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A Better Way to Promote Discussion

“Know When to Stop Talking,” by Thomas Newkirk, Education Week, 7/28/15

Exploratory talk loops back again and again, as students formulate a thought, refine it, extend it.

There is an old saying, “Never miss an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.” It’s good advice for us teachers…. It’s well documented that we talk too much. When students do speak, there is often a recitation pattern that goes like this: (1) Teacher asks question…., (2) student answers, (3) teacher evaluates the answer of the student. Then on to the next question, the next student.

The proportions are pretty obvious—even when students are raising their hands to respond (not always the case), the teacher has two out of every three turns. Some students choose not even to bid for recognition, often because they aren’t quick enough.

As teachers, we fall into this pattern so easily…. It’s the default setting in classroom talk….

This pattern works if the purpose of classroom talk is to have students share fully formulated responses—and to be judged by the teacher. But this doesn’t work if the purpose of talk is to develop that response. The response can convey understanding, but it can’t create understanding.

How many of us, after all, say what we really want to say on the first try? Rather, exploratory talk loops back again and again, as we formulate a thought, refine it, extend it, and complicate it. It’s messy. And we usually do this exploration in the presence of a sympathetic and interested audience that is not pressed for time. In this inviting space, our memory seems to work better—details are recalled, stories and other points of view mysteriously become available. That’s the gift of talk.

We can break this typical pattern with what I call the “blank turn”—a refusal to evaluate the student response and go to the next student. It sounds like this, “Say more about that.” Or this, “Yes, go on.” Or like this … just silence. Sometimes the student apologizes, “Boy, I’m just rambling on.” And if I’m on my game, I say “Keep rambling.”…

This doesn’t go on forever. Given time constraints, it can’t. But after a stretch of free talk on the part of the students, I can re-enter and reflect back what I have heard….

A colleague of mine has a variation when she gets the inevitable “I don’t know” in response to a question. She responds, “I know you don’t know, honey. But if you did, what would you say?” It feels like nonsense, but it works.

It sounds easy, but listening and waiting can be hard work. Harder than talking….

Teaching…is not about us being brilliant; it is about students being brilliant…. The only way they can do this is to give them that generous gift of time and receptivity. There are few generalizations that hold for all good teachers, but I will hazard this one: Good teachers never appear rushed. Or make students feel rushed….

In this age of high-tech and expensive teaching programs, let me offer up this simple and powerful intervention: the blank turn. It costs us nothing but our attention. It is built on the rock-solid principle that we need talk, and a receptive audience, to build understanding and to know what we know.

In Bernard Pomerance’s play The Elephant Man, the deformed main character, Merrick, has the experience of being listened to for the first time—and he finds he can speak: “Before I spoke with people, I did not think of those things because there was no one to think them for. But now things come out of my mouth that are true.”

Thomas Newkirk is the director of the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes. His most recent book is Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts.

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Don’t Ask Questions (Well, Not the Usual Way)

“The Right Questions, The Right Way,” by Dylan Wiliam, Educational Leadership, March 2014

 The most familiar classroom routine needs changing.

It is perhaps the most familiar of all classroom routines: A teacher asks the class a question, several students raise their hands, the teacher selects one of those with a hand raised, the student gives a response, the teacher evaluates the student’s response, and the cycle begins again…. Yet just about every aspect of this scenario actually gets in the way of learning—and it doesn’t provide enough information on what most students in the class know and need to learn.

What’s Wrong with the Traditional Routine?

The fundamental flaw in the traditional questioning model is that it makes participation voluntary. Confident students engage by raising their hands…but others decline the invitation to participate and thus miss out on the chance to get smarter….

A second problem…is that even if a teacher chooses students at random, the teacher will only be assessing the understanding of [a few students]….

The third problem…is that teachers rarely plan the questions they use. When, as teachers, we ask questions and get the answers we were hoping for, we generally conclude that students’ learning is on track…when, in fact, their understanding of the subject is quite different from what we intend….

No Hands Up

The simplest way to improve classroom questioning is simply not to ask for volunteers, but instead to choose a student at random. Students raise their hands only to ask questions, not to answer them. Such a move is unpopular—teachers find it difficult to manage, students who used to raise their hands in response to every question can’t show off their knowledge, and [quiet] students…now have to pay attention. But in terms of small changes that can have big effects, “no hands up” may be the most significant thing a teacher can do….

