Sitting 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
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
- Through Questioning
- Through Observation
2) Acting on the Data
3) Leveraging a Culture of Error
- Building the Culture of Error
- Analyzing and studying error
- 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.