fostering a Culture of Error in the first hours they spend in the classroom with their students. Before they ask questions and observe independent work, they normalize error and socialize students to see its value and to embrace it as a necessary part of the learning process.

In all, a map of Check for Understanding looks like the following:

1)      Gathering Data on Student Mastery

  1. Through Questioning
  2. Through Observation

2)      Acting on the Data

3)      Leveraging a Culture of Error

  1. Building the Culture of Error
  2. Analyzing and studying error
  3. Reinforcing accountability for learning from errors

Given that each of the points above has multiple sub-bullets explaining how to achieve them, Check for Understanding may seem like a sprawling endeavor, a near impossibility. Fortunately, the actions that are most critical are often concrete and practical, and I hope many teachers will find it easy to identify a few (or many) they can use to improve their results in this area.

Ok, that’s it for now. Back to the bottom of the hill.  Book’s slated for June or July and I hope to share some more pieces soon.


12 Responses to “TLAC 2.0, The First Page: Mostly for Therapeutic Reasons”

  1. Matt Wheeland
    January 21, 2014 at 12:53 am

    I’m very excited to read more as this chapter, in particular, will be helpful for me. Confession: to me, checking for understanding is scary. I’m tempted to take student errors personally– as if each error is part of my teaching identity. It’s like looking in a mirror and seeing new blemishes over and over. Whew, okay, there I said it– not sure if the “champions” feel the same way, but this fourth year teacher does.

    Since I know you’re in the editing mode, I wanted to point out an ever-so-slight error in paragraph 6: “I did not know [?] existed when I first wrote this book.”–I think you meant to insert the word “it” there. At least that’s what my mind put there. Perhaps the error only occurred in the blog edition; if so, my apologies.

    Again, to encourage you as you climb that hill, I took away such a plethora of helpful points from the first edition that I created a 16-page chart included various techniques I wanted to focus on, specific adaptions for my own context, and a purpose/rationale behind each technique. Suffice to say, I’m excited to read the second one as well.

    • Doug_Lemov
      January 21, 2014 at 2:37 pm

      thanks for the edit and the feedback. what you describe–fighting the notion that errors are a pesonal judgment on you–is exactly what i mena by the psychological challenges of reacting to data… there are so many incentives to bury it when we start to see bad news emerge! It’s a very real challenge.

  2. Renee Howell
    January 21, 2014 at 1:48 am

    I am so excited for this book. I inhaled TLAC and many have in my district as well. I strive to be better each day at something…but I always have a nagging feeling there is more to know, more to do, more to absorb. Your efforts are greatly appreciated!

    • Doug_Lemov
      January 21, 2014 at 2:38 pm

      thank you so much for saying so. it’ll get me through at least one hopeless feeling writing session. it really is easy to underestimate how brutal writing can be. your kind words will keep me going.

  3. Steph Haggard
    January 21, 2014 at 11:23 am

    Check for understanding is a life line in my classroom. I spend time in the beginning just clearing the objective and I use going back to the objective as one of our check for understanding pieces.

    The issue I face is differentiating my whole group lesson to reach everyone. Many people talk about small group differentiation etc, but if I have kids for a 15-20 minute whole group that is too much time for some to be disengaged because they are not getting it. I find that much of the first book, videos etc really showed and discussed classes that were more evenly grouped (and I am sure that may only be appearance created after a long process of working with the kids) so any ideas and help would be appreciated.

    Last thought, you were great at the EduTrust conference in Baltimore…I think I was one of the few new teachers in the audience. I really appreciate that you are a voice for teachers.

    • Doug_Lemov
      January 21, 2014 at 2:40 pm

      Thanks, Steph. I’ll get working on it. much improved section of checking for understanding by observing systematically while studnets work will hopefully help. stay tuned!

  4. Seth
    January 22, 2014 at 4:36 am

    I hope you’ll incorporate more technological tools into TLAC 2.0. For example Check for Understanding in a classroom with clickers or tablets takes the concept to a truly 2.0 level. We’ve used visual checks for years through hand signals and personal whiteboards, but now making them truly quantitative and instantaneous with technology is going to be a whole new step. So excited for the whole thing!

    • Doug_Lemov
      January 22, 2014 at 2:10 pm

      Yeah, true. sometimes i need a reminder to upgrade my 19th century mindset. Thanks.

  5. Betsy Pruitt
    January 22, 2014 at 5:00 am

    Looking forward to what comes next. You are truly inspiring a nation of teachers to improve their craft. I am leading a book study with 20 high school teachers beginning this week on TLAC. Any words to the wise?

    • Doug_Lemov
      January 22, 2014 at 2:18 pm

      Thank you. And hooray! There’ll be a lot of wisdom in that room and i’m honored to be a part of the conversation. 1) i would remind peole that great teachers adapt ideas to their own style, so that’s ok if they want to talk about how to adapt. But they should also challenge themselves to try an idea before they assume it “won’t work” or needs a total revamp. for example some of the videos will seem “young” or “impractical” for HS so it would be worth having a “what’s of value here and how can we adapt it?” conversation. but a lot of my HS colleagues are also quick to say “oh yes you can! don’t believe the doubters who tell you you can’t” (do X or Y or Z with older students). In the end i don’t know exactly which ideas from the MS and ES videos apply fully with older students and which need some adaptation. i just think it’s important to consider both possibilities as you figure that out, and maybe people not to assume they can’t. 2) you’re in a great group to try practicing some tecniques and THAT is the difference maker (if you haven’t read Practice Perfect i humbly recommend it now. Katie and Erica wrote all the smart parts 🙂 ). And you should send some questions for the blog.

  6. fatema odeah
    February 14, 2014 at 11:13 am

    thank you for thinks you want to share us theses idea and stratieges in our class room, i think your books and your writer or what you are write thes make me change my strtegy in teaching in class room and change my begaviur for how can i dessolved any problem occur in class room , class room is acrudeble world need ateachear who own his mind and his stratiegy and skills to give the world morvellous student which are benfeit to his famely and to his comunity .lam sorry for the this writing i hope you under stand what i want to tell you ,because my english langage is good iamm not excellant in this languge lam very sorry

    • Doug_Lemov
      February 14, 2014 at 11:17 am

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. It’s clear as day: Teachers everywhere strive to develop students who are “a credit to their family and their community.” Beautifully put.

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