Are we teaching kids to answer or ask?

Tonight I was reading a blog post titled About assessment: Why are they raising their hands? In it, educator Donald Gately writes about a potential future conversation with his grandchildren, and they are confused why the children in old movies are doing silly things like raising their hands. His point is to say that these archaic behaviors will be — one day not long from now — more than somewhat mystifying to anyone examining them. Their future exchange is hilarious, but also carries a serious undertone for educators:

Grandpa, why do the kids keep putting their hands up, usually the right hand…

That’s what they did when they wanted to ask or answer a question.  You also did that when you wanted to go to the bathroom.

Could they use their left-hand?

I guess… most kids were right-handed.

What happens next?

Well,  the teacher would point at a kid, say his or her name, and the kid would answer the question.

How did the teacher know if the kid was going to give the right answer?

The teacher didn’t know?

So what did the teacher do when a kid gave the wrong answer?

Well, teachers took classes called Questioning Techniques on how to handle when students gave wrong answers. They’d say to some other kid, “What do you think of Johnny’s answer? — Anyone want to respond to Johnny?”

Wasn’t that embarrassing for the kid who gave the wrong answer?

I guess so, a little bit, but the class the teacher took was intended to help figure out a way to avoid that.  Not really sure it worked.

What about the kids who didn’t raise their hands, or the kids who had their hands raised but didn’t get pointed at? How did the teacher know what they were learning?

Um, I guess the teacher didn’t.  But some teachers gave points to kids who frequently raised their hands.

So then, didn’t many kids just raise their hands a lot to get the points.

Um… I don’t know… I never thought about that… You think they did that?

Grandpa, I’m sure kids did that.

What was the purpose of the kids raising their hands all the time? Was it for exercise? Did they have physical education classes back then or was it combined with other classes that they took because of the hand raising?  Did their right shoulder muscles get all big  out of proportion because of all the hand raising?

Well, I know the hand raising was a form of formative assessment for the teacher but you’re really making me think about this now.

It looks like school back then was a little bit like that show you like to watch, what’s it called? With that guy who never seems to get older, Alex Trebek?

Are you talking about Jeopardy?

Yeah… School back in the day was like Jeopardy wasn’t it grandpa?

Here’s why I say the undertone is serious: Do I want my classroom to be like jeopardy? While entertaining (for some) to watch, what does all that stored information translate to in terms of skills? Memorization of facts doesn’t equal skillful, more often than not. And can facts change? A question for another day…

So do I really want my kids sitting around the room answering questions? Sure, if I ask a quality question that requires them to think critically and evaluate and analyze, they are showing me their skills, and they are pushing to learn something new, but after the conversation moves in a different direction, they may not all get as much out of the discussion. Some kids might not be participating at all because they aren’t interested in the topic or haven’t done the lesson prep or maybe haven’t slept or eaten or had a warm place to rest. If they don’t care or can’t care about it, the quality of the questions matters very little or not at all. They are only talking one at a time. In a class period, that leaves little interaction per child.

On the other hand, if a child is asking the questions — is genuinely curious enough to ask a question, and another question, and another question — there is more learning taking place there. That child is pushing for more information, building their own questioning skills, clarifying their thinking, and building upon a framework that is their own. When they can work independently or with a small group, they can ask a lot more questions and get more interactions than they could in the whole group, hand-raising situation. A question answered implies the learning is done. A question asked signals the beginning or the building of momentum.

So we need to give students opportunities to ask the questions they already have. And if they don’t know how to be curious or ask a question because school has inadvertently (or maybe kind of accidentally on purpose) taught them not to, we reteach them the curiosity they had before school taught them to answer instead of ask.



3 Essential Traits of an Effective Mentor #IMMOOC

I’ve been in education for six short years, but I have been fortunate to be mentored by a number of incredible educators. I know that not everyone shares my experience; several of my teacher friends have lamented that they haven’t gotten much out of the mentoring program in their districts or that they weren’t given much guidance when they became an assigned mentor to a new teacher. I don’t think, though, that becoming an inspiring mentor requires a 30-hour training or a certain number of service years. In my experience, teacher-leaders just need 3 key traits to empower others.

1. Mentors share.

This might seem like a no-brainer, but when I say that mentors share, I don’t mean that they pass on lesson plans or tried-and-true strategies, though every once in a while, that certainly helps! Mentors share their passion for learning and facilitating. They understand that they don’t know it all, and so they come to mentorship as a partner — someone to work with rather than under. And when they experience a struggle, they are transparent without being negative. They model the attitude that there is no problem impossible to solve, and they actively seek out alternatives when one possibility doesn’t work out.

When I became a student teacher, my cooperating teacher shared her classroom and her passion, but Susan also shared with me a gift much greater: confidence. As a co-department chair, Pre-AP teacher, and a teacher of a state-tested grade, she had lots of reasons to keep a watchful eye and give pointed suggestions. Instead, she trusted me completely (or at least pretended at first!). Knowing that someone else trusted me to teach her students made me feel confident in my abilities, and as a novice teacher, there is no gift shared more beneficial than that.

2. Mentors listen first, then coach through noticing and questioning.

Anyone in a position to lead others should spend 70% of their time listening, 20% asking questions, and 10% making observations. Did you notice that none of that time should be spent giving advice or solving problems? In our classrooms, giving students answers to questions generates dependence. The same becomes true with adults. If we want to develop teacher capacity, we have to make teachers feel capable to come to solutions independently. The way to do that is to guide them there until they don’t need to be guided anymore. George Couros, in his book Innovator’s Mindsetexplains the importance of teaching to strengths first. Influential leaders know how to help others discover strengths so that they can capitalize on those and develop a framework for improving areas where they see opportunity for growth.

My former ELA coordinator, Michelle, is the perfect example of someone who guides people to greatness without prescribing. One of my favorite memories at my former school was the moment my entire team realized we had been teaching a standard ineffectively because we interpreted it incorrectly. We looked over our common assessment data more than a little flabbergasted that one of our easiest standards was so often missed. Michelle was in our PLC meeting and asked a few simple questions. Almost instantly, we discovered our error. Then, rather than tell us how to teach that standard more effectively, she listened and supported us as we brainstormed new methods. Because of her, I not only understand how to use data effectively, but I also recognize its value.

3. Mentors are never “done.”

Susan and Michelle are still people that I go to when I have a question or need some guidance, even though I am not a new teacher anymore. In fact, I left that district (and that state) when my husband received orders almost two years ago, and yet, they have never said they can’t/won’t/don’t have time to help me or hear me out. Good mentors understand that support and relationships are what make a strong team. When colleagues are in constant conversation about their craft and practices, that dialogue helps everyone grow. If the goal for our students is continuous growth, shouldn’t that be our goal for ourselves and each other? Effective mentors see the big picture and know the job is never done because there is always more to learn, try, and share.