Questioning our Questioning!

Answering Questions

My school has done a lot of work in developing questioning skills to support teaching and learning. The idea of “fat” and “skinny”/open and closed questions has been emphasised in student research projects and discussion building. “Enabling” and “extending” prompts is our current focus in Mathematics differentiation in particular to cater for the needs of the wide spectrum of skill levels.

One aspect we haven’t covered enough as a school that I have always seen as an area for improvement is how teachers elicit responses from the students themselves during lessons. This is something I always emphasize in my role as a mentor for graduate teachers. One of the easiest traps to fall into as a teacher is assuming your lesson has been effective because there was ‘lots of discussion’ and ‘student participation’. The students “seemed to understand because all of my questions were answered.” However, through closer scrutiny, this usually translates into ” the top 10 smart kids/teacher pleasers answered all the questions while the rest added to their doodle collection or planned their lunchtime activities while staring at the oval out the window.”

Targeted questioning addresses this issue in different ways. I model to my graduate teachers the art of catching students, especially the reluctant participants, understanding something during the lesson. I then ask a question directly to those students, knowing they can answer the question. This builds their self esteem because they are prepared for the answer and encourages further participation.

In preparing lessons for Literacy using the “Reading to Learn” program/strategy, one of the key factors for success is creating differentiated questions that involve all students in the discussion and comprehension of the text being explored. For the less able readers, prompts are prepared to direct them to specific sections of the text while extension questions encourage the higher achievers to share their knowledge to support the comprehension of others. This kind of targeted questioning enables full class participation. The fact that students know that a question will be directed personally at them rather than the ‘get out’ clause of ‘hands up who wants to answer’ places expectations on them to follow the text and think about a response at all times.

And then there is this YouTube video I’ve just come across thanks to my good buddy Zite. This takes targeted questioning to another level. Created by Jim Smith, a teacher for Derbyshire, England, it explains a process for planning a structured approach to asking your students questions. Without going into too much detail ( Jim’s gone to the effort of making the video to explain it, after all!), it involves knowing your students’ capabilities and preparing questions geared for different levels of understanding on the topic you are teaching. Then it comes down to knowing which students to direct the questions at.

It’s a form of differentiation we as a school are becoming more familiar with but the process Jim goes through is, for me anyway, quite effective and should be of great benefit in any classroom. Initially, it would take quite a bit of preparation, but if we aren’t going to use questions effectively to target student needs, preparation is necessary. This looks to be a good process to follow. Here’s the video. Feel free to share your opinion.

Who’s running Quality Control and Fact Checking in a Tech Rich, Differentiated, Personalised Classroom?

It was definitely much easier to teach in the ‘olden days’. Everyone read the same text, researched the same topic, wrote the same text type, answered the same question. The students worked hard, studied and took and passed ( apparently everyone did if you listen to the nostalgic educators and parents of times gone by) the same test.

Then along came this pesky new age world of personalising and differentiating teaching and learning with its notion of student choice and planning for a wide range of student interests and abilities. Along with it came a whole lot of challenges for teachers as they passed topic selection into the hands of the children.

No longer does the teacher have access to all knowledge being learned during the unit of work. No longer does the teacher have complete mastery over the content of the class novel. In a single Inquiry Unit, there may be 15 different topics being explored by your class. If your class runs Literature Circles or Book Clubs, there may be 5 or more novels being read concurrently. In these instances, how much is expected of the class teacher to be on top of all the content involved in the individual student’s choice?

At first glance, teachers may point to the fact that today’s curriculum is not about content knowledge any more. It’s about skill development, creativity, collaboration and communication. At a simplistic level, that may be partly true. We can’t escape the fact, though, that accuracy and understanding is still paramount. While an 8 year old will survive making the odd misinterpretation or copying the wrong information down, a 20 year old medical student can’t be confusing a pharynx with a larynx or thinking a 3:4 ratio means 3/4 and 1/4. So the question needs to be asked – How well are we dealing with Quality Control and Fact Checking in the Differentiated, Personalised Classroom? This one question brings up a whole lot more questions that every teacher needs t0 consider.

Are we expecting students to provide evidence for every fact they state in a report (and are we checking them)? In the days of one topic/one book, the teacher had the source of the information and could quickly determine the accuracy of the student’s statements. We knew everything we needed to know about the plot, characters and themes of the class novel. We taught them how to write a bibliography and footnotes whether they really needed to or not. A bibliography is not enough today.  We need to expect digital literacy skills like hyperlinking and bookmarking to be part of a digital report so that as teachers we can check not only that the information is accurate as we read it but also that it hasn’t just been rewritten or copied.

