Tag Archives: descriptive feedback

Failure is NOT an Option-whose responsibility?

Failure is NOT an option.  I think that our collective vision would be a school in which that was true.  We all aspire to have classrooms full of students who are motivated and committed and do well.  We all aspire to be that teacher-the one that doesn’t have any behavioural problems, who the kids quote when they become famous, who reaches every student (I think I saw a made-for-TV movie about that teacher).

But it is hard.  Sometimes the kids didn’t see the movie.  Some fight us at every turn.  Home life might not be conducive to school attendance.  There may be mental health issues or behaviours that disrupt the learning processes.  Our classes have students with learning disabilities and giftedness; shy students and overt students; calm students and students with ADHD.  By middle school some of our students are discouraged and apathetic about school.

But we still desire to be that teacher, that school where failure is not an option.

Here are some school practices that may lead towards a “Failure is not an option” environment:

  • Recursive/spiralling teaching practice allows us to return to key concepts many times over the course of the year. We don’t expect students to “get” it the first time around but give them many opportunities to master key concepts.
  • Multiple entry points into learning invite students into the learning. Students are more successful when they start the learning at a comfortable place instead of one that is too hard or too easy.
  • Student choice in activities and learning allows for greater engagement. Students can choose their novel, choose the writing topic, choose the geography inquiry, choose their tech build, choose how to express themselves in art, choose chrome books or pencils, etc. Students are more likely to demonstrate grit and determination to succeed when they are engaged in the task.
  • On-going formative assessment helps students to get it right, as they are learning. Teaching is not about completing the task; it is about learning the stuff. Formative assessment ensures that students are learning the stuff.  There’s nothing worse that working hard on something only to find it wasn’t right after all.  Because we give feedback during the learning, our students don’t end up in a situation where they didn’t even know they weren’t doing it right.
  • Scaffolding learning through models, exemplars, anchor charts and checklists allows students to know the expectations before they start. Learning is not a mystery. Systematic use of guided learning with the whole class and in small groups ensures that students move in the right direction and know the learning goals and success criteria (it isn’t about posting them on the board).
  • A responsive special education model ensures that our most vulnerable students are tracked and supported. It is not the responsibility of one person but of all the teachers involved with the student. A collective understanding of the unique needs of some of our students allows for modifications and accommodations to happen seamlessly.   A responsive and proactive use of EAs and the CYW means that we avoid the crisis – most of the time.
  • Grading practices that are fair and about learning not judging.  If it is important enough for us to teach it then it is important enough for them to learn it.  Learning the stuff doesn’t mean that a failing or low grade is ok.  We have to allow  and insist upon retakes and do overs.  We have to give students more opportunities to learn.  We have to provide many chances to try it out before we give the grade.

When we think about a “failure is NOT an option” school environment, we have to think about how do we design our practice for student success.  It would be nice  to think that our belief in “failure is NOT an option” would be enough–maybe a poster or two.  It is easy as teachers to blame kids for being unmotivated and disinterested.   But, it is really about how we design our instructional practices so that students are motivated and successful.


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John Hattie’s Visible Learning….what might it mean in the classroom?

At our last staff meeting we were looking at some of John Hattie’s work from Visible Learning. Of course some of the rankings surprised us–how could it be that class size isn’t that big a deal?  Or technology?  I have been doing some further reflection to try and capture why his meta-analysis might be important for us as teachers.  It is not that programs or ideas we do are not good for kids—he shows that almost everything works to some degree.  What is interesting is when you start to look at those things that have the greatest effect and compare them to those that have a lesser effect.  It would make sense that we would concentrate our efforts on the factors with the greatest effect size.  Here are my thoughts, in a somewhat random order as it is the end of an extra-long weekend…

  • Creating a challenging and trusting environment matters. Students do best when they know what the expectations are and when those expectations are high. And this makes sense.  We all thrive when we are doing something challenging that we believe we can be successful at.
  • Relationships matter. This makes sense, too. We are going to do our best in environments where we feel a sense of connectedness.  When you can build a sense of community and team in your classroom you create an energy for learning.
  • Knowing what and why you are doing something is important. Then getting feedback on it as you go increases learning and makes you want to learn more. This works for students and teachers.
  • When students have a good sense that they have learned something that matters. We want kids to get it, and know they have got it. That makes for confident learners.  We want to be teachers who get it, and know we’ve got it.  It makes for confident teachers.
  • Knowledgeable teachers provide opportunities for students to summarize, question, clarify and synthesize their learning in reciprocal ways—not all lecture and not all student discovery. Planned and purposeful mastery of the material. And when kids are struggling, teachers can pinpoint the problems immediately, and remediate that problem.

