Sunday, February 15, 2015

I must ask... Why must you tell?

Approximately 2 times a week we have visitors in my 3rd grade classroom.  Other teachers come in to watch us do math and after my lesson with 3rd graders, I have the privilege to debrief with my colleagues and share some thoughts about what I'm learning from my 3rd graders.  This year has been an amazing journey, and I have learned so much from both my students and my peer observers. 

Last week, during one of these debriefing sessions, a teacher asked me this string of questions (I'm paraphrasing), "You don't really teach much do you?  I mean they teach each other, right?  You just guide their discussion by asking questions, right?"

Exactly!  You got it.  That's exactly what happens in my classroom.  The students teach.  I facilitate.  There has not been a single day of direct instruction for my third graders all year long.  By direct instruction I mean I have not stood up in front of the classroom and said here is a problem, and here is how you solve it. Nor have I said, we're going to learn about this concept today, here is what it means and this how you do it.  (Well there was that one day, when I accidentally modeled, read about it in my post "To model or not to model. That is the question.")

Yet my students are learning.  On a daily basis.  They learn from each other.  I pose a problem, or a task, they share their thinking and I ask them questions to refine their thinking.  We discuss and argue and discuss until we come to a consensus. I ask questions like:

How is your way different from hers?
Can you explain to the class what you meant by that?
Will you tell us what he helped you understand?
Can you repeat what she said?
Do you have something you would like to add?
Did you use a similar or different strategy?
Who can help us understand his thinking?
What do you think she meant when she said that?
Can you tell your shoulder partner which strategies convince you?
Has anyone's thinking changed?
Do you agree or disagree and why?
Why does that make sense?
Would you like to revise your thinking?
How can we help this mathematician be more precise?
What questions do you have for him?

With so much of the focus on my students and their thinking, it could be easy to assume that the discussions in my classroom are random and unpredictable.  That's not true though, because I do more than just ask questions.  I also listen.  I listen with a purpose.  Whatever task or problem I posed was posed with certain learning goal in mind and as I listen to my students discuss the task I listen for connections to be made.  I listen for key ideas and orient my students toward them.  I am the guide that helps the discussion reach its final destination.

If you're thinking you don't have time for discussions like this every day, then I have a challenge for you.  Just try one.  Try one day where you don't tell your students anything.  Do nothing but ask questions.  Just let go and let them.  I think you'll be amazed.

If you need some motivation to keep you going during this challenge, just listen to my new favorite song before you get started...

Let it go...


  1. LOVE this! Thanks for writing this so clearly. I have a question for you - I teach high school and I try to get out of the way as much as possible, but I do feel a bit of a burden at times that there are facts/skills/approaches that I know and my students don't. I worry about the calendar and I worry about future courses. On the other hand, I worry about my students becoming too passive and seeing their role in the classroom as simply scribes and receptors of my knowledge. I guess my question is this - Is there a point where the demands of the content knowledge start to push aside the desire/need to allow students to lead the classroom? Curious to hear your opinion on this.

    1. mrdardy, I know your struggle. Even in my 3rd grade classroom I struggle against my own curriculum calendar... and I'm the curriculum specialist for our district, meaning I wrote that calendar... so that's saying a lot! Earlier in the year I was so worried that I wasn't going to get to perimeter in time for my report card, that I tried to just present a direct lesson of what perimeter is and how to calculate it. Shortly after my lesson began, I was interrupted by one of my students asking, "But don't you want to hear what I have to say?" The general response from my students was one of distaste. They didn't want to have anything to do with my direct instruction. :)

      With that said, I do believe you are still working with a generation of students who were trained as scribes of their teachers' knowledge and changing their mindsets to one in which they have their own knowledge to impart can be slow going I'm sure. I think the key is being extremely purposeful with the tasks you choose to present and the strategies you choose to share. Also listening carefully to the ideas you hear from your students for any nugget that can lead you in the direction of your chosen learning goal. One more thing, don't ever be afraid to share a strategy from a "student next door" to have your students analyze and compare to their own. Critiquing the reasoning of others is a big part of standard for mathematical practice 3.

      The last thing I would say on this topic is this... there is a reason I changed the way I approach instruction. When I first started teaching I was a direct instructor. I taught steps for each skill and my students were often successful with my grade level content. But too many times I heard of high school students who were successful in earlier years beginning to struggle in high school. Too many of our proficient students were needing to take remedial courses in college. Because the math they remembered in the here and now in my classroom wasn't sticking with them. Imagine memorizing 30 to 40 recipes a year and then trying to remember them all as you continued to learn more because the next recipe you are expected to learn only works if you can remember all of the recipes you learned before and how those recipes work together, even though you were taught them in isolation. I'm not saying that doesn't work well for some kiddos, it does for some (I'm proof), but for too many others it doesn't work. I believe when teachers take the time to facilitate sustained discussions, students will learn mathematics in ways that will stick with them.