There are many practices from long ago that we need to rethink as teachers. This series looks to bring up those practices and offer alternate ideas that are more relevant in today’s classroom. Today we’re discussing the importance of not making assumptions about students and using assessment to guide our instruction.
How We Discuss Students
Kevin is good at math. DaQuain is good at science. Kara is good at reading. Amaria is good at writing. Teachers used to define students by what they were good at and what they aren’t good at. Recently I heard a colleague say, “And she is really good in math… you know, even though she is a girl.” This came out not even moments after I was praised for including STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) in my class this year. “It is so good for the boys. They really need that time. The girls like it too…” There is a real danger in categorizing kids and then holding kids to the label that has been applied. This becomes sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Teachers end up pushing kids harder in the subjects they are good at and creating excuses for them in the areas they aren’t so good at. I’m sure that as a child I was labeled good at reading and not good at math. I knew it. Teachers had lower expectations of me in math and I had lower expectations of myself.
We need to believe that all students can learn every subject. All students can do challenging things. All students can learn. Our learners might have different learning styles and they might become proficient at different times but all learners can learn.
What's the Problem?
Recently I completed an addition fact inventory of my students. We sat down one on one and I asked them different facts. What is one plus four? What is six plus zero? I took note of what they did. Could they answer the question? Could they answer the question within five seconds? This is part of our schools definition of fluent. Could they explain how they solved the fact? What strategy did they use? This information was so helpful to me as a teacher. My role in the assessment process was simply to document- yes they did, no they did not, what did they do. I was as objective as I could be. Later I was asked by a peer why I assessed everyone. Why didn’t I just assess the kids who were bad at math?
The assumption that some of my students are bad at math and some are not is inherently problematic BUT the fact that we would assess students only based on our assumptions is extremely problematic. Listen, there is a saying about assuming things. Do you know it? If you assume you make an ass out of you and me. Just look at the spelling… Ok, inappropriate jokes aside, assuming is so harmful to student learning.
While completing this fact inventory one of the students who might be considered the highest struggled the most. Had I assumed this student knew because he almost always has an answer first would have meant I missed gaping holes in his understanding of numeracy. One of my students who takes the longest to answer math problems and might be considered low actually had the best strategies for solving. This student consistently structured to five or ten and could always explain how they arrived at an answer.
In reading, the same applies. I have a student who is quite a high decoder but while reading has very limited comprehension. This child would be considered a good reader and might not be assessed because she can decode. When kids miss comprehension questions while doing B.A.S. I can’t say, “Oh they know. They just made a mistake.” If kids actually know, they’ll do it. Sure, everyone has off days but, is this mistake due to an off day or a lack of understanding somewhere. I always try act as though it is a lack of understanding. Giving the benefit of the doubt during assessments doesn’t help student learning.
The problem with making assumptions about our students is that we’ll usually get it wrong. When we make incorrect assumptions we are missing out on opportunities to teach.
What to do Instead
The most important thing I know about assessing students is go in with an empty mind. Try to be as objective as possible. Notice what students can and cannot do. Act as though this student belongs to another teacher. What do you notice? What can this child do independently? What understandings does this child have? What partial understandings does this child have? Are there any misunderstandings? These are the questions that will assist us as teachers.
Don’t skip over kids because you’re sure they know. Assess all of your students. If you think they have an understanding and then see that they do have understanding- great! If you think they have an understanding but see that there are some misunderstandings- great! Now you can use this information to guide your instruction. Just the other day I noticed a student drawing tallies to solve a math problem but then counting by ones. This is information I can use to teach. I now know we need to work on structuring to fives. What do you know, this student doesn’t know how to count by fives past 20. Ok, now we’re talking. Now this is information that I can use. Imagine if I saw tallies and then just assumed this student knew how to use them.
