Probing the continuum

post-it-notes

From time to time, we happen upon a simple and effortless strategy that makes a fundamental difference to a key element of our teaching. Over the years we hone this down to something close to perfection, yet because it is so easy and straightforward we just assume that everyone else is doing the same thing. Forgive me, then, if you already do this, but here is my awkwardly named ‘post-it discussion’ in all its glory. It is simply the best strategy for initiating quality discussion I have ever put to use in my classroom, and this week it has become even better…

It works like this.

I give students a question – say, ‘Did Steinbeck present a completely pessimistic view of the world in Of Mice and Men?’ – and show them a continuum, from ‘yes’ to ‘no’, on the board.

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2. I tell them that I will give them a post-it note on which they will write their name. I remind them that they can stick the post-it along the continuum wherever they like. As I am dawdling round handing out the post-its, I let them chat to their neighbours about where they will place themselves. (The dawdling is a deliberate tactic that enables me to feed in a few ideas to those who are unsure or lack confidence as I go round.)

3. Once all the post-its are up on the board, it is time for the discussion to begin. I now know the broad sweep of opinion in the class, and can conduct the discussion however I like. In true Carol Vorderman style – ‘one from the left, one from the right and now one from the middle’ – I pick off the post-its, asking students either to comment on the reasoning behind their position or to feed back on the opposing comment we have just heard. As always, it is important to probe and refuse to accept badly reasoned points. I do also allow hands-up comments too as I think a total ‘hands-down’ policy can sometimes be counter-productive (as I explained in this post here). Giving an option to move the note to a different position along the continuum mid-discussion is also vital.

Above is the simple premise, but it is the recent tweaks I have made which have really excited me.

  • The first is to encourage students to use the ABC – agree with, build-upon or challenge – discussion format that Alex Quigley discusses here.
  • The second, which I put into action yesterday, added an extra dimension to the process comes from Doug Lemov’s comment on Alex’s blog. If students want to comment on another student’s point they raise two fingers rather than the whole hand (in the ‘victory-sign’ way, of course!) My initial feeling is that this makes them listen to each other more carefully and, when I want to liven things up a bit, I turn to a ‘two-finger’ student to turn the discussion on its head.
  • Another variation is to ensure that students have key words and concepts available as cues. If we are discussing a text, I like this to be available too so that they can support their ideas with textual evidence.
  • The most exciting I have left until last. I have been fascinated by the ‘art of the sentence’ idea that Doug Lemov has been blogging about recently – here. By giving students sentence starters, such as ‘at first glance’ or ‘throughout the poem’ not only are we prompting ideas, but we are giving them a syntactical structure that helps to generate new thinking. Getting students to practise using these structures during the discussion will neatly set them up for later extended writing tasks.

Have a look below at my Mark II slide:

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So why might it work? First, unlike some other ‘no opt-out’ strategies there is lots of opportunity to think ideas through before speaking. Second, the continuum promotes balanced, ‘shades of grey’ thinking when used repeatedly, especially so when in conjunction with sentence prompts. Third, if used judicially in the learning cycle it can feed directly into the scaffolding of writing. Last, despite the fact it seems to have become an unfashionable word in the blogosphere, it promotes engagement. This kind of engagement in language and quality thought seems to me to be very beneficial.

Two words of warning before you give this a try. Be careful when wording the question that you do not give students an option to take up a weak line of argument that could lead to genuine misconception. Note how above I asked the question ‘Did Steinbeck present a completely pessimistic view of the world in Of Mice and Men?’ rather than ‘Did Steinbeck present a pessimistic view of the world in Of Mice and Men?’ Watch out, too, for those shrinking violets who try to hide their post-it under another’s!

Please give it a try and let me know below how it has gone for you. More tweaking ideas would be gratefully received.

A special thanks to Dan Brinton – @BelmontTeach – for pointing out how risible the original title for this blog was and suggesting the slimmer title it now has!

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Responsive questioning

listen

Before Christmas I wrote about teacher responsiveness and differentiation – here. Since then I have been considering the importance of responsive questioning, of how we respond to the unpredictable – and sometimes downright bizarre! – verbal feedback we receive from our students. Once again, this is about our on-the-spot agility, our knowledge of our students and our subject expertise.  We are actors in a forever unscripted play; planning can only get us so far.

It is helpful to consider the purpose of questioning in the classroom before we begin. It often seems a vague area. Is it to check learning or is it to springboard further learning? Even though both are relevant, I am more interested in the latter than the former. For me, it is about helping students to formulate new perceptions, about challenging lazy preconceptions and, in English at least, about encouraging nuanced interpretations. When successful, questioning will lead to discussion, and it is in these episodes that we build our relationships with our classes and cement the ethos of our classroom. Perhaps the crucial point is that questioning, I think, is about initiating and sustaining a high level of academic rigour; the more we probe, the more we push the discussion forward, the less we leave unchallenged, the better our students learn. For me, this is just about the toughest skill to master. I struggle along, if I am honest, failing at it every day.

When it comes to this kind of questioning, I am wary of ‘silver bullets’.  The current thinking tends to advise the following:

   Questions should be thoroughly planned before the lesson.