But these high yield strategies are hard.  None of them are just about opening the textbook or the binder of worksheets.  All of them are about teachers who intentionally determine the learning environment of the classroom.  All of them are about teachers who truly believe that the actions they take impact the learning …and when they don’t see learning happening the way they want it to, they try something new.  After all, they know that no one will die.

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Feedback is for teachers, too

Last week I wrote about effective feedback and the different ways students might get feedback during the learning process.  This feedback for students doesn’t have to be comments on a paper, a rubric or test scores.

The feedback loop goes both ways.  You as the teacher are also always looking for feedback from your students in order to know what the next lesson is or how to tweak things for maximum understanding or to determine the members of your next small group.  You, too, don’t need to mark work in order to get feedback on how your students are doing.  You probably want to collect two types of feedback.

One kind is very informal and might be called intentional noticing.  These are the many observations that you make all day long about how your students are doing with the learning at hand.  This kind of intentional noticing is not as easy to do as you may think.  At the end of each day you will have been involved in a myriad of discussions and observations with students but may still be unclear as to what you have intentionally noticed.  However, when you are planned and purposeful  in your lesson design, you can also be planned and purposeful in your intentional observing.  For example, you may be intentionally noticing whether students are using the information from the mini-lesson in their work.  You may be intentionally noticing whether students are using the specific vocabulary of the lesson.  You may be intentionally noticing whether students are taking risks in their problem solving.  You may be intentionally noticing how they are applying previously learned strategies.  You may intentionally noticing the types of errors they are making.

The same kinds of teaching conditions that you use to help students get feedback will also allow you to get feedback:  small group instruction, little whiteboards or Kahoots, conferences, sitting with groups of students as they work.  At the end of each of those activities, you are thinking, what do I know now about my students that I didn’t know before and how am I going to address those needs?

The other kind of intentional feedback that you get, you will want to record.  You can’t possibly record everything you notice.  However, you may wish to record some specific kinds of information during this learning phase that may add to your assessment record in determining a final grade.  These are the intentional observations and conversations that you have with students that give you insight into their understanding of concepts.  If, in these instances, the information you glean demonstrates an independent understanding of the concepts, you can use this in a summative way.  These recorded observations and conversations can be used in both determining next steps and in evaluating students.  The problem with using non-recorded observations and conversations as part of your grade determination is that you cannot prove anything in case a parent is curious about how a grade was determined.

All this talk about feedback is really talking about formative assessment.  I don’t like the word “assessment” here because I think it misleads us into thinking about assignments, quizzes and rubrics.  Instead you want to think about planned and purposeful teaching and the types of activities you do that help students learn and help you to know your students better.  When your students change and grow and when you make decisions based on what you are learning then you are doing assessment for and as learning.

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8 Ways for kids to get effective feedback – it’s not all on you!

A teacher said, “I just keep thinking that feedback is always me talking to the students about their work.”  As teachers, when we hear the word “feedback” that’s what we think of automatically.  And then we despair that we don’t have enough time to give that kind of feedback to every one of our students about every one of their assignments or tasks.  It is a daunting task.  Certainly that is one form of feedback to students and research shows that when students receive regular and timely feedback as they are learning, they do much better.

Grant Wiggins gives this definition of feedback:

Basically, feedback is information about how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal. I hit a tennis ball with the goal of keeping it in the court, and I see where it lands—in or out. I tell a joke with the goal of making people laugh, and I observe the audience’s reaction—they laugh loudly or barely snicker. I teach a lesson with the goal of engaging students, and I see that some students have their eyes riveted on me while others are nodding off. (http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept12/vol70/num01/Seven-Keys-to-Effective-Feedback.aspx)

He goes on to state that feedback is never evaluative nor is it advice.  It is simply information conveyed about the effects of an action as related to a goal. 

