Looking at the Elephant in the Room: Our Fear of Losing Control

The Elephant in the Room

I recently heard about a study from the masterful math teacher and coach Lucy West, who, along with Antonia Cameron, is the author of the great new book on coaching Agents of Change. The study looked at the use of open-ended questions, of the sort that can deepen, stretch and expand student thinking, in 500 classrooms across five countries (the U.S., England, France, Russia and India). All those countries supposedly place great value on critical thinking and discourse, whether it takes the form of accountable talk, Socratic seminars or your basic turn and talk. Yet, in those 500 classrooms, open-ended questions accounted for only 10% of the questions posed by teachers. And in 15% of classrooms no open-ended questions were asked at all. Additionally the study found that only 11% of the teachers in those classrooms asked follow-up questions to probe student thinking in ways that might develop and extend both the ideas and the discussion. And when students asked questions that were relevant to the day’s topic but weren’t on the lesson plan (which the study called ‘uptake’ questions), only 4% of teachers actually addressed them. They rest just let them hang there.

This seems to suggest that while we may talk the talk about talk, we don’t always walk the walk, and that leads me to the elephant in the room. While there may be many reasons why open-ended questions weren’t used more in those classrooms (including teachers being evaluated on standardize test scores), I suspect that the discrepancy between what we say and do is at least in part due to our fear of losing control of our rooms.

Panic ButtonFear, of course, is a powerful thing, and in this case the fear isn’t totally irrational. Teachers are, after all, just one person in charge of thirty or more children whose minds and bodies and moods can go off in a zillion different directions. And so in the belief that it’s better to acknowledge what scares us than pretend it doesn’t exist, I want to share the fact that I’ve never helped a teacher implement a writing unit without feeling a moment of panic in the middle, when things are at their messiest and I’m not quite sure how I’ll ever get us out of what I’ve gotten us into. Nor have I ever sat down with students to read—whether it’s for a whole class read aloud, a small group or individual conference—and not been aware that, by asking open-ended questions, I’m opening myself up to the possibility of encountering something I hadn’t expected and might not know how to deal with, which is precisely what happened with that class of third graders I wrote about earlier who were ready to jump on the idea that the Maasai were giving 14 cows to America in order to fight Al Qaeda.

Having some teaching moves up my sleeves, like the ones I’ve been sharing, definitely helps, as does giving myself permission to abandon my plans and exit the small group, read aloud or conference as gracefully and quickly as possible in order to give myself time to think about how to address whatever problem I’ve uncovered. And I hold on, as well, to the belief that if we don’t open up our lessons to encounter the unexpected, we limit the opportunities for students to show us what they’re capable of doing without us as well as where their thinking breaks down.

I also think it’s useful to acknowledge the worst that could happen if we loosen the reins in order to see that those worst-case scenarios aren’t really as bad as we imagined. Last week, for instance, I showed how we could turn a student’s “I don’t know” into an inquiry the-worst-case-scenario-little-book-for-survivalquestion rather than a dead end. And what’s really the worst that can happen if we don’t know something or have all the answers?

I think we fear that our authority or expertise might be called into question, but I believe that students actually gain much by seeing us not know everything. First and foremost, it demonstrates that learning is life long, and that we are learners, too. And admitting that we’re unsure of something often helps students take more risks in their thinking, as happened in a fourth grade classroom I worked in earlier this year. I bungled my way through the scientific name of a frog we were reading an article about, and the teachers observing me were convinced that my willingness to admit that I had no idea how to pronounce the frog’s name encouraged the students to share thoughts and ideas they weren’t completely certain about either.

And if you hit one of those ‘I don’t know what to do next’ moments, you can always follow the advice that the educational writer and speaker Alfie Kohn gives in his list of twelve core principles that he thinks will create the kind of schools our children deserve. Along with “Learning should be organized around problems, projects and students’ questions,” and “Thinking is messy; deep thinking is really messy. Therefore beware of prescriptive standards and outcomes that are too specific and orderly,” he offers this:

“When we aren’t sure how to solve a problem relating to curriculum, pedagogy or classroom conflict, the best response is often to ask the kids.”

We can also stand up to the elephant by holding on to the pay-offs that come with letting go of control. Getting a clearer look at what’s going on in students’ head is certainly a big one. But I think there’s an even bigger pay-off, which was summed up by a teacher I worked with last year who, as we shared our take-aways at our final session said, “I no longer believe that there’s anything that my students can’t do.”

100th PostAnd last but not least, I want to share this: For quite some time after starting this blog, I couldn’t hit the key to publish a post without momentarily shuddering. What in the world was I thinking of, sending my thoughts out into the world? What if no one read them or didn’t like what I had to say? That fear hasn’t completely gone away, but as I send this, my 100th post, out into the world, it doesn’t have the same hold on me. I think that’s because I learned something that writer Erica Jong speaks about in her contribution to the wonderful anthology of essays The Writer on Her Work:

“I have not ceased being fearful, but I have ceased to let fear control me. I have accepted fear as a part of life, specifically the fear of the unknown, and I have gone ahead despite the pounding in the heart that says: turn back, turn back, you’ll die if you venture too far.”

I think this means making peace with the elephant instead of ignoring or avoiding it and, more importantly, trading fear in for trust—trust in ourselves, trust in our students, trust in the meaning making process and the fact that the very worst that might happen is that we create some more space to learn.

Making Friends with the Elephant