Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Creating a Culture of Questions

Virtual Conference on Soft Skills [1]

[Note: This post was pretty much written by all of you.  There are no unique ideas here (save for a few anecdotes) but I still found it productive to try to flesh out exactly what it is that I do to promote this culture of questions in my classroom. It's a huge part of what I do, but I'm afraid my ability to articulate the process may be lacking.  I asked for a bunch of feedback via facebook/email from former students for this; kids ranging from the classes of '99 to '14 and they really helped shape this post.]  So here it goes:

I learned how to learn when I was in college.  No one told me.  It just happened.  As a teacher I have tried to help this process along a bit for my students because it kinda pissed me off that I spent 14 years in school and no one actually told me, "Learning is about the questions you ask, not the answers."  So that pretty sums up my teaching philosophy.  It hasn't  changed much in 16 years.

Kids don't get that.  They think that as long as they get the right answer, who cares about the how and the why?  Questions and answers are on opposite teams.  Answers get my work put on the refrigerator.  Questions mean I don't know the answers.  Answers mean I know.  Questions mean I don't know. I can't let 'em know I don't know.

That's wrong. It's our job to change that.  It's not easy and you have to set the table for yourself.  The pillars to a questioning classroom involve: Truth, Trust, Togetherness and Transparency.


I talk to my students.  A lot. In just about every year I've taught, I've had some variation of the same discussion with my classes.  For some classes, this talk happens in the first week.  For others it doesn't happen until the second semester.  But inevitably, it happens. 

It goes something like this:

Suppose all the information in the world is contained in this circle.

Here's you.

Some of them get offended until I show them this:

We're kinda in the same boat.  Not much to brag about and not much to be embarrassed about.

What happens when we share?

And the more we learn, the sooner we realize that this circle is waaaay too small. 
If our goal is to learn everything there is to learn, then we are chasing a finish line that's moving away from us much faster than we're moving towards it. 

The only way we begin to know is when we realize that we don't know...and become OK with that.

So, how do we share our knowledge?



Once we've established that we're all really in the same boat, there's no excuse for false pride. It's time to build trust.  Do I really believe what I told them?  I make it very clear to my students that I'm not smarter than they are; I just have more experience.  I make it very clear that I don't tolerate anyone looking down on others for asking questions.  I'm not so much of a there's no such thing as a dumb question kinda guy as much as I am a who are you to look down on someone who doesn't know? You didn't know the first time you tried kinda guy. This always leads to a digression about the first time we all tried to walk or ride a bike (my kids turn out to be great fodder for these kinds of discussions) which furthers the trust factor as I let them into my life a bit. 

I don't let my students say, "That's easy" when someone asks a question because it deflates the questioner.  Quickly.   First time that comes out of someone's mouth I say, "Everything's easy once you get it."

I have to be honest, establishing trust was much easier for me when I taught high school.  It's been a bit more of a challenge with 7th and 8th graders because I have a Kate-ish thing for truth.  Sometimes I have to dial it back a bit without becoming falsely warm and fuzzy. 


It takes some students quite a while to adapt to my questioning style in class.  I've had kids want to drop my class (especially when I was at the high school) because "he doesn't give me the answers" "he never answers my questions."  It's tough sometimes because kids are resolute.  They'll try to corner you into taking the pencil out of their hand.  The key is consistency.  The more questions I ask, the more willing they are to ask.

One of the things I've done to help establish a willingness to ask questions is give the class lateral thinking puzzles.  I mean, c'mon,  there's no way you can guess the answer on some of these on the first try.  Asking questions and being wrong are part of the process because they help us eliminate potential possibilities.  It takes kids time to figure this out because they want to be specific with their questions at first which is very counterproductive.  They have to learn to start with very general questions and the yes/no answer tells them whether or not to continue down that path.  Once they get the hang of this, they start to realize that there are common themes in many of these puzzles which can be applied to later puzzles.  This works nicely with problem solving strategies down the road.

At some point I throw out the challenge for them to find a lateral thinking puzzle that will stump me, which can't be done (or so I say).  The trash talk ensues and I model the heck out of how one goes from the very general question to more specific questions.  