 Dictionary.com says that the origin of the word comes from 1915-20 where the verb phrase “feed back”  became a noun.  Again, it is this idea that information is fed back to you in response to an action.

When I go to the gym and work on the elliptical machine I get lots of feedback during my work out:

  • I can see if I am keeping my pace up and compare it to other days
  • I can compare my pace to how my body is feeling this day.
  • I can tell how far I am going and how long it is taking.
  • I can feel how my legs are feeling and my breathing and if I am doing ok.
  • If my back hurts then I know my posture is off.

All of that information affects my workout.  I make choices to work harder, back off, change something or give up for the day.

In your classroom there are many ways that students can receive feedback about their learning:

  • You can conference with students offering non-evaluative comments about what you understand and what might be unclear in their work. You can ask thought-provoking questions.
  • When students are working on little whiteboards and holding up their answers, you get feedback on whether they understand, but you also offer immediate feedback when you stop to reteach a concept because you notice a lot of misconceptions. This happens, too, when you are using Kahoots, if you stop and explain when the majority are incorrect.
  • When your students are working in groups or pairs they are getting constant feedback from their peers. For example, Jack and Sue are solving a math problem.  Jack says something and Sue looks at him quizzically.  Jack now knows that either his idea is off or he has explained it unclearly.  Both are good pieces of information.  He tries to explain his point again using a different tactic and one of two things happens.  Either, Sue now understands and Jack knows that his original explanation was unclear, or Sue still doesn’t understand and Jack begins to suspect his thinking may not be clear.  They go on in this fashion until both understand.
  • In French class when the teacher asks students to repeat words or phrases multiple times, paying attention to their pronunciation they are getting feedback. They try it out, the teacher says it again, they try it again trying to mimic the pronunciation closer.
  • In PE class when two partners are volleying the ball and the one partner is not able to return it, both students are receiving feedback. The one volleying the ball may not have good enough control to get the ball to the right spot.  The one receiving the ball may need to move or change position in order to return the ball.  When both partners have a goal of keeping the volleying going as long as possible, both are using feedback from the process to achieve their goal.
  • When students can compare their work against an anchor chart, rubric, checklist or exemplar before submitting, they are receiving feedback. They can see if their work contains all the components required and if not, are able to fix the work.
  • When the teacher says, highlight all the places in your writing where you used descriptive words (or periods, or dialogue, or complex sentences etc.) the student gets immediate feedback by seeing to what extent he or she has done so.
  • When a student is involved in an inquiry project in science and has multiple opportunities to test a hypothesis, he or she is getting feedback. If the task is to build a bridge that will hold a certain weight, and the bridge breaks, that is feedback.  When a student is encouraged to use that feedback to figure out what didn’t work and attempt a different design, the student has used that feedback to learn.

Teachers can, in a planned and purposeful way, design their instruction so that students have many meaningful opportunities to receive feedback as they are working:

  • Provide students with multiple opportunities to try something out
  • Provide students opportunities to talk with their peers about complex and challenging problems
  • Provide students with support as they are working not only after they are working
  • Ensure that students know what goals they are working towards, and are able to see that their efforts make a difference in achieving those goals

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Feedback, motivation and grades-some wonderings

Some teachers and I had an interesting discussion last week about how despite our best efforts at giving feedback, students weren’t so good at using it.  From that we evolved into a discussion about how kids cared about the mark, not the feedback, and how could we move towards kids seeing the intrinsic value of their work instead of the extrinsic reward of marks.

I really don’t know but I think it bears thinking about, so I did some and here are some of my wonderings, in no particular order.

When I think about the times when I receive feedback, it almost always feels evaluative  when it happens after the fact, even when it is not meant to be.  Although I listen and I make efforts to apply the feedback to the next time, it still makes me feel kind of lousy.  It doesn’t help me feel better about the incident upon which I am getting feedback.  So, although I know it is necessary and “good for me”, I will admit that I don’t like it.

When I get feedback as I am doing something, I don’t feel so bad.  I think about making pots on the wheel.  If my instructor tells me after the pot is glazed that the shape doesn’t quite work for the vase, I get it and try to remember for next time, but usually I end up disliking that vase.  But if he comes by my wheel as I am throwing the pot and tells me that a slight change will improve the form, and helps me do it, then not only am I more likely to appreciate the feedback but I can apply it right then and love the pot.

