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

Steering the Ship: More Teaching Moves to Support Critical Thinking & Meaning Making

Steering wheel of the ship

Last post I looked at what can happen when we dig into the huh‘s and hmm‘s students make as they read. I like to think of these as authentic reading responses, which, if we pay attention to them, can open the door to deeper thinking. Like giggles, groans, ah‘s and oh‘s, these are all reactions to something students have read or heard in a text, and as such they’re the outward manifestation of something going on in students’ heads, whether it’s insight, disappointment or confusion.

Probing these responses is one of the teaching moves I always keep in my toolbox, knowing that it serves several purposes. For one, it acknowledges students’ responses as being valuable, which, in turn, conveys other messages to children: that we care about their ????????????????????????????????????thinking, not just their answers, and that it’s okay to be unsure or tentative because that’s where learning starts. It also gives students an opportunity to practice attaching more language to fledgling thoughts in a way that makes visible the messy way we actually develop ideas as well as the chance to orally practice elaborating and explaining, which almost every students needs. And the worst that can happen when we probe these responses is that a student says, “I don’t know,” which provides us with another opportunity for normalizing not knowing as a natural part of the learning process and either opening the response up for discussion or reframing it as an inquiry, such as, “Why did that line, scene or sentence give us pause?”

The other move I shared last week was one that helped students move away from what, with thanks to fellow blogger Steve Peterson, I’ve started calling text-to-self conclusions. These are often the first ideas students gravitate to in order to answer a question or explain something they’ve noticed. And while they may cite a detail from the text (as in last week’s example), these conclusions are mostly based on something outside the text, as students draw from their background knowledge or their own experience to make sense of something.

frustrated woman with hands in hair screaming against chalkboardThese text-to-self conclusions are also the ones that we, as teachers, can feel frustrated with because they’ve missed the mark. And they can spark those “Why can’t they (fill in the blank)?” questions and sometimes even hair pulling. But we have some choices here about what teaching moves to make, especially if we’re trying to promote thinking, not fish for a pre-determined answer. Here, for example, is what happened in a seventh grade room I was recently in, where the teachers had set up a gallery walk of images to kick off a unit that would explore how class and economic differences can lead to conflict and change.

As the students made their way around the room in small groups, they were asked to discuss and jot down what they thought were the important details and from that to consider what connected the images in order to make a text-based prediction about the unit’s theme. The students would be reading Katherine Paterson‘s Lyddie as an anchor text, which recounts the story of a young girl whose desperate financial circumstances lead her to work in a mill in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the mid-1800’s, and so there were a few images, like this one, depicting children in factories:

Child Working in Factory

But there were also other images like these, in which no children or factories were in sight:

Labor Conflict Image 2

Bangladesh-fire

Despite this, every student in the room came to the same conclusion. They all recalled having read the book Iqbal by Francesco D’Adamo in sixth grade, which is a fictionalized account of a Pakistani boy who was sold as a child into a life of bonded labor. And making that text-to-self connection, they concluded that factories were the most important detail and the unit was about child labor.

While the teachers were thrilled that the students remembered a book they had read last year, they were disappointed with their conclusions. They’d asked the students, in effect, to notice patterns, which can be a powerful and accessible way to get students to think more deeply. But in this case, rather than stretching their thinking, the students here focused on selective details that fit into what they already knew, which precluded any new discoveries—and any real critical thinking.

why_dont_students_like_school1In a great article called “Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?”, Daniel T. Willingham, the cognitive scientist and author of books such as Why Don’t Students Like School, looks at a term that’s often bandied about in order to more clearly define it. According to him, critical thinking comprises three types of thinking—reasoning, making judgements, and problem solving—which, to truly be critical, must  involve “three key features: effectiveness, novelty, and self-direction.” And he unpacks each of these feature as follows.

Critical thinking is effective, he says, because,

“it avoids common pitfalls, such as seeing only one side of an issue, discounting new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning from passion rather than logic . . . and so on.”

It’s novel because, “you don’t simply remember a solution or a situation that is similar enough to guide you.” And it’s self-directed in the sense that,

“the thinker must be calling the shots: We wouldn’t give a student much credit for critical thinking if the teacher were prompting each step he took.”

If we embrace this definition, we have to say that the students weren’t thinking critically. They’d jumped to a conclusion without considering all the evidence by remembering a similar situation (or, in this case, a book). And they wouldn’t be critically thinking either if we prompted them with some text-dependent questions—such as “What’s the setting of the second image?”—that forced them to notice something they hadn’t that we’d deemed important.

We could, though, ask more open-ended questions of the sort I did last week, to invite the students to take in more before coming to a conclusion. And these could take a variety of forms, such as:

  • Do you notice any details that don’t fit the pattern you’ve seen?
  • Are there other ways in which the images might be connected, or other patterns you notice?
  • Do you think there are any differences or similarities in the patterns you’ve noticed—i.e., are there patterns within the patterns?
  • Could you revise your ideas in a way that take these new noticings into account?

These questions steered these seventh graders back to look more closely at the images and to question and bat around each other’s ideas more. That, in turn, led them to steer away from their original conclusion to ideas that had to do with human rights and fairness, especially among groups of people, like children, women and African-Americans, who, they thought, might not have much power. And that made us teachers smile.

I’ll share a few more teaching moves with a printed text another time. But if you’ve got a few moves up your sleeve that help students become critical thinkers and meaning makers, too, please feel free to share them. And in the meantime, tuck these in your sleeve.

Ace under your sleeve