A teacher asked me the other day about notebooks. Should math students have a notebook? It led to an interesting discussion; I don’t have a definitive answer, even after our discussion. But it did make me reflect upon the things that we do in education because we always have.
We hope that schools are changing. Technology allows us to have information at our fingertips and to communicate with each other more easily. Critical thinking has taken the place of just “knowing stuff”. Cooperation and collaboration are 21st century skills.
So here are some of my thoughts, in no particular order, about some practices that we always did, that we grew up with in school, that maybe need to change.
- Notebooks. When I first started teaching the students listened to me and the copied the note that I wrote on the board, underlining the title twice in red. The notebook was a repository of all my knowledge and the students used it to study from. I still believe that the act of writing something down can be useful for students as it forces them to articulate their thinking. But, I could copy a note even if it was written in Italian. It wouldn’t mean that I was thinking. So, is it the process of writing that is important or having notes from which to study? If we are “testing” more critical thinking than regurgitating facts, is the notebook as study guide becoming obsolete? Do reflective journals and interactive journals replace the notebook?
- Title Pages. When we had notebooks as study guides, we separated the units of study with a beautifully coloured title page. It made our notebook organized. If you need to have students create a title page, it can take about 5 seconds as they write the title on blank page and put it in their notebook. If you use response journals or reflection journals, title pages are not needed. If you want students to create beautiful title pages then I would suggest you do them as a summative activity: After having studied States of Matter, how would you create a title page that explains what that is? Otherwise, beautiful title pages are make-work activities.
- Easing into Group Work. There is a long-standing tradition in schools that students just won’t be ready to work in groups until late fall. Students couldn’t possibly participate in small group instruction with the teacher until later in the year after routines are fully entrenched. Group work will cause the September teacher to lose control of the class. However, if your expectation is that students work in groups both with you and their peers, perhaps that should be your expectation from the start. Also, as collaboration and small group instruction become more prevalent in many classrooms, you will find that your students worked in groups last year and really it is just “how we do school”.
- Memorizing the “stuff”. How much of the content you teach do your students have to know by heart at the end of your course? It used to be easy—everything. Because, if they didn’t memorize what you taught them then they didn’t have access to it. But, when was the last time you googled something and didn’t get the answer instantly? On the other hand, it is inefficient to google 3 x 5 or the capital of Canada or the definition of a solid every time you need it. As teachers we need to think about how much time to spend memorizing or practicing things we do not really need anymore. For example, I think it is important to know 3 x 5. I think it is important to know how to solve 39 x 5 and even 39 x 15 (using a variety of strategies all of which are easier than the traditional algorithm). However, if I had to solve 3845 x 254 I would use a calculator. I would even go hunting for the calculator (or my phone).
- Homework. The problem here is that there is no research that supports homework as a way of increasing student achievement, except maybe in later high school years, and even then it is not conclusive. If you do assign homework then how are you going to monitor it? Are you going to spend valuable class time taking it up? Are you going to mark it in the evenings? If no one monitors the homework being done then will students do it? If your argument is that it teaches responsibility, then I ask how many of your students who are irresponsible become more responsible because you give them homework? I don’t think homework is all bad but I suggest extreme moderation. One math teacher I know gives a choice of 4 problems to do. That way the homework is differentiated. The next day starts with students who chose the same problem comparing and talking about the answers. Almost all her students do their homework.
When students have to articulate their thinking in their own words, they tend to learn more. You may have experienced this yourself. You can listen to a talk about a topic or read about the topic but when you are asked to explain it to someone you find that you aren’t quite sure how to start. I find this when I try to explain the political situation in the Middle East. Although I have listened to lots of news, and read the articles, I don’t really think I have a good handle on the issues.
The question for us as teachers then is how to get ALL of our students articulating their thinking during our lessons. Often the teacher talks and then asks questions of the students. Sometimes we do this to ensure the students were listening. Sometimes we do this to check for understanding. Sometimes we do this to create a class discussion. But, do you ever find that the same students are answering the questions and that some students never answer? Even if you call on students with their hand down, some never answer and have figured out that eventually you will move on. Certainly there are some students who are quiet in nature and are truly engaged but not answering. However, there are many others who are just not engaged in the conversation. Here are some ideas for getting greater participation of students during whole class lessons:
- Keep it short. The longer you talk, the less engaged your students will be. Try to keep your “talking” lessons to 7 minutes. If this is really difficult for you, set your phone to timer.
- Use Turn and Talk. Instead of asking a question to the class, have students turn and talk about the question to a partner or table group. This should be short. You do not need to then ask one student for the answer; it depends on what the question was. If the question was a prediction of what is going to happen next, the simple fact that all kids have articulated a prediction is enough. You don’t necessarily need to have a whole class discussion. You can have pairs meet and share quickly with other pairs. Move on. Keep the pace of the class moving.
- Use little white boards. Ask all students to write an answer on a little whiteboard and hold it up. Not only are all your students participating, but you can quickly see who gets it and who doesn’t.
- Everyone raises a hand. Ask the question and then ask students to raise their hand when they think they have an answer. Wait for everyone (or almost) to raise their hand. When you collect answers, make no judgement about right or wrong but simply record them on the board. Ask students to then discuss the possible answers. Or, ask students who gave the answer to defend their answer.
- Choose an answer. If you want students to discuss a controversial issue or one that may have many points of view ask them to choose an opinion and then go to a certain place in the room. They then talk to the people around them about the issue.
- Opinion Lines. When a question has a range of possible answers (e.g. Junk food should be highly taxed to prevent obesity) have students form a line from strongly yes to strongly no. Have them talk briefly about their opinion with the people close to them. Ask a few students along the line to give their reasoning. Ask students if they want to change their spot on the line.