Don’t Give Kids the Benefit of the Doubt
Just, please. Recently during reading assessments I had a student who retold every story backwards. The student always started with the ending and then retold back to the beginning. This is something I hadn’t noticed before. I immediately thought, he must know. Why is he doing this today? If had just made an assumption and given him the points on the assessment he didn’t earn I would have missed this opportunity. Later while speaking with him he said he likes to start with what he remembers first. We later read a story about how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. Being able to retell a story in the order it happened is an important skill. We can work on this skill now. Giving him the benefit of the doubt would have meant a missed opportunity for learning.
Understand That a Single Assessment is a Snapshot
I know this is totally cliché. I know but I am still going to say it. One assessment is just a single picture of learning in one particular moment and setting. You need to take each assessment as fact but don’t forget to put it back into the larger context of learning.
Maybe today one of my students didn’t know four divided by two when I asked on the fact inventory but can always do it in class. I watch for the next few days and notice that this student consistently demonstrates proficiency. After observing I notice that the student does know how to divide by two. I can ask him the problem again and see or maybe I just decide he knows based on what I have observed and move on. Just make sure that this decision is based on something concrete and not an assumption. It is never bad to give additional practice just to check.
What I've Learned
Assessing students can be a tricky thing. I know that it is best to try to remove all bias when assessing. Look into their misunderstandings and try to understand where they are coming from. It’s tricky but I know that with practice it gets easier.
There are many practices from long ago that we need to rethink as teachers. This series looks to bring up those practices and offer alternate ideas that are more relevant in today’s classroom. Today we’re discussing teaching something once and teachers getting upset kids don’t know.
It Isn't Their Fault
Here are some comments I’ve recently overheard.
“I already told them how to spell the word but they don’t.”
“I told him how to multiply but he just doesn’t do it right.”
“I taught you this yesterday, why don’t you remember?”
“If you listened yesterday then you would know what to do today.”
Then I found myself thinking this at a recent elementary meeting, “maybe if you paid attention while I am talking you wouldn’t be so confused.” This thought stopped me dead in my tracks. What?! Natasha! You cannot blame the student for not knowing! That is not how teaching works! It just isn’t. Just because something is said does not mean that it was taught. Just because something was taught does not mean it was learned. These are very different.
What's the Problem?
I want to make it very clear that I am not up on some sort of pedestal talking down during this series. Usually, I notice myself slipping into old habits of thinking and write these posts to refresh my brain. Sometimes I am caught up in old ways of thinking from elementary school. Things that I didn’t even learn as a teacher but learned as a student long ago. Creating shifts in thinking isn’t simple and it takes time. Maybe you’ll read this post and the teaching still won’t stick. It happens.
Let’s review these statements. Telling isn’t teaching. Just because it was said does not mean it was taught. Just because it was taught does not mean it was learned. Learning doesn’t just happen because you decided it would. These are powerful. Sit with them for a moment.
We know that students learn in different ways. This has been well researched and proven. We know that not all kids in our class are at the same place and they don’t all learn at the same rate. Can we blame our students when they don’t know things? Well, maybe sometimes. BUT… usually… usually when we feel we have taught things a hundred times and kids still aren’t getting it, maybe just maybe we need to reflect upon our own teaching.
Maybe the kids who can’t spell the word you correctly is struggling because he doesn’t understand a spelling pattern. Maybe the child who can’t multiply doesn’t realize that math is built on patterns and if you can unlock the patterns you can solve the problem. Maybe the student who learned something yesterday was having a rough morning. Maybe she didn’t get the point. Maybe the teachers in my meeting didn’t understand what I meant the first time I said it. Does saying something once count as teaching?
What to do Instead
Instead of becoming frustrated in the moment, take a note of the misunderstanding and move forward. Moving forward can mean doing a reteach of something or reflecting further and coming back another time. Think about how many times and how many different ways you taught this concept. If not a lot comes to mind then add in more experiences for the learner to interact with the learning. If a lot comes to mind then build opportunities to develop a deeper understanding. Don’t get frustrated with the learner. Engage the learner in more learning. Our job is to teach. It isn’t to tell once or twice and become frustrated when the learner doesn’t know.