Are we putting more emphasis on the presentation and not enough on the content? In the name of engagement, teachers ( with me leading the charge!) are exposing students to a myriad of great web tools for presenting their work. Do we sometimes get seduced by the magic of a Prezi, Glog or Voki and reward the students for how their presentation looked rather than the quality/depth of the information presented?

Do our assessment rubrics give enough credit for the accuracy, depth and understanding of the information or are these factors downplayed at the expense of grammar, text structure, presentation and checklist of what requirements were met?

During the research phase, do we spend enough time checking that the information collected by students is relevant and accurate or do we spend all our time giving feedback on the quality of questions, time management and selection of ICT tools for presentation?

Do we check for understanding of the references they use to research their topic? We need to expect more than just copying notes. The students should be summarising the notes, writing questions about the information they have found, listing what addtional information is still required from other sources. This takes time to develop in students but it’s important for developing real critical thinking. Just rewriting notes in a different sentence doesnt show enough understanding.

Do we feedback about the quality of the references, the relevance of the information?

How much attention do we pay to the student’s ability to record notes that support the investigation?

Do we spend time checking that they are identifying enough details from a text? Too often students will highlight random sections of text to show they have found some key words but ignore major details within the same paragraph. Utilising a web tool like the social bookmarking site Diigo, we as teachers can collaboratively support students in highlighting key ideas. The tool supports sharing an online text AND annotations, highlighting and comments in real time. This is an improvement on waiting until the end of the week to hand up work to the teacher for checking. In the digital literacy environment, we can be more timely and strategic in our feedback while also checking the references being used.

Are we expecting our students to prove they have fact checked their own research by referring to several sources for each key idea or fact? We often criticise the use of Wikipedia because of its crowdsourced information but don’t question other references’ validity. We need to ensure that we have taught our students to check for the credentials of the source, ( .org/.edu/gov vs .com, blog vs scholarly), how up to date the information is, how to cross reference multiple sources. Again, digital literacy skills like hyperlinking to the source within their text for instant verification puts the onus on the student to prove their information is correct.

Do we encourage collaboration as a way to check for quality and accuracy? We need to consider the role of wikis, social networking sites like Edmodo and Twitter and blogs in crowdsourcing support in checking each other’s work. Maybe we need to rethink the idea that we only go public with finished products/published work. Why can’t we post drafts and brainstorms on our blogs and put it out there for others to critique, check, support, add to, fact check? Why not tweet out ideas to a worldwide audience to get feedback or answers. Following experts on Twitter could get you the support you need. One example I’ve seen is Dr Karl Kruszelnicki from Australia, a media savvy scientist who often answers tweets sent to him. I’ve read teacher blogs mentioning how they have organised other teachers via Twitter to mentor students in their grade.

There is no going back to the old way of teaching. Differentiation and Personalised Learning is here to stay. And so it should be. However, we do need to make sure we have measures in place to ensure we are monitoring the quality and accuracy of the information our students present in their projects. Many teachers can find this a challenge.

It’s probably more of a challenge in Primary schools where teachers tend to be generalists who teach every subject. It’s a lot to expect them to be on top of the information in Science, History, Health, Economics, Geography, Technology and Environmental Studies on top of every novel the students are reading. So we have to efficient in checking in on students at all stages of their research, not just at the presentation stage.

What challenges do you have in monitoring your students’ personalised learning? What processes do you have in place to manage? I am interested in your experiences. Join the conversation.

Maths Extension – engagement with nrich and Edmodo

Earlier in the year I wrote a post titled “Maths Extension/Enrichment with Edmodo“, outlining my plans for an enrichment/extension program for high achievers in Maths at school. It took longer than anticipated to get started but from the start of Term 3 (July), I met with 5 Grade 6 students, 8 Grade 5 students and a couple of very bright Grade 4 boys on a weekly basis for an hour. ( Another teacher does the same with Grade 3 and 4 students ).While we can argue that research suggests mixed ability groupings are more beneficial ( for the rest of the week, these children work in that environment), I am in no doubt that the program has been a resounding success and a great sense of engagement and enjoyment has been felt by all involved, including the Maths teacher!

