Monday, February 10, 2014

Explain that, please.

Recently, I've given a few teacher workshops/conferences and have had the luxury of reflecting on teacher moves as I facilitate a lesson with the attendees. One of the many things we talk about are teacher responses to students.
Me: Did anyone hear me say, "No. That's wrong. You're wrong. I don't like your answer."
Attendees: No.
Me: Right. Instead, you'll hear me say things like, "Can you explain what you did here? Explain that, please. I noticed you did [this] here, please share how you got [that]. I'm curious how you came up with that. Walk me through what you did."  
I tell teachers that I'm taking the emphasis away from right versus wrong answers and placing an interest on the student's thought process and problem-solving. I continue with teachers:
Me: By telling a student they're wrong, a student can have the tendency to shutdown [I make the sound effect of a machine shutting down, "BOOOOvvvvvvvv"]. By asking a student to explain things, it shows that I'm more interested in how they arrived at their answer. 
As teachers, we know a student can be told they're wrong and it's easy for them to give up. On the flip side, when we validate a kid by telling them they're right, the student can also shut down and never reach the higher levels of Depth of Knowledge.

Recently, a workshop attendee asked me how I respond to students who have nailed the answer to a 3 Act task. First, I have them explain their problem-solving plan to me. Second, I question any details that were unclear, encourage them to be more precise, or have them explain their units of measurement. Third, I ask them if they feel confident in their answer after explaining it to me. Fourth, I validate them by simply saying, "That makes sense to me."

I don't tell them they're correct. I treat them just like as if they got the answer wrong. If that doesn't satisfy them, I respond with, "We'll find out soon if you're correct, but that (their explanation and work) makes sense to me." At this point, I offer them an extension to the task. I'd like to talk more about this later, but usually the extension revolves around the students creating something with the new knowledge or skills they have just recently gained.

After all that, please add your favorite lines when questioning students to this Google doc. I think it's also helpful we create a list of lines we avoid using with students as they explore math.

Here are a few people with other stellar teacher moves/lines to support students.
Max Ray: 26 Questions You Can Ask Instead
Dan Meyer: You Don't Have To Be The Answer Key
David Cox: Creating A Culture Of Questions
Steve Leinwand: Accessible Mathematics



  1. Wonderful! It's tough suppressing my teacher face when a kid gets it right. Tips on keeping a poker face while asking a kid to explain a correct answer?

    1. Thanks Megan. You're right! It's tough suppressing my teacher face when a kid gets it right. Don't get me wrong. There are times we just have to celebrate student victories. We can't suppress it all.
      Language is a legitimate barrier for many of my students. Therefore, if they are able to articulate their problem-solving approach and solution to me, they're definitely getting some type of validation from me. This ranges from, "That makes sense to me." with a big grin on my face or "Woah, I never would have thought of that."
      It's much easier for me to validate a thoughtful, detailed, and thorough explanation because I feel the student, at times, is exhausted. Almost like the student is saying, "Teacher, you've given me this problem to solve. I've used a great deal of energy and thought to solve it. Now I've explained it to you. You agree with me and tell me it makes sense. What else do you want?" That kid needs some validation. Keep the poker face during the explanation. Reveal the face of giddy-joy at, "That makes sense to me."
      As for tips on keeping a poker face during the explanation:
      If the student is sitting down, stand behind the student and over their shoulder as they explain. That way you're not always worried about the student looking at you to read your face.
      If a student is standing up or at the board, try and stand to the side or behind them for the same reasons as sitting down.
      If they're trying to read your face, I've started to develop a frozen perplexed face that only starts to thaw as I walk away from the kid. I might validate them with, "That makes sense to me.", but I walk away with that perplexing look as to say, "I support what you say, but I'm processing what you just told me and I'm enjoying the fact that you're making me think about your solution." In actuality, I'm thinking of a follow-up question or a way to provide that student with an extension. What do you think?

    2. Oh man, I completely appreciate the geography of where to stand when listening to a student explain their work. I've always cringed at the constant looks they throw my way to say "is this right?"

      I don't envy y'all in math (since I left) because I've noticed physics is almost all about those assumptions you make in the problem setup, in a way that math just wasn't (for my classroom). Often, I stop a kid's explanation once they get to the math, because their setup/assumption makes sense. The rest is "just algebra or arithmetic".

    3. I take a weird joy in lying to students. I can't always pull this off, but I love telling kids that I don't know if their answers are right or if their work is correct.

  2. I better stop saying "you suck" to kids when they are wrong then?

  3. I like the idea of standing behind the student so he/she can't see your expression. Such a small, simple adjustment.
    One response I like is, "How do you know?" Sometimes kids with correct answers think that means I think they're wrong, and they want to change their answers. I tell them I'm not saying they're right or wrong, I just want to know how they thought things through. After a while they get used to it.

  4. I'd love some advice here. I have noticed recently that my students are MUCH more likely to be willing to discuss their process when they have confirmation that their conclusion is correct. I teach AP Stats and AP Calc BC and these kids are VERY concerned with their conclusions being correct. When a student answers a question (mine or one that was generated by a classmate) I will usually ask them to tell me how they arrived at that conclusion. I'll get some slow, deliberate starts to my question until I interject and say, 'You're right, I wonder how you knew that' or something along those lines. Then the conversation opens up quite a bit. I recognize that I want them to be able to think out loud without that crutch, but I'm having a hard time getting them (and myself, I guess) past this hurdle.

  5. This resonates with me. Students who had an answer to Trashketball said, here's my answer. No formula, no units, no way to follow their work. I try to tell students that what they say and what they type into their calculator needs to be written down. Also, encouraging them to label. For example when they get the radius, I said "well I don't see that the radius was given, how did you get it, and how can you show someone how to get it?" Great lesson BTW. They said, "I like this web site" because we had just done Estimation Day 2.