I hate starting over completely, even when I know I should.  Even when feedback is telling me I should.  I remember a time when I painted the entire basement the wrong shade of yellow.  The basement looked awful.  I went to the paint store, feeling disheartened, and the paint guru was able to help me figure out how to soften the paint colour with a glaze instead of starting all over with primer.  Her expertise helped me to make a big problem a littler problem.

John Hattie, an educational researcher, has looked at the effect size of common school practices.  The one thing that is found to be true the most often is that students are consistently very good at predicting how well they will do on a test or assignment—they don’t really need the grade to tell them.  So, I am thinking that somehow we need to get kids to change how they will do on an assignment before it is finsihed.  I think that we thought that the communication of learning goals and success criteria would help (and maybe it does to some extent), but if the student isn’t sure how to apply the success criteria to his or her work, it isn’t useful.  Again, we need to have the change occur immediately in the doing stage.

And I was thinking about the teachers I currently work with .   They have all made changes to their teaching practices in the two years I have been their principal.  They all appear to be making the changes willingly and with great enthusiasm.  They work together and talk about what is going on in their classrooms.  They support each other.  While my role has been that of coach, cheerleader and guide, I have never stated that such and such a change MUST happen by a certain date (I am not a principal who insists on particular practices such as posting learning goals).  They were not offered salary increases or rewards or even a gold star for changing your practice.  So why did they?  Why do we puzzle over things, try new ways of doing things, reflective on our practice and continually try to improve?

And finally, I was talking with a teacher today about collaboration.  She is in a board project that is focussed on getting kids to collaborate and was telling us the story of one boy, Billy, who is always distracted and off task but she liked her collaboration checklist because she could redirect him more specifically.  Good, I thought.  But then as the conversation moved on she began to tell us how thrilled she was with the Genius Projects she was trying.  Billy never needed redirecting due to off task behaviour then, because he was totally engaged and interested in what he was doing.  How important is engagement to the process of accepting feedback and the role of intrinsic motivation?

Perhaps as I muddle through this a bit more I will come up with some answers.  I’d love to hear what you think.

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Growth Mindset – Create an environment where anything is possible

I find the research around growth mindsets fascinating.  I catch myself praising students for intelligence now and switch it to effort.  I reflect on my own language when talking about students and try not to say things like “level 2 kids” or “IEP kids” as if they are labelled  for life.  I reflect on my own teaching practice and try to build in opportunities to look at mistakes differently.  And, I want to convey to students that grit, perseverence, effort and setting goals all make a difference.

But, I am also concerned how the educational community has jumped on the growth mindset bandwagon so quickly, as we in education are apt to do.  I never check my twitter feed without seeing new posts about growth mindset.  Teachers on pinterest are posting anchor charts and classroom libraries devoted to growth mindset.  I have been wondering how best to bring growth mindset research into the classroom.

As in many things (see my post: Is Teacher Lingo Good for Kids?) I worry that teachers may be laying the research too much at the feet of students.  I believe that all teachers should have a solid understanding of the current research about growth mindset.  It is our job to understand learning.  And, I don’t think it is a bad thing to let kids in on the information:  in small doses, as is age appropriate and not to the point that it overtakes the joy of learning.  If we really want students to believe in growth mindset, then we need to create a learning environment that supports it:

  • Teachers can ensure that they create open-ended and interesting tasks that are more likely to engage students in taking risks and persevering because they want to.
  • Teachers can ensure that they give descriptive feedback to students that helps them move forward and past the obstacles.
  • Teachers can help students to identify their own goals by providing exemplars, checklists and anchor charts.
  • Teachers can experiment with grading fewer assignments and giving effective feedback (not “good job!”) more often.
  • Teachers can encourage students during lessons to share both their successes and challenges.  There is great power in  students showing how they didn’t solve the math problem or asking their peers to help them rewrite the lead of their story.
  • Teachers can show students how they have developed their skills and grown over time.
  •  Teachers can plan recursively so that students have multiple opportunities to learn key concepts.
  • Teachers can plan activities that require a bit of struggle and let students struggle.  Students don’t really like tasks to be simple and boring–like anyone else, they enjoy challenge.

