I was recently sitting with a student who was working on a few math problems. As I sat down next to him I recognized that a couple of the problems he had completed were not correct. Instead of interrupting him, I watched as he worked on one more similar problem. The student probably had no idea that there was anything wrong in the problems he had completed as he was confidently continuing on. As I sat there, I was looking at the previous work to see if I could figure out what he had done wrong, but the aha moment came as he continued with the problem he was working on. I saw him skip a step. Immediately, I could see that was why he had missed the previous problems.
I asked the student to pause their work so that we could go back to the first problem. I asked him to explain to me how he knew that his first answer was correct. He started talking through the process. As he got to the critical step, he recognized his mistake all on his own. “Oh my gosh! I skipped a step!!!” He grabbed an eraser, went back to the problem, and restarted.
As I reflect on the moment, it would have been so easy to stop the student as soon as I noticed a mistake and gone through the process with him, but the reality is that by allowing him finding his own mistake, he created a new neural pathway. It’s the beginning of a learning journey, and by recognizing the mistake on his own, he learned it better than if I had just pointed out the error. We looked at the other problems on his page, he noticed the same mistake several times, and made the appropriate corrections.
A couple things stand out to me about this experience. First, if an adult hadn’t recognized the mistake in the moment, that child would have practiced the same process on all the practice problems incorrectly, and therefore build a working model in his brain that was incorrect. Second, I didn’t actually have to tell him he did anything wrong. I just asked him a simple question: “How do you know that?”
This experience reminded me of a quote from Loris Malaguzzi. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, he was an early childhood educator who founded the educational philosophy known as the Reggio Emilia Approach.
What does this mean for our students? How often do we only see the product of a student’s work? Maybe in class we have them working independently on a white board, and then they hold up their answer. Some are correct, but occasionally you’ll have some that aren’t. Without watching the work being done, you may not immediately know how to support that student. This is why small group and individual conferring can be so valuable!
I know that working independently with all students is hard – there’s only so much time in a day. When we think about what kids need though, it’s that time with an adult watching them do the work, giving them feedback, and helping them to recognize their strengths and weaknesses. Recently I was listening to an interview of Lana Steiner, a math educator who loves to ask her students two questions: “How do you know?” and “Tell me more.” These questions allow her to better understand how a student arrived at their current understanding, and when necessary, to build in ways to support the student.
When we truly take the time to listen to our students, we validate their image of personal self-worth, and we give them the time to explain their thinking and reasoning. I have long believed that the person who does the most talking in class is the person who is doing the most thinking.
I encourage you to do some self-assessment. Pay attention to what is happening in your class in the coming week. Try to track the amount of time that you spend talking – during mini-lessons or other times of instruction – compared to the amount of time your students are able to talk. If you are doing more of the talking, how could you create more spaces for your students to be the ones doing the talking? Could you implement some more small group work, or turn and talk? Could you ask more open-ended questions? Could you decrease the length of your own explanations? Or depending on what is happening in your classroom, maybe it would work to set up role plays for students, or add in some reader’s theater. Or maybe take on the mindset of Socrates – pretend you don’t know anything about a topic and ask lots of follow-up questions that will get them thinking. Or maybe you need to get comfortable with wait time.
What are your thoughts? What have you learned about students by watching them carry out their work? Or by allowing them to explain their thinking? I know that I have often been impressed to learn what my students know by listening more and talking less!