How Do We Ask?

August 29, 2014

picture-2666-1426704131For many teachers, the era of Common Core State Standards, college and career readiness, and twenty-first century learning has been tumultuous. This series of articles explores how a progressive approach to instruction called deeper learning reminds us what we need to hold on to in order to meet today’s demands while keeping our instruction centered on the needs of children.

How Do We Ask?

It’s not uncommon for a teacher to wonder whether her students are capable of a specific task. But when this wondering turns into a fixed belief about kids’ potential, the teacher will only offer students tasks that require little thought. If that’s the only kind of work students do, that’s probably the only kind of work students will produce. A teacher’s perception of a child’s ability can limit what’s possible for that child. But the reverse is also true: a teacher’s perception can expand what’s possible for a child.

There are plenty of statistics demonstrating how teachers’ beliefs play out in classrooms over time. Research tells us that equity in education can be achieved by offering students authentic, self-selected, collaborative tasks (Boaler 1997; Meyer et al. 1997; Rosenfeld & Rosenfeld 1998). Active learning has a more significant impact on student performance than any other variable, including student background and prior achievement (Barron and Darling-Hammond 2008). We know the kinds of experiences students need to grow to their full potential, but are we offering these experiences?

It’s easy to look at our colleagues who aren’t and wonder how to “fix” their perception. That kind of approach limits their agency, as I was reminded in a recent conversation with Lisa Lasky, of The National Equity Project, an organization dedicated to improving learning and education outcomes for vulnerable students. If we want to help teachers, we shouldn’t try to change their mind but offer them more skills. Whether we’re teachers of children or adults, our instruction needs to give our students the knowledge that will help them do better. This kind of knowledge isn’t the result of a belief statement but of modeling and supporting actions that devolve from that belief.

A framework for these rigorous, purposeful learning experiences is shown in Figure 1. When students are given challenging, open-ended tasks with more than one “right” answer, they create knowledge rather than receive it (DL Framework 2013). Teachers and parents have long known that asking open-ended questions and posing intriguing problems engage children’s imagination and help motivate them to explore, discover, create, and learn (Trilling 2014). Here are four examples of deeper learning tasks from various content areas and grades:

• In a fourth-grade class at High Tech Elementary, in Chula Vista, CA, students were asked, What is the magic of boats? Then, using what they knew about area and volume, they were asked to design a foil boat that could take on the most water before it sank. The teacher used a foil boat activity as a constructivist approach to teach students about sinking point. They learned that by maximizing the area of the boat, you maximize the amount of water the boat can displace, thus maximizing it’s sinking point. Through trial and error, the students were able to figure out what size and shape worked best, which then lead into a lesson on volume and displacement

• In an eighth-grade American studies class at Bulldog Tech, in San Jose, CA, students were asked, How can we use the lessons of the past to analyze social equality in America today?  Using material distributed by the Quest for Equality in America project, students looked at inequities in society today and tied them back to themes of inequality in the Civil War.

• In a tenth-grade geometry unit at Cleveland High School, in Seattle, WA, the driving question was, What can trigonometric relationships tell us about structure and form? A sub-question scaffold was, Why does the Leaning Tower of Pisa lean? How close is the tower to toppling over? How do you know for sure? Students used outside research, their classwork on this problem, and their knowledge of trigonometric ratios to write a one-page persuasive report explaining how close the tower is to collapse. They also used right triangle trigonometry to determine whether or not their school ramps were compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

• In an eighth-grade math class in Marked Tree, AR, students used stairs and staircases to develop their understanding of the concept of slope: (1) Without measuring these six staircases [images provided], put them in order of steepness, starting with the shape that is least steep. (2) Explain how you came up with your ranking. Because you were asked not to measure, what “tools” or strategies did you use to make your decision? (3) Now discuss your steepness ranking with a classmate. Are you going to change it? If so, please indicate your new ranking.

The elements all these tasks have in common are:

• There are several layers to the question.
• The question is provocative and inspires curiosity.
• The question is one asked by people in the real world.
• There isn’t one right or quick answer to the question.
• Students with various abilities can find a way into the problem through background knowledge.
• Students must actively wrestle with the question.
• Finding a solution requires discovery, exploration, and research involving a number of dynamic sources (technology, other students, community members, teachers, etc.).
• Students must defend their thinking.

The thinking required in these tasks seems unrealistic to some teachers. That response reflects the fear that they can’t support the work on their own . . . and they’re right. As a profession, educators have to get over the idea that one teacher can or should create an entire curriculum from scratch. There is too much existing wisdom that can and should inform our individual work. Here are some approaches you might take:

1. Analyze an existing task. What would happen if you took away the prescriptive directions or adjusted the wording to make it more open-ended? (Check out… for more ideas.)

2. Deconstruct your question. What level of thinking is required for students to answer it? Create more space for exploration in students’ attempts to answer the question. For example, rather than ask, What were the outcomes of WWI?, which has concrete, predictable responses, ask, Using supposition, write an adventure story that explores ways in which events in our country’s history may have played out differently if WWI hadn’t ended the way it did. Solicit feedback from a colleague; is there a yes/no/right/known/easy answer to the question or problem you created? If the answer is yes, the task probably needs to be revised.

3. Create problems or questions for which students can develop and defend a stance using the content and skills you wish to teach. For example, ninth graders at Central Coast New Tech High were asked, How can we as students use inquiry and our knowledge of heredity and genetics to solve a crime? Their teacher then staged a crime investigation, lasting five weeks, in which students, by conducting lab tests and doing other research, identified the culprit and wrote a defense of their deduction.

4. Be curious about your students’ thinking. Discover what they think by asking more questions: What makes you say that? How did you figure that out? (See… and Johnston 2004, 29, 42.)

5. Resist the urge to give students the answers/steps right away. Give them time to explore and struggle, but be ready to guide them with scaffolds and supports.

6. Start to cultivate their academic mindsets (Briceño 2013; Dweck 2008) and agency (Johnston 2004) so they can preserver at the task.

7. Study the description of a DL facilitator (Figure 1). In what ways do you embody this type of teacher?

8. During moments of apprehension about your students’ learning and abilities, use the sentence frame for improvisation “Yes and . . . !” “Yes my students deserve more engaging tasks, and I’m going to provide them with the resources and learning experiences to make it happen!”

These ideas are not new; they are an iteration of progressive ideologies of the twentieth century (Dewey, Kirkpatrick, Vygotsky). What does feel new is putting these theories into action through educational reform. As you plan this week, explore one of the resources or strategies above. No teacher is an island. We’re in this together. Feel free to share your experience in the comments section.

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Barron, B., Darling-Hammond, L., Pearson, D., Schoenfeld, A., Stage, E., Zimmerman, T., Cervetti, G., Tilson, J.  (2008). Teaching for Meaningful Learning. In Barron, B., Darling-Hammond, L., Pearson, D., Schoenfeld, A., Stage, E., Zimmerman, T., Cervetti, G., Tilson, J.  (2008). Powerful Learning: What we Know About Teaching for Understanding. Jossey Bass. San Francisco, CA.

Briceño, E. Mindsets and Student Agency . Unboxed, 1. Retrieved May 4, 2014, from…

Dweck, C.S. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Johnston, P. (2004). Choice Words: (29-42).  Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Trilling, B. (2014). 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times.
Heinemann Digital Campus 2014.