- Tea Party. Ask the question and then have students stand up and discuss their answer with someone else. Have a signal (music, clap, flickering lights) and have students change partners. Students will have multiple times to give their opinion and hear other opinions. A variation is to have students state the opinion of the last person they spoke to.
- Quick writes. Ask the question and then have everyone write down their answer very quickly. At this point you could ask for individual answers or for students to share in groups.
- Ask the group. Instead of calling on individual students who don’t have an answer, call on a table group – someone from table six please answer.
- Group consensus. Ask the group and have one member of the group stand when the group has an answer.
- Thumbs up/down/in the middle. Ask students to agree, disagree or state their uncertainty to a question.
- Listen for…if you do present a lecture, show a video clip or read aloud a text, tell students ahead of time what to listen for (e.g. Listen for how the main character escapes…Listen for 3 reasons the war was lost…Listen for the names of 3 Impressionist techniques). Students can jot their answers on stickies as they hear them. This works particularly well for ESL and some special education students who tend to get lost in a sea of information.
Which technique you use will depend on the amount of time you want to spend on the question. You will want to use a variety of techniques. Your students will soon learn that passive listening is not an option. Your students will be engaged in the material as they grapple with the concepts and have opportunities to articulate their thinking and hear the thinking of their peers. Some of these techniques will take more time than the simple teacher- led discussion. However, perhaps one deep critical question is better than lots of smaller questions. Be planned and purposeful about the questions you ask and your students will surprise you with their level of thinking and engagement.
PS….Resist the teacher urge to paraphrase all student answers after they give them. Why should your students listen to each other if they know that you are going to give the “right” answer in the end.
September is the time for diagnostic assessment. It is good to know what your students already know and don’t. But I wish the word “assessment” wasn’t attached to this term. I prefer thinking of diagnostics as “entry points into learning”. Sometimes we use diagnostics to find out what students DON’T KNOW. But it may serve us better to find out what they do know and can do. No matter what you are teaching, students bring some knowledge to the table. What you need to know is what learning each student already has about your area of study.
Here is some of my thinking about diagnostic assessments…or how to figure out the entry points into learning….
- Because of the word ‘assessment’, we think it should look like a test. It doesn’t have to. In fact, asking students to do a “test” in the first weeks of school may be overwhelming. Plus, doing a “test” of things that you are pretty sure the students can’t do only tells you what you already know—they can’t do it. The kids feel lousy and you don’t know anything new.
- Sometimes we give back these tests/assessments with a level on them. I think that might be disheartening for students. After all, if I was excited to learn about the new science unit but then wrote a test and got back a level 1, no amount of teacher convincing that this was “just” a diagnostic is going to make me feel better. If you do feel you need to give this type of assessment, you do not need to provide students with grades/level/feedback. Diagnostics are for you, the teacher.
- If you want to discover what learning the student brings to the table, then you need to design a task that is open-ended. For example, if I want to find out if my students can add fractions, it would be better to give them a word problem where they can use any strategy they wish to figure out the answer than to give them 1/3 + 1/5 = ? or 27 – 9= ? where they may be tempted to use an algorithm. If I want to find out if my students can write in full sentences, I just need to ask them to write something; I don’t need to give them a worksheet on full sentences. If I want to find out which level book my students can read, just ask them to pick a just-right-book from a pile. If you provide each student with the same reading task all you will know is those than can read at that level and those that can’t. Open-ended tasks let you see what students can do; closed tasks only tell you if the student can or cannot do what you asked.
- If you want to determine a student’s entry point into learning, you have to know your curriculum. You need to know what students would have learned in previous grades. You need to know the continuum of skills.
- While you need to know what learning individual students bring to the table, not all diagnostic assessment needs to be done individually. Consider giving a group task. You can gather information about how students approach the task by observation. How students approach a task may give you more information than just having a final completed task that is incorrect. A final incorrect task only tells you that the student can’t do it but it gives you no information about why.
- Ask your students. Particularly older students can just tell you what they find easy and what they find tricky, especially if you give them a checklist. In the older grades you can probably get a pretty good idea of your students’ reading levels simply by asking them to list the last three books they read recently. A student that can’t remember or doesn’t have any, is one you need to listen to read sooner as opposed to the student who lists 10 novels he read over the summer. You don’t need to do the same diagnostics for all students.
- Don’t underestimate the value of interest and attitude surveys. Knowing that a student feels he or she is not good at math is very valuable information. Knowing that a student does not have a favourite book tells you a lot. Knowing that a student thinks science or history is boring because all you do is memorize gives you useful information. We know from research that a student’s confidence level in a subject is directionally proportional to their competence in that subject.
- You won’t be able to figure it all out in one easy step. Think about what you want to know about your students. Give yourself some time to figure this out. Experiment with ways of recording this information in class profiles that will be useful for you. Experiment with a variety of tools.
- Don’t be afraid of what you learn through a diagnostic assessment tool. Sometimes we conclude that our students are just “not ready” to learn our curriculum. Instead, look at what they do bring to the table and then determine the very next thing they need to learn to move forward. This is particularly important when writing IEPs. It really doesn’t matter if you don’t think they are ready—they are still in your class and you still have to teach them. Use your diagnostic to plan the student’s very next step, not to despair that they are not ready for your course.
- Lots of times we give “diagnostic assessments” because we think we have to. If you don’t do anything meaningful with the “assessment” then don’t give it. If you don’t learn something new about your students that is going to change how you teach them then the assessment tool isn’t working for you.