Students can learn about how feedback can help you improve a task (such as the famous butterfly example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqh1MRWZjms).    Students can read a book here or there where the theme is about effort and setting goals.  Students can celebrate when they have mastered something that was tricky before.

But, let us think more about how we as teachers create an environment in which students experience the benefits of a growth mindset over an environment where everything is about growth mindset.  Experience more than research is what will change a child’s mindset.   There is a plethora of children’s books about growth mindset but as a kid I wouldn’t want to read one every day.  Robert Munsch is probably still way more entertaining.  I would hate us to be so concerned with students believing in growth mindset that a parent-teacher interview started with:  “Jimmy just doesn’t seem to have a growth mindset and that is why he is not progressing as we would hope”.

Growth mindset is exciting research that may open up many pathways to students.  Our job is to embed the philosophy into our teaching, not teach the philosophy.  Let us create the conditions whereby students can’t help but believe that they can do anything.

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Do you create in your classroom a culture of “done” or a culture of learning and improving?

Do you create in your classroom a culture of “done” or do you create a culture of learning and improving?  A culture of “done” implies task completion.  Very quickly students begin to see school as a list of tasks to complete.  Completion is the goal, not the process.  Within a culture of “done” we also tend to create a culture of “correct” because “done and correct” is the ultimate goal.  But, “done” frequently supersedes “correct” and students become satisfied with getting the work done.  Most often, these tasks to complete are routine, unchallenging and mundane.  If you want your students to move past task completion, you need to recreate your culture.

On one of my summer walks I was listening to a Freakanomics podcast about failing.  The gist of the podcast was that human beings don’t like to fail, and, in fact, will persevere with projects even though it is quite clear that it is not going well, just to avoid the feeling of being wrong.  Isn’t that the same as “done”?  It lead me to think about how we develop classroom cultures.  How often do we make it okay to fail?  Do our students see failure as a chance to learn or as something to be avoided at all costs?  Do we model saying “I don’t know”?  Do we help students to see that their mistakes can lead to greater learning?  Do we develop tasks that are challenging and difficult and require hard work to achieve?

Let’s think about the student who is working through a math problem in a small group.  The problem is challenging for the students but not impossible.  As they work through the problem together they are receiving feedback about their mathematical thinking each time they do not get the correct solution.  They receive feedback from each other as they discuss the problem.  Once they arrive at the solution, they get feedback that grit and resilience pay off.  What would happen if the teacher had gone in and rescued them the minute they went off on the wrong track?  Their feedback would have been that this problem is too hard for you.  Does that mean that the teacher has no role at all?  Definitely not.  It is the teacher’s job to observe and enter into the math conversation to offer the exact amount of feedback or direction that will allow the students to move forward, without telling the students what to do. I often suggest to teachers that they give their little piece of feedback and then WALK AWAY.  Walking away tells the students that you trust them to arrive at the solution.

Let’s think about a workshop environment in reading and writing as a means of moving away from “done”.  If a student is engaged and making choices about his or her writing, completion happens when the piece meets the criteria the student has set out.  The piece says what the student wants it to say.  The teacher now provides feedback that helps the student meet the writing goal (e.g. “I’m not sure that your lead hooks me as a reader.  What were you trying to do here?”).  If a student has choice in what he or she reads and has opportunities to discuss the text with others, then “done” happens only when the student has a good understanding of the text.  In both instances, students are learning that a deeper feeling of accomplishment requires engagement and perseverance.

I hate doing laundry.  It is a mindless, never-ending chore.  I am always happy to be “done”, except the next day rolls around and there it is again.  Laundry is task completion.  I love solving problems.  I love being challenged and having to think hard.  In those instances the time flies, I persevere, I check and recheck to make sure I have it right.  When the problem is solved I am proud and I know that it is done, because I have determined it to be so.  As you begin the new year, think about the tasks you set, the culture you create, and move away from laundry-like task completion.


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Is it feedback or assistance?

As we move into writing June report cards and are beginning to think about assigning grades, it is helpful to differentiate between when are you giving feedback and when is the student receiving so much assistance that the grade may be effected as the student is not able to independently demonstrate achievement.

