Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Can I be that little bit better at.....understanding that how they say it, is as important as what they say?

c/o Wonderlane
Over the years I have been in many colleagues classrooms.  As is part of the observation process, you focus on a number of things, ponder on what you see and generate discussion afterwards.  Everything you do is focused on moving the teacher forward in order to have better outcomes for the students they teach.  Most of the time I am asked in to focus on specific elements of teaching which colleagues wish to improve.  Feedback, planning, ways to differentiate and developing student writing are just a few.  One area in particular, questioning, has made me rethink what I thought I knew.

I wrote a couple of posts last year about the complexities of good questioning and what might actually make this fundamental component of a teachers repertoire effective.  Although I'd never say I am anywhere near an expert of good questioning, I would say I have a pretty good grasp of it in my lessons.  However, a curious thought popped into my head whilst chatting to a member of our focus group a few terms back about what we observe when watching teachers pose questions.  I had been wooed under the illusion that a teacher who can skillfully pose questions that unpick, dissect, delve or expand on an element of knowledge must be a master craftsman.  The well worded question that simultaneously causes a student's head to hurt whilst still providing scope for an answer to be found is a thing to behold.  All hail thee, who when being observed, both stretch and challenge students through well designed questions.  And that there maybe the problem.

A lot of the time, the skill of questioning focuses on developing what or how the teacher poses the question.  We work with teachers to craft better questions.  We look at how we word a well designed question.  We use a variety of techniques to increase student response or even deploy techniques like 'wait time' to ensure an answer can be provided.  But what about the quality of the answer?

Having done a lot of work on our school's feedback policy, we focus a lot on the quality of written work that students produced.  And why wouldn't we?  It's easy to look through a book, read an answer and be able to analyse the quality of it and even suggest improvements.  Here's a question though.  When looking through an exercise book, what would you think if a student provided this written answer to the following question?:

Instantly many of you might be focusing on the overuse of the word 'like', the vagueness of the content, or even the weak example.  When written down it is easy to analyse, correct or challenge.  As a teacher I can mark their books and provide feedback to improve the depth of their answer.  As an observer I can check books and question students to see if this happens over the year.  We spend a lot of our time and focus on what students write that maybe we've forgotten about what they say?  For instance, if the same answer was given verbally, would we scrutinise it so intently and in as much depth?  Or, might it go something like this?

Teacher: So, we've been looking at the various aspects and methods of training, can anyone explain, using an example, what altitude training is?

Teacher: [Deploys wait time and uses a no hands up technique for selecting]

Teacher: Josh, what do you think?

Josh: Well, it's sort of like, when a runner like goes running up high, you know, like a mountain, to get their body systems and their blood cells better.

Teacher: Nearly Josh. You've got the basic idea.  What Josh is saying is an athlete might train.....

Or how about this?:

Teacher: So, we've been looking at the various aspects and methods of training, can anyone explain, using an example, what altitude training is?  Emma, what do you think?

Emma: Umm, I'm not sure?

Teacher: Ok, anyone else? Josh?

Josh: Well, it's sort of like, when a runner like goes running up high, you know, like a mountain, to get their body systems and their blood cells better.

Teacher: Sort of.  Can you add to it?

Josh: Umm, well, don't they have to train at altitude for a few weeks or months and then come back to their normal home and compete?

Teacher: Yes Josh. It's to do with the fact they go away at altitude for training and then.....

Both versions might seem either very common or a million miles away from what you do in your classrooms.  The problem with these is that it's the kind of avenue I would take after an answer was given.  I know it's not technically correct, but I focus on the content technicalities rather than the quality of the language used.  The first example results in me producing the better answer for the student myself.  I've ultimately done the improvement for them.  The second results in me trying to develop it but instead I take an answer which is a new question.  Have I therefore tackled the inaccuracies of language use?  Have I made the answer more academic?  No.

So, back to my earlier ramblings, here is that curious thought that popped into my head when chatting to a colleague in a focus group and it all stemmed from him saying:

"If students can't give high quality verbal answers, will they be able to give high quality written ones?"

