In the classroom: Three questions for teachers...

Written by: Caroline Sherwood | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

When reflecting on your teaching, there are three questions you could ask yourself, says Caroline Sherwood

Question 1: What else?

To promote deeper and more rigorous participation in the learning and to share the cognitive load in lessons, students will often hear me ask: “What else?” Or perhaps more directly: “Say more about that.”

I want my students’ answers to have substance and be dynamic and I want them to think deeply. Developing a culture of extended responses rooted in insight relies on the students knowing a lot.

As Doug Lemov suggests in Teach Like a Champion (2015): “You need to know a lot about pretty much anything to think deeply about it. This is one of the most undervalued truths about learning.”

So stored knowledge held in long-term memory is necessary for my “what else?” question to be truly effective.

Without choosing to invest in knowledge transmission this sequence of questions would wither and become meaningless:

  • Teacher: “What does Lady Macbeth mean when she says to Macbeth: ‘Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t’”?
  • Student: “She is telling her husband to look innocent but be ready to strike.”
  • Teacher: “Yes. Say more about that.”
  • Student: “Lady Macbeth is encouraging Macbeth to appear innocent and play the part of a good host so that no-one will suspect the reality – he’s plotting murder.”
  • Teacher. “Great. What else?”

At this point, without knowledge of the significance of the snake, students will tend to repeat themselves and become pedestrian in their responses. To respond to the high cognitive demand of the second “what else?”, the students need knowledge. They might then respond with:

  • “The snake is significant because Eve is tempted by a serpent to commit an ungodly act of eating a forbidden fruit, which results in the presence of sin in the world.”
  • And perhaps: “This links with the Divine Right of Kings and the idea that anyone who acts directly against the king is also acting directly against God, so to kill the King...”

For students to add greater complexity to their responses, they need to be taught the knowledge. Making Every English Lesson Count (Tharby, 2017) highlights the importance of a strategy of “Mini-Explanations” (MEs) in order to share the knowledge necessary to respond at a deeper level, while the questioning is occurring.

Tharby goes on to explain that “cognitive science has revealed that we take on board new information by fastening it to things we already know”. So we must look for ways to attach students’ knowledge to concepts that they are already secure in.

Therefore, it is necessary to build our students’ cultural capital in order for them to respond to the “what else?” question.

Pierre Bourdieu argued that each group in society has its own cultural framework or set of norms, values and ideas. We might see this displayed in our classrooms. Looking to improve our students’ cultural capital enables them to respond critically, sincerely and with hunger and curiosity.

Question 2: What are you seeing from your perspective?

Students are inspiring, they are incredible and are full of insightful ideas and interpretations. We should do all that we can to hear more from them. Students become self-motivated, responsible learners with more power – over their learning and in their classrooms.

Asking students what they are seeing from their perspective “means recognising that young people have a perspective on the world that adults can’t share, and that their perspective should be welcomed alongside the wisdom that adult perspectives bring” (Giving Students a Voice, Brion-Meisels, 2016).

This question is also fundamental in creating a positive culture in staff teams. In Fierce Conversations (2004), Susan Scott recognises that “you will find yourself continually thrashed in your best efforts to accomplish the goals of the team unless reality is regularly and thoroughly examined”. Scott uses a beach ball analogy.

The blue stripe (of the beach ball) is where you live, every day, day after day ... you’re surrounded by blue. Everyday you eat, drink and breathe blue. So here you are in a meeting, laying out your strategy to launch an exciting new project. And, of course, you’re explaining that this strategy is brilliant because it takes into consideration the blueness of the company. Your (colleague) listens intently. Her brow is furrowed. She lives on the red stripe.

Scott goes on to ask: who owns the truth? In reality, everyone does. But perhaps there are multiple truths and multiple realities. Asking staff for their perspective and interrogating reality “allows you to generate commitment to a decision”. Successful school leaders will seek connection and make sure voices are heard. Might the same be said for a successful teacher in the classroom?

Daniel Coyle recognises the importance of developing a “hive mind (and) developing ways to challenge each other, ask the right questions, and never defer to authority” (The Culture Code, 2018). He goes on to acknowledge that “the goal is to create a flat landscape without rank, where people can figure out what really happened and talk about mistakes – especially their own”.

Question 3: Have my students struggled enough?

Shallow approaches to shallow learning are less difficult to design, easier to deliver and students will be able to complete them with little effort or challenge. More content can be covered. More shallow content, but more content nonetheless.

But there is a price to pay: long-term retention, performance and application suffers greatly. In Science of Learning 101: Why learning should be hard (2017), Patti Shank explains that “making learning too easy leads to thinking that learning has occurred when participants quickly forget and cannot actually apply. Deeper processing is critical”.

Learning is hard and it is uncomfortable. Designing learning opportunities that take your students out of their comfort zone is crucial if you are to achieve deeper learning that will last longer.

How long do you let that struggling student struggle for? Long enough? Too long? I have been asking myself the difficult question: have I let them struggle enough? It is easier and much more comfortable – for both the teacher and the student – to jump in and help but that struggle is often learning disguised as difficulty. Stepping in at this point could be learning thievery!

What if struggle is an inherent part of learning, and removing it interferes with mastery?

In The Importance of Struggle (Fisher & Frey, 2017) the authors write: “Teachers use various strategies to try to spare their students too much struggle ... (however) mathematics researcher Manu Kapur (2016) has developed the theory of productive struggle – the idea that attempting to perform a task and initially failing can improve learning.”

Research suggests that teachers ask on average two questions every minute, up to 400 a day and around 70,000 a year.

Ask yourself: what is the most important question I’ve asked today? 

  • Caroline Sherwood recently began a new role as assistant head and head of English at Isca Academy in Exeter. To read her previous teaching and leadership pieces in SecEd, go to http://bit.ly/2UbukrO


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