Providing effective feedback is not the same as “with assistance”.  You do not need to worry that because a student was able to use your feedback to improve upon his or her work, the final mark should be lower because you provided assistance.  Let’s look at some instances:

Math:  A student is having troubles with fractions and has handed in work with a number of errors.  Providing the correct answers will be useless.  Telling the student that within the first 10 questions, 2 are incorrect and he needs to double check and find the errors by doing each problem using a different strategy is effective feedback and allows the student to learn.  If during the instruction period you sit with the student individually or in a small group and guide him through understanding fractions, you are providing feedback.  However, if the student, at the end of the instructional period, still requires your help to get the right answers, that is with assistance.

Project/Writing:  Students are working on a project.  They have a checklist/rubric/deconstruct available to them.  Midway through you ask them to use the checklist to determine how well they think they are doing and hand it in.  You look to see if you agree and indicate areas of agreement and disagreement.  You make suggestions such as:  your introduction is weak and needs a stronger lead; you haven’t supported your main argument well enough.  The student is able to go back and fix these things independently—that is effective feedback.  You may even work with the student in a small group to help the student develop the skill required.  That is feedback and good teaching.  If, however, the student requires you to sit with her to complete each stage of the project and to suggest how to write it, that is with assistance.

You get a driver’s license if you pass the driving test.  No one asks if you practiced parallel parking one time or 55.  However, if the driving instructor has to guide you through the parallel parking task, you probably won’t get your license.  If the essay you write is brilliant, no one asks how many rewrites you did, or how many opinions you sought.  The fastest skier gets the gold medal.  No one judges how many practice runs she took or how many falls she made learning how to ski that fast.

Effective feedback will lead students towards greater independence in their abilities.  The final grade should not be based on how much feedback or good teaching/support a student required during the instructional time.  A student may sit with you in small group instruction every day for 2 weeks, but if at the end, he is able to demonstrate an understanding of the skill or concept independently, it does not matter how much help he got to get there.  In fact, if your teaching can do that, you have achieved your goal of helping all students to reach their potential.

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Teacher Feedback and Student Feedback

When thinking about effective feedback you want to think about two types: the feedback that you as the teacher gets which informs how you teach the next step and the feedback that the students get which helps them to move forward. The two are, of course, intertwined. There should be a balance of both types. Both are formative because they happen for learning or as learning occurs.

Feedback you get from small group instruction—while watching what students are doing, you are able to see what needs to happen next. This is far easier to do when working with a small group of kids than with the whole class. You can probe deeper to understand what a kid is thinking.

Feedback students get from small group instruction—you are giving on the spot, as they do it help to kids. It is important for learning to get the support on-the-go. For example, if I were teaching you to drive it is far better to have correction as you do it (OMG watch out for that car!), than after the fact (remember when you hit that car, well you should have…).

Feedback you get from little white boards—doing a whole group guided lesson where students practice doing something as you teach it allows you to automatically see who is getting it and who is not. You can adjust your lesson as you go or make a note of those kids you need to work with later.

Feedback students get from little white boards—it always looks easy when the teacher does it. However, if students have a chance to practice the skill while the lesson is happening, they are able to make minute corrections along the way as opposed to trying to make bigger corrections after the fact.

Feedback you get from turn and talk—when you ask kids to turn and talk you can listen in briefly or note how many kids actually do know the answer. You can also observe how engaged the students are in discussing a topic. You don’t find this out when you ask the whole class and rely on students to put up their hands.  Many kids know the answer or know part of the answer but don’t put up their hand.  Think about the kind of information you get if you do turn and talk and then put your answer on a white board to hold up.

Feedback students get from turn and talk —when students turn and talk to a partner they get feedback from a peer because either the peer agrees or disagrees with their answer. Whenever students have to talk about their thinking or adjust their thinking they are getting feedback. Did my partner understand my reasoning? Am I clear in my thinking? Can I express my thoughts? Does the opposing view make more sense?  Have I made an error in my thinking?

Feedback you get from setting goals – When we ask students to set a goal for the term, the activity, the month, or the day, we learn about their thinking with regards to the topic. If a student is able to identify appropriate goals and move towards them, you know they  understand the concept. If students are unable to identify goals or next steps they do not clearly understand what is being asked of them and you know what to do next.