I'm not sure.  When observing others I know I focus on teacher questions but I'm not sure I've specifically focused on the quality of student answers and that direct link.  Have I missed an important component?  I do know that in my own teaching I don't tackle low quality verbal answers anywhere as near as I do with  low quality written ones.  And that's what needed to change.  In the frantic hustle and bustle of a lesson, do we have the time, the confidence and the environment to challenge answers like this?  Or do we do what I highlighted before and do this for them and correct it ourselves?

So what could we do?

Be aware of it

There can be no simpler piece of advice than simply be aware of it.  Be reflective as you teach and identify times when you pose questions.  What was the quality of the answer?  What exactly did the student say?  What was the language use like?  How was the strength of their communication skills?  Where they able to eloquently explain their thoughts?  Did they use high vocabulary or specific terminology?  These are just some things to be reflective of and clearly not exhaustive.  Once you know when these moments happen and you pay more attention to the response, then you can begin to change the habits of both yourself and your students.

Identify a link?

Are those students who provide poorly constructed verbal answers the same ones who produce poorly worded written ones?  It's something of interest that I'll be looking at.

Create that culture that we will improve it

Changing students written work can be a very private and safe process.  A student makes an error or misconception and you can provide feedback in their books.  If a student doesn't use language of a high standard as you might want, you can make a note of it or write down some suggestions.  In a book these are read by the student without the focus of peers and other observers.

Apply the same process in an open class discussion and all of a sudden pressure, unease and anxiety may overcome a student.  The fear of being openly critiqued on the quality of their spoken answer can be a daunting one for many.  It's therefore important that you build the culture of your group that highlights that this public dissection is not an attack on them but is instead a process to help improve the quality of their communication.  Highlight why you're doing it and the benefits of doing it.  Choose confident individuals to begin using the process.  Build it up using a random selection process for getting answers.  Model the improvement.  Explain why suggested changes will create a better and more academic answer.  Involve the class and make it as supportive, and challenging, as possible.  Ensure that the class realise that with support, the intial answer has been developed into something much better.  Culture takes time to build but once it is there, challenge the quality of answers continuously.

Have the confidence to actually improve it

From a teachers perspective, it can be a daunting task actually developing students answers.  There is the worry that suggestions you pose may be taken as a blow to their self-esteem.  The challenge of trying to improve an answer from a student who displays little interest or effort.  The worry of how peers may react.  The confidence to actually challenge and set high expectations.  It can be daunting but we need to remember that we don't do it to display our power or ridicule.  Instead we do it to help students develop their ability to communicate in a high quality way.

Focus on how they say it, not just what they say

Being subject specialists it is easy to be drawn to the content element of an answer.  Are they talking about the correct definition when we ask them?  Is that a strong enough example to support their thinking?  Have they pulled out a relevant quotation or piece of evidence?  As well as doing that, focus on how they say it, exactly as we would in a written version.  Have they got a powerful opening to their argument?  Have they used quality connectives that pull together parts of a statement?  Do they use an unnecessary amount of redundant words that we can ask them to remove?  Highlight what they have said.  Point out areas of improvement.  Get peer support of alternative words.  Question them about how they should make improvements.

Use questioning techniques

If a student is unaware of how to construct a good verbal answer then they aren't going to produce one repeatedly.  Speaking at a high level requires time, practice, guidance and thought,  Techniques as simple as wait time allow individuals to construct better answers before they share them.  Using ABC questioning allows you to build an answer as a class.  Modelling what a good answer looks like provides examples of excellence.  Snowballing allows students to build up the quality of their answer with a group of peers.  If high quality verbal answers are going to be the norm, then scaffolding the process is going to be required.

Now this post may be making a bigger deal out of student answers than needs to be?  It may actually resonate with a lot of people and be something more common that first thought.  The idea though that settling for poorly constructed answers does bother me in my own practice.  If I want individuals to communicate in an academic way, whether in written or verbal format, I need to ensure that I help them achieve that.

Further reading:
Questioning my questioning
Asking better questions