Whether it is enrichment, extension or a mix of both, which was a point of contention with some readers back in the original post, I am not sure. Regardless, some great mathematical thinking is taking place every week between an enthusiastic, engaged group of students.

The weekly lesson itself takes no time to plan. I simply upload a problem to the MEP (Math Extension Program) Edmodo group at the start of the week so the students can check in for some preparation time before we meet. Don’t get me wrong, I know exactly what I want out of the lesson when I select the problem and I send a post lesson report to the classroom teachers outlining what we did. The beauty of what we do, though, is that we don’t know what will result from the lesson until it is over. There is no chalk and talk, no pre-task explanation of what to do, no expectations that we have to solve it at the end of the hour. What you will see is a group of mathematicians sitting around together, sharing strategies, discoveries, questions verbally, through demonstrations on the whiteboard or via iPads or by posting on Edmodo.

What has improved throughout the term has been their problem solving skills, collaborative discussions, use of technology aids to organise and simplify the process ( Numbers on the iPad  has been a real winner, using formulas to test and monitor conjectures, as has Explain Everything to record ideas and share via the whiteboard) and most importantly, their ability to articulate their thinking and learning, both their successes and failures ( something they haven’t experienced much beforehand).

A great example of the whole process is our last learning experience, which lasted over two weeks. Most of our problems have come from the well established Maths Enrichment website, nrich. ( another worthwhile site is New Zealand Maths ). The beauty of nrich is the incentive to have your solutions published on their website, giving bragging rights to those who succeed, either partially or fully ( more on that later) Our last problem before the holiday was Summing Consecutive Numbers. The problem is presented via an introductory video that explained the nature of the  task. Each student had their own iPad ( its only a small group – we could have used the laptops) so watched it independently. After a two minute debrief to make sure everyone understood the task, we went straight into solving the problem. Beforehand, though, we made a pact that we would publish our solution on nrich, which always had to be posted by the 21st of each month, which just happened to be the last day of Term 3 ( we had previously missed deadlines or solved old problems, so this was our first chance.)

What was great about this particular problem was that the task itself was simple to start with – just adding numbers – but discovering and proving patterns and formulas was a real challenge that need real arguing and collaboration. During the first hour, the students were so focused on discovering patterns. Every idea they had, no matter how small, was posted on Edmodo. This proved to be an important step as the following week we were able to refer back to all of our discoveries. LEt me interject here and state that I was an active part of this as well. Before the lesson started, I was none the wiser about the solutions so I became an authentic learner with my group, making conjectures and testing theories side by side with them. (I talked about the importance of being a learning role model in a previous post). Some children used Numbers spreadsheets to arrrange the numbers into common sets as we investigated, others jsut used pen and paper while others used Explain Everything to brainstorm every idea they had. At the end of the sessions, we had over 60 posts on Edmodo and had made some amazing progress and they continued on over the weekend and into the following week determined to meet our deadline.

The following week, we met with all of our discoveries articulated on Edmodo and we were ready to write our Proof of the Summing of Consecutive Numbers. The final result was exceptional and is published below for your viewing pleasure.
Consecutive Numbers Proof
I showed their classroom teachers and my fellow MEP teacher and they were blown away by the depth of articulation and understanding in the submission. I merely guided them through the process of writing the proof but it is all their work (some sentence structures needed some modelling). To a person, they all requested a copy to put in their blogs and digital portfolios and now wait excitedly for the news it is posted on nrich’s website next month. Regardless, I am going to showcase their effort at the School Assembly, much to their satisfaction of being recognised for being mathematicians.

Being such a successful and rewarding experience, I then started thinking – should this just be the domain of the MEP group? Why can’t the other students in their grade follow the same process? It’s not as if they don’t do problem solving based tasks. This task in particular could have been entered into by ALL the students at different levels and the MEP students could have worked with the others to extend their thinking. The more I work with my group, the more I realise this model of collaborative problem solving should be done more at school. Sure, some of the less able students would not have arrived at the sophistication of thinking these high achievers attained but they could have contriubted to the adding and would have discovered some of the lower level patterns.

I think we have to stop thinking that not all students can enter into these tasks. Nrich is full of problems for all ability levels. Its my new goal to attack at school. I still think these MEP students deserve their time together to work with like minds. But I also think everyone deserves the experience they are getting. It’s what a differentiated curriculum is all about.