   We should avoid hands up.

   We should avoid too much praise.

   We should avoid repeating what our students have said.

   We should use random-selecting strategies – such as the lolly stick – to avoid allowing some to dominate and others to remain passive.

   We should use PPPB. Pose a question, Pause, Pounce on a student and then immediately Bounce it to another student without interfering.

   The teacher should keep quiet and let the students do the talking.

All of this advice is useful, but only partially so. Our complex classroom environments are far more fluid than some would have us think; more than anything else, we should listen to our students.

I remember hearing the ex-England goalkeeper, David James (he of the ‘Calamity James’ sobriquet), describing how he would spend hours in the shower visualising penalty saves over and over again. He found that this helped to hone his reactions on the pitch. In this manner, I have attempted a ‘visualisation’ of a short questioning sequence to demonstrate the kind of sharp thinking required.  I am asking the class about Curley’s Wife from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

 *

ME: So, what do you think Curley’s Wife’s role in the novel is? You have twenty seconds to think about it…

Pause.

ME: Josh, what do you think?

(My question was deliberately vague; I am after divergent thinking here. I pick Josh for a reason – like some others in the class, he jumps to conclusions too quickly. This is my chance to challenge these pre-conceptions from the off.)

JOSH: I think she is meant to be the evil character because she destroys the dream.

ME: When do we see her behave like this?

JOSH: Well, when we first see her she cuts off the light in the doorway.

ME: Is that enough to call her ‘evil’?

JOSH: No, not really. She also treats Crooks badly and flirts with Lennie which leads to him killing her.

ME: Interesting. Matt do you agree with Josh?

(I have probed Josh to give evidence, yet remained non-committal about his response.  Matt’s thinking is more refined and I know he will challenge Josh. If I had used a random selector at this point, there may have been the potential of the discussion finding itself in a repetitive cycle without the degree of insight I am searching for. The PPPB system is working well, but I do feel you have to pick your second student wisely. Most likely, students will all be rehearsing their answers to the initial question in their minds, so to ask for feedback on Josh’s opinion too takes a degree of multi-tasking; this may have an impact on the working memory of some leading to a muddled point.)

MATT: To an extent, but the way Steinbeck describes her death makes her seem weak and defenceless.

ME: Do you remember how Steinbeck described her?

MATT: No, not quite.

(Emily’s hand goes up. I nod to her. If I did not allow ‘hands-up’ at times this useful addition would not have occurred.)

EMILY: She was “very sweet and young.” (I look back at Matt. He is used to my body language. He knows I expect him to say more.)

MATT: So ‘young’ shows… (I shake my head; ‘shows’ is a banned word) illustrates that she is just an innocent child.

ME: Right everyone. Josh suggests that Curley’s Wife is evil, yet Matt feels she is innocent. Have a think about it. Where do you stand?

Pause. Choose Sian.

SIAN: Well, I think she has some of the characteristics of a villain but she’s also a victim. Steinbeck was making a comment about women in those times: Curley’s Wife is a victim of a masculine society who has no choice but to be the villain.

ME:  A* answer, Sian. Wow. That’s the kind of balanced interpretation we’re looking for everyone.

(Because, for me, class discussion is about searching together for the best ideas, I think it is important to stop and draw attention to quality answers. If praise is over-used, I find it can put a stopper on the discussion; you can inadvertently send out the message that that was good enough, no more need be said. )

ME: So, Sian, are you sure there were no other choices available to her?

(All assumptions, even the best, can be challenged.)

 *

The sequence above certainly represents a good day at the office (and, yes, my students rarely speak as incisively as Sian). Responsive questioning requires knowledge of the student, knowledge of the subject and lots and lots of listening. When students are less forthcoming, I often try the following:

   Give the student the answer you are looking for and ask them to explain how you got there.

   Give them two options, and get them to explain which they agree with most.

   Scaffold the sentence for them. ‘On the one hand, Curley’s Wife is the villain of the story, yet on the other…’

   Revert to hands-up mid-discussion. I tend to bounce a question round and when it begins to dry-out, I will listen to some hands-up. Is it right to leave great thinking unshared?

   Turn the tables. This is one of my personal favourites. The teacher takes on a role and the students question you in this role. On many an occasion I have found my meagre dramatic skills pushed to the limit in the role of a character or an author.

   Embark on a round of quick-fire closed-questions to cue memory and then go back to the original question.

   Stop the discussion and teach. I often find myself frustrated when the discussion has not elicited the level of perception I am after. I probably should not feel this way; it is entirely normal. As the expert in the classroom it must be the right thing to stop wherever we are to explain the learning they have not yet grasped.

I am dubious about hard-and-fast rules for classroom discussion and questioning. Listening sharply lesson after lesson is a tough ask, yet it is in the glow of these moments that I enjoy being a teacher the most.

warm glow

Further reading:

Tom Sherrington on probing questioning – here. Lots of great probing questions in this post.

Old Andrew on alternative ways to use hands-up – here.

My post on using a stimulus – here.

11/01/14 – Alex Quigley has written a great practical blog on conducting class discussion – here. Make sure you read the comments too.