Feedback students get from setting goals– When a student is able to set a goal and receive feedback on how well they are meeting that goal then the learning is meaningful and personal. It is far better to be in charge of your own learning than have goals imposed upon us. When students are unsure of which goal to choose, we can offer a menu of goals and have them pick one. As the teacher, you will have to come back to the self-reflection piece regularly. Don’t expect them to do it on their own.
Feedback you get from conferencing – When you find time to conference with students you can probe their thinking and understanding at a very individual level. Try conferencing about only one thing, or stopping the conference as soon as you discover one next step. Then both you and the student find the next step manageable. If your conferences are too long, and you end up with too many goals, both of you will become frustrated.

Feedback students get from conferencing – The student has your undivided attention and an opportunity to explain their thinking. When the student has to explain it, s/he receives automatic feedback based on your understanding. Also, it is an opportunity to learn as you are doing so that the student can apply the feedback immediately.

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Proactive Teaching vs Reactive Teaching

You plan the lesson. You have the ideas. You can see how it is going to go in your head. And then it doesn’t. Somehow the students don’t respond the way you have anticipated and you have to react, quickly. The more experienced you are, the easier this gets. You make small adjustments as you go along. You quick think of a better strategy. You have the kids get out their silent reading or do jumping jacks while you regroup. The reactive nature of teaching is part of the teaching profession.

However, there are some areas of our teaching practice which are sometimes reactive which could actually be proactive. You learned early in your career that you could react to students not having a pencil, needing to go to the washroom 6 times a class, or not having their homework done OR you could have proactive procedures and routines in place.

Small group instruction is another place where you can be proactive instead of reactive. Often during work time students require help, reassurance or feedback. Often a long line of students develops at the teacher’s desk. Kids are self-identifying that they need help and you, the teacher, are reacting to their plea. While those kids who ask for the help usually get it, this reactive process has several drawbacks:

– While students are in line, they are not working
– You might not get to the end of the line
– Some students who need help, do not self-identify
– The student who wants to ask if he can sharpen his pencil gets in the line when it is really long.

A better, but still reactive method for helping students and providing feedback, is to invite students who are struggling to the guided learning table. As spots become available you can add more students. In this way, you are working with more students at a time, have avoided the line-up problem and can still pay attention to the rest of the class. However….

– Some students who need help, do not self-identify
– The problems facing you at the guided learning table can be diverse
– Students who are waiting may spend most of their time watching for a spot to open up instead of continuing to work

A proactive response to providing students with help and feedback is to actively plan for your guided instruction/feedback during the work period. Based on your observations of students the previous day or a glance at their work, you have already decided that group X needs some support on concept Y and group A needs support with concept B. Once the class is settled in, you pull your groups in anticipation of their needs. Like with any method, there are problems you will face:

1. I think I will be seeing the same groups of kids all the time and not everyone. Remember that fair is not equal and some kids don’t need your help as often. Be ok with seeing your neediest students more often.

2. What about the kids I am not working with who are having a problem? Create structures in your class so kids know what to do when they are stuck. Who are the student “experts” in your class? Do they have permission to put it aside and go onto to something else? Plus, even though you are working with the small group, your sightline will be towards the class and if someone is really struggling, you could probably deal with it quickly. If you are seeing two groups, set a few minutes in between groups to check in. Don’t start your group for the first 5 minutes of work time to make sure everyone is on track. If your group is working, get up and check in with the class and then come back to the table.

3. Won’t the kids I see a lot feel centred-out? Maybe, especially in the later years. So, mix up your groups so that they are homogeneous by skill (all need to work on punctuation) but not by ability (some need help with periods; someone else is learning the semi-colon). Or, start the work period by seeing a higher level group and then call over a group you see more frequently. It won’t be as noticeable then.

4. Even though I am working with a small group, other kids interrupt me at the guided learning table. You make the rules in your class. It is ok to say that you don’t get interrupted at that table unless it is an emergency. But, make sure that all your routines and procedures for dealing with problems are taken care of.

You won’t be able to be proactive all of the time. The nature of teaching is that it is reactive. However, do think about those places in your practice where you can be proactive. A proactive plan for conferencing, providing descriptive feedback and small group instruction will enhance your ability to close achievement gaps and reach all of your students.

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Filed under Differentiation, small group instruction