Many teachers prefer to choose the student first, then ask the question. This is generally a bad idea…. As soon as students know who [has been chosen] all the other students can relax. It’s far better to ask the question first, give students time to think of a response, then pick a student at random.

The danger here is that the teacher will select a student for whom the question is too easy or too hard. There is certainly no point in asking a student a question the teacher knows the student cannot answer, but when teachers assume they know which students can answer and which cannot, they tend to produce self-fulfilling prophecies….

One way to make questions suitable for any student is to pose them in a way that allows students to engage with the question at a number of different levels.

For example, rather than asking students to answer a math question, the teacher could pose two questions of differing difficulty on the board and ask, “Which of these two questions is harder and why?” The ensuing discussion will raise all the important mathematical issues the teacher needs to cover, but the question has been posed in an inclusive way that enables more students to contribute, thus supporting differentiated instruction….

No Questions—Just Responses

It is particularly effective to forgo questions entirely and instead make statements to which students are expected to respond. Through follow-up, the teacher can deal with any misunderstanding…without “wrong-footing” students from the outset.

For example, rather than asking students in a world history class, “Which country was most to blame for the outbreak of World War I?”…the teacher might make the statement, “Russia was most to blame for the outbreak of World War I,” and expect students to react….

The whole idea that students should always answer teachers’ questions correctly is actually rather odd. If the students are answering every one of the teacher’s questions correctly, the teacher is surely wasting the students’ time. If the questions are not causing students to struggle and think, they are probably not worth asking. As I say to students, “Mistakes are evidence that the questions I asked are tough enough to make you smarter.” …

Dylan Wiliam is Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the Institute of Education, University of London. He is the author of Embedded Formative Assessment.,-The-Right-Way.aspx

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Brainstorming Doesn’t Work—Do This Instead

By Rochelle Bailis, Forbes Magazine, 10/8/14

We find our best ideas when we stop pretending every idea is a good one.

Have you ever sat through a fruitless brainstorming session and wondered—who came up with this?… Alex F. Osborn, the father of brainstorming and a passionate advertising executive who set out to transform how companies cultivated new ideas.

The philosophies set out in Osborn’s groundbreaking book, Your Creative Power, have defined how businesses around the globe conceive of new strategies.

Unfortunately for Osborn and the rest of us who’ve lumbered through countless group ideation sessions,…studies clearly show that brainstorming doesn’t work….

Where Brainstorming Goes Wrong

[Brainstorming has] well-established rules (many of which were actually chartered by Osborn in his book):

  • Judgment and criticism are barred
  • Wildness of ideas is encouraged
  • Large quantity of ideas is desirable
  • Combining and building off ideas is encouraged

These rules reveal several assumptions…. First, most of us believe that two heads are better than one, and that collaborating as a group allows us to bounce ideas off one another. Second, we presume that if you ban criticism,…it will encourage greater creativity because people won’t fear judgment for spouting unpolished ideas.

Unfortunately, numerous studies (including ones conducted by Osborn himself) show that almost none of these long-revered brainstorming rules lead to a greater quantity or quality of ideas.

In his book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, professor Keith Sawyer recounts a Yale study conducted by Osborn in 1958. Male students were broken into groups and given several creative puzzles to solve. As a control, Osborn asked the same number of students to work on the puzzles by themselves. The students working alone came up with two times as many solutions as the groups did, and the solo students’ solutions were rated as more “feasible” by an independent panel of judges. Why do people come up with more and better ideas when they work on problems alone?

Consider your last brainstorming session. You may have noticed that the majority of ideas came from the more extroverted team members. Brainstorming sessions tend to exclude contributions of…problem-solvers who [are] more introverted….

I manage a team of content creators, including video producers, writers, editors and other creatives; they are an outspoken team, and…should be even more imaginative than the average individual. But whenever I hold a brainstorming session with the purpose of “thinking outside of the box,” we instead tend to rehash, reword, and build off existing ideas.

Sound familiar? There is a reason for this….

