Lately I have been encountering a common question:
How do you know what your students understand at the end of every lesson?
I suppose I understand this sense of urgency to a point. We live in a culture of instant gratification. You can, at any moment, change your hair color, have plastic surgery, win the lotto, buy a new car, use an app to pre-purchase food and have a video go viral overnight. We often have an expectation that money, success, and/or obtaining fame will come easy and instantly should the conditions favorably present themselves.
In my opinion, this common norm in society has left our school systems and teachers under intense pressure. We expect a similar instant gratification within the classroom. Teach them what they need to know, in a given period using clear objectives and success criteria. At the end of the period, measure whom has and has not met the success criteria and respond with intervention. In other words, at the end of one day (often) if a student has failed to meet the objective using measurable criteria, they are somehow labeled with an abnormality and thus referred to as needing intervention. True, that intervention could happen inside or outside of the classroom, but one day of a mathematical concept seems like an insufficient amount of time before measuring one’s understanding.
I would, in fact, argue that at the end of a day’s lesson, I would prefer that my students have many more questions than solutions, swirling around in their head. I would prefer that they can tell you what they are trying to think about or figure out but perhaps, don’t have the mastery of the concept yet. Furthermore, I would hope that my students wouldn’t stress about this delay, but see it as an opportunity to further investigate the mathematics at hand.
The following are four reasons I am uneasy about judging students at the end of one class period and why I welcome a delayed measurement of learning.
1. Decreases perseverance: If my students believe that they should get the concept in one 50 minute period, they will have little perseverance when a question posed is larger in magnitude and requires sustained mathematical efforts. Real-world math problems are often messy and complex requiring investigation and reasoning that spans a generous time period. Students need to see time as essential to finding solutions rather than as prohibiting.
2.Can encourage judgmental behaviors: If, for any problem I encountered, I accepted the first claim I heard and the corresponding justification as correct, I may never begin to develop an ability to question the validity of a statement. In addition, even if a student has reasoning to provide a counter argument to another’s perspective, I still want to encourage questioning rather than simply judging the work through one’s own definition. Allowing students to develop the ability to push for justification and understand how a fellow classmate perceives a problem, without judging them for it, is a life skill that I hope students take beyond my classroom walls.
3. Develops people pleasers: I grew up a “people pleaser.” True, teachers loved me. But, the unintended consequence was that I was unable to take risks. My goal was to determine what the instructor wanted/expected from me and to do just that. Rarely did I see learning as powerful for learning’s sake. More often, I saw it as a means to a good grade and a positive public perception (two things I desperately wanted as a teenager). I want my students to challenge me. Push back when they don’t see validity in something we are doing. Question why something is, if it appeared I gave them a short cut. Tell me if the class is getting boring and they are unstimulated. If they are only worried about the day’s lesson, I would question whether my students feel secure enough to give me open and honest feedback regarding their educational process.
4. Decrease listening skills: Sure it is one thing to assert yourself when you think you are correct but what about truly internalizing the ideas of others? In fact we know that the greatest opportunity for learning comes when someone internalizes the feedback and criticism from others and, in turn, modifies their original idea ending with a more thorough and sound argument than when they started. If the classroom is only based on one day’s lesson, I am afraid that students will panic rather than intently listen to the criticism from others. Seeking criticism and viewing it as forward feeding is increasingly important in a business model that students will soon enter.
In Phil Darrow’s presentation regarding the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), he mentioned that we must stop managing lessons. Agreeing with Phil, I would encourage teachers to think about when and how they are evaluating students. Daily measurements are too narrow. The grain size is too small and the mathematics, as Darrow suggests, will be missing. To truly develop critical thinkers, who understand that perseverance is key to developing large mathematical ideas, we must delay our gratification as teachers and assess more infrequently, only after adequate time and space has been given to truly internalize a concept.
Perhaps I am so passionate about this, because I don’t feel I was ready for push-back. 15 years since I graduated high school, I wonder how this inability to welcome criticism without judgement and truly listen to others, has negatively impacted my success. True, somehow I am an incredibly hard worker but, what ideas have I not internalized because I was unable to critically think about others’ ideas. Often I was too worried about fitting the mold everyone expected of me, never disobeying authority (I was never tardy once), and seeking the correct answer over the process that made the most sense to me. Now, I am filling-in this process, in all facets of my life.
I hope that giving my students space and freedom to explore, without frequent measurements, will encourage them to question, explore and refine their thinking for themselves rather than to please me or an ideal of who they should be or what they should become.