The important thing here is that we do these as a class, together. 


Transparency has two meanings here: The I'm-not-here-to-trick-you-here's-really-what-I expect kind of transparency and the physical-posture-I'll-take-in-class-so-become-invisible kind of transparency.

Expectations/standards/topics...whatever, have to be absolutely clear.  The What? can't change.  It's the How? that is up for discussion.  I try things. I show my students first hand that I don't have all the answers and I am constantly trying to find better ways to help them learn.  I fail. A lot.  That's because I don't believe I have to have all the kinks worked out before I do something with my students.  Our entire class is one big question and that question is this:

What do we need to do in order for us to learn?

I don't have just one (physical) focal point in my room.  I have a SmartBoard on one wall, a dry erase board on the adjacent wall, multiple dry erase easels spread out throughout the room and I roam around using a wireless tablet that lets me annotate my slides.  The focal point is the content, not a person.  Students need to learn that the teacher is just one of many resources and doesn't necessarily have to be the primary resource.  This means that I have to make myself invisible at times.  I usually walk to the opposite side of the room as the person who is talking or maybe I actually take a seat during discussion and stare at the floor.  I've found that kids start to depend on each other if I'm not there (so to speak).  And when they depend on each other, they tend to start asking questions. 

So, I guess at the end of the day, I try to be as real with my students as I can.  This all comes down to relationships founded on truth; a truth that we can only catch glimpses of.  We often times beat ourselves up because we don't see the fruit of our labor.  These "soft skills" (who coined that term, anyway?) are really the reason we do what we do.  We spend a copious number hours finding ways to offer immediate feedback to our students but our feedback is much more slow cookin'.  We won't know if the time we spend with our kids will pay them dividends down the road, especially when it comes to these "soft skills."  That comes when we see our students after they have finished college (or maybe they didn't  go to college and went straight to work) and started their own families.  That's when we see the fruit.  So be patient, the harvest is comin'.

[1] Huge thanks to Riley for putting this together. The posts that have been assembled have been phenomenal and everyone who took the time to put something together should be commended. 

Update (as per Dave's request) 
My class layout.  I teach in a an "art room"  but since we don't offer classes like that anymore, I'm in it.  Students sit in pods (equipped with outlets making computer time nice), 4 or 5 to a group depending on class size. I'm hardly in the same place for more than 5 minutes.  

Monday, July 26, 2010

What We Have Here...

Last month I sent out this tweet as a result of a conversation I was having with my principal. He was telling me about a workshop he had attended about leadership and the facilitator said that the way one leads must depend on the generation of those being led.
For example, if a baby boomer is called into the office, he assumes that it must be bad news since he's been pretty much left alone his whole life unless he's screwed up. Whereas a worker from Generation Y would think that the same call to te office would signify some sort of attaboy since he's been raised by helicopter parents who made sure juice boxes, snacks and trophies came after every game win or lose "just for being you." (I guess the Gen Xers never got out of bed to get the note.)

I called BS and sent out the tweet knowing full well that I was sending it out to a skewed sample on account of, as Dan so aptly put it, y'all are freaks.

Your responses were overwhelmingly negative mixed in with a couple of "they probably want me to take on some new reaponsibility" and Matt's "I'm getting a promotion" (which he already got, so that's kinda like cheating). I was surprised to know that you are all so scared of your admin until I remembered a few years back when I got an email from my principal asking I "come see her at brunch", how I freaked out and responded with, "is there anything I can do to prepare?" only to find out that I was being surprised with the Wal*Mart Teacher of the Year award (still have the vest to prove it).

This makes me wonder:


Why do we assume the negative? And more importantly, why do our students? Again I'll say, they see us the same way we see our administrators. It's no wonder they don't want to ask questions in class.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

#sbar to #fubar

Careful there, folks. Standards based grading isn't gonna fix everything. So before you go and throw yourself in front of the train, there's a few things you should know.

1. The ideas behind SBAR aren't new. Teachers were caring about student learning like 10, 20—3000 years ago. Back then, they called it "doing their job."