Many participants of a brainstorming session…feel pressured to go along with the dominant idea or pattern of thinking. This psychological tendency, called collaborative fixation, inherently leads to conformity of ideas and reduces the possibility of original solutions….

Better: Allow Respectful Dissent

One way to optimize brainstorming is to ignore the traditional limit on criticism and open your session up to healthy debate. Charlan Nemeth, a Berkeley professor, found in a series of studies in 2003 that criticism can enhance the quality and quantity of viable creative ideas.

Nemeth asked a team of students to come up with solutions to a problem without criticizing one another, and asked another group to brainstorm freely but also be willing to critique one another. The team that was encouraged to scrutinize came up with 20% more creative ideas than the others did….

An environment of light dissent can spark greater engagement with other viewpoints, and forces people to constantly re-evaluate their own ideas…. Ensure [the] debates never get personal…. Opposition can lead to greater ingenuity.

Also Better: “Brainswarming”

For those looking to steer clear of dispute, a cognitive psychologist named Dr. Tony McCaffrey proposes another, more cooperative solution. McCaffrey, who’s spent years studying human creativity, observes in the Harvard Business Review that brainstorming “doesn’t work because sharing ideas one at a time, by talking no less, is incredibly inefficient.” So he poses this question: “Why do we need to talk in the first place?”

While traditional brainstorming has always involved a room full of collaborators blurting out ideas, McCaffrey proposes a more silent approach called “brainswarming,” which encourages individual ideation within the context of a larger objective. You start brainswarming by placing a goal or problem at the top of a white board, then listing the resources available to meet the problem at the bottom. Members of your team sit independently and write down ideas for tackling the problem from either end.

McCaffrey has found that natural “top-down” thinkers will begin refining the goal, while “bottom-up” thinkers will either add more resources or analyze how resources can be used to solve the problem.

The magic happens in the middle, where these two factions connect. [For a demonstration of brainswarming, see this video.]

In spite of decades of evidence to the contrary, [people] continue to brainstorm solutions…. It’s time to start shifting your focus to methods that foster better and more useful ideas.

Rochelle Bailis writes about leadership, psychology, and innovation for Forbes.

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Socrates: Inspiring Student Interaction

“Socrates: The Teaching Superstar,” by Eric Westervelt, NPR’s Morning Edition, 10/29/14 Socrates, the superstar teacher of the ancient world, was sentenced to death more than 2,400 years ago for “corrupting” the minds of Athenian youth. But Socrates’…question-and-dialogue-based teaching style lives on in many classrooms as the Socratic method. I went to Oakland Technical High School […]
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7 Things Quiet Students Wish Teachers Understood

by Marsha Pinto, The Huffington Post, 8/25/14 1. Being quiet doesn’t make us less smart. Teachers don’t understand how frustrating it can get reading the comment, ” _____ is a great student but he/she doesn’t participate in class.”… Still waters run deep. I know some teachers like to base grades on participation, but…it’s difficult for us […]
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Cold-Calling in Class

By Mitchell Handelsman, Psychology Today, 11/26/13  Should teachers call on students who don’t volunteer? Should, or when should, teachers engage in “cold calling”—calling on students in class when the students have not volunteered?…It’s hard for me to have (or understand) blanket policies (“I never call on students if they haven’t raised their hands,” or, “I always […]
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4 Questions to Promote Discussion

By Rebecca Alber, Edutopia website, 10/31/13 For inquiry to be alive and well in a classroom, the teacher needs to be expert at asking strategic questions–not only well-designed ones, but ones that will also lead students to questions of their own. Asking straightforward, simply-worded questions can be just as effective as intricate ones. With that […]
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Oral Expression: Grade It

by Kyle Redford; from Education Week The other day, my daughter complained that her 89.5 average in history class left her short of an A for the grading period. When I probed further, I discovered that her teacher does not assign a grade for oral contributions in class. Intelligent observations, connections, ideas, or questions in history […]
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Argument is the Essence of Thought

by Mike Schmoker & Gerald Graff; from Education Week If we want students to succeed in postsecondary studies and careers, an ancient, accessible concept needs to be restored to its rightful place at the center of schooling: argument. In its various forms, it includes the ability to analyze and assess facts and evidence, support solutions, and […]
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