2. You're still going to have to distill all this learning into some sort of a letter grade thereby making it a shadow of the real thing.

3. All perfect assessments aren't. (see #3 here)

4. Don't overdefine this stuff. This will keep a good idea from becoming just another term in a long list of edujargon that forces people to earn a Master's Degree just so they can learn how to metacognate their pedagogical assessment practice and use it in a sentence.

5. I typed this on my phone with my right thumb during nap time.

Other than that, I like standards based grading. Just trying to keep it real.

Friday, July 16, 2010

What Experience Gives You

1. You're not going to save the world so quit beating yourself up over the one(s) that got away.

2. You're not going to destroy the world so shake off the bad lesson/day/week/month—whatever. I've had to shake off a bad year—or three.

3. No matter how much time you put into developing the perfect assessment system, you'll rarely be surprised at what your kids can do. They show you every day—if you pay attention.

4. It is OK to smile before Christmas. In fact, the teachers who told you that are probably the reason your kids hate school.

5. Let 'em go to the bathroom. 

6. You really don't have to spend 60-80 hours per week to be effective.  It's tough to keep that pace up for a career.

7. Teachers:Admin::Students:Teachers. You see staff meetings the same way students see your class. How will you deal with that?

8.  When dealing with staff, make few statements but ask lots of questions.  Asking questions always works because they're fair.  Sometimes you have to get people to actually verbalize their bad ideas before they see the fault in them.

9.  Lighten up a little. 

10. Not everything you try is going to work.  So what?  Keep trying; it sets a good example for your students.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Adventures in Pedagogy: Lessons From Limes

I'm cutting some limes in half then quartering the halves when Nevan (my 8 year old) walks up, watches for a moment and says:

8 slices per lime.
Oh yeah? I just cut 4 limes, so how many slices are there?

36, huh? How'd you come up with that?

8 and 8 is 16 and 16 times two is...no wait, 34. There's 34 slices.
Alright, explain that one then.

*Begins using finger and countertop as if it's chalk and slate*
No, no, no. It's 32. 32 slices.

Well it has to be even.
*teachable moment antennae go up*
Oh? Why even?

16 plus 16 has to be even because an even plus an even is an even.
You sure?

Yeah. Even plus even is even and odd plus odd is even too. For example, 8 plus 8 is 16. Even. And 7 plus 7 is 14. Even.
So how do we get an odd?

We get those by adding an even plus an odd.
Nuh uh.

Yeah, lemme show you.
*And he does*

You know, this is just too easy. Math is all over the place around here. I'm a big fan of WCYDWT and all, but I've always struggled with running into a great problem that fits something I have to teach. But since we've decided to take over the education of our children, I don't care what fits. If it's interesting, we're talking about it.

The best part of this is that I don't even have to bring in pictures of hot dogs and buns in order to teach LCM. I can actually have that conversation with my son in the grocery store on July 3 because we really don't want to have food go to waste.

That's it! I'm homeschooling my students next year.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Adventures in Pedagogy: Conversations

My 11 year old was asked to describe what he could about the relationships between 1/a and 1/b if a < b (a, b are Natural numbers) and a/b and b/a.

He explained to me that 1/a > 1/b since it had a smaller denominator.


Well because if the denominator is larger, it's broken up into smaller pieces.

OK, so what about a/b and b/a?

a/b is a proper fraction and b/a is an improper fraction.

Then which one's bigger?



*thinks for a moment*

Because b/a will have a whole number and a/b won't.

Then what can you tell me about all improper fractions?

*looks confused*

I get up and motion for Dawson to do the same.

If I'm 0 and you're 1, where would the proper fractions be?

*points between us*

Then where are the improper fractions?

*points away from me*

Then what can you tell me about all improper fractions?

They're all bigger than 1.

Then what can you tell me about all proper...

They're all between 0 and 1.

There you go.

So do I have to do this problem?

Didn't you just do it?

Well yeah, but I didn't write it down.

Will writing it down help you understand it better?

Not really.

*Looking my son in the eyes*