When a child doesn’t understand what we have taught think about what they do understand. What do they know that you can build off of? If this child doesn’t know maybe there are others who are also struggling. Find them and figure out how to get them to understanding. Demonstrate for them, have them build, give them more practice, have a peer teach them, model the work, explain the learning step by step. Just don’t give up on the learner. Don’t become frustrated. Try again. The beauty of teaching is really all the opportunities we have to try again.
If a child doesn’t know how to spell a word reflect on the strategies they do know and teach them how to connect those to the strategies they need. If a student can’t solve the multiplication problem teach them a few more multiplication strategies. Give them more time or tools. Figure out what will unlock that learning for them. Work with what your students know. Work with what they know and build off of it to get them where they need to go.
Teaching takes time and cooperation. If students don’t know right away keep going and keep reflecting upon your own teaching.
There are many practices from long ago that we need to rethink as teachers. This series looks to bring up those practices and offer alternate ideas that are more relevant in today’s classroom. Today we’re discussing teaching the child not the program. The skills we teach students today should be transferrable to all stories or all writing or all problems. We need to teach for transfer and help students make connections.
We used to teach the book, writing or problem
Teachers used to pick up books like The Sign of the Beaver (one of my most hated whole class texts) and think, “what lessons does this book teach?” Then they would teach the book. I made a map of main out of dough. I had to look up new vocabulary words in every chapter even if I didn’t find any new words. My classmates built log houses out of sticks and the activity list could go on and on. While these activities may have helped me understand The Sign of the Beaver, I couldn’t take those same skills and apply them to another text. When we finished that book we went on to another one and repeated the same process again with no connection to the previous book.
In writing, teachers would circle mistakes in red pen and students would correct the mistakes. Students would make the same mistakes every time and then the teacher would circle it and they would fix them. This cycle could continue indefinitely. Some kids would receive things that were circled that they didn’t even know how to fix. Worse yet, some teachers never even had their students write for an authentic audience. They just wrote in response to prompts or in other ways but never produced writing on their own. While student writing might have looked nice with all the correct capitalization and punctuation, if the student couldn’t really do it on their own did they really know how to do it?
In math we solved problem after problem with no connection between the problems. Teachers would see students make the same mistakes over and over and would teach them how to solve that specific problem. In word problems this happens especially. We teach the problem instead of teaching strategies to solve all word problems. Sarah has six pennies and then she got five more. How many does she have now? Ugh… actually most teachers might go through a template that doesn’t allow for student thinking instead of teaching them comprehension skills. A lot of math teaching still looks like this hilarious Kid Snippets video.
What's the Problem?
The problem with taking a book like The Sign of the Beaver and pulling out all the lessons kids could learn in that specific book or circling all the mistakes a child makes on one specific writing assignment or telling the child how to solve one specific math problem is that there is no transfer. The child cannot walk away from that book or writing assignment or math problem and take what they’ve learned and apply it to their future learning.
When teaching reading, we want to teach skills that all readers can use in any book.
In writing, we want to teacher the writer skills that they can apply to any writing piece.
In math, we want to teach mathematicians strategies they can take to the next problem.
When we begin to teach the CHILD instead of the book or writing or problem we are creating independent learners. That child can take the knowledge they’ve learned and apply it to the next time they read or write or solve a problem. They have learned transferrable skills.
They can begin to see that reading skills apply to all books not just to certain ones. Nonfiction readers do the same thing regardless of text. Fantasy readers use the same strategies regardless of text. Historical fiction readers need a certain set of skills regardless of text. Decoding skills and learning new words can be the same in every text.
In writing if we correct every single mistake then they child can’t become a better writer. If this week you teach that writers use punctuation to help guide the reader. Then that child can focus in on punctuation. Punctuation might not be in every child’s zone of proximal development. If it isn’t in their ZPD then don’t waste time on it. Look for the skills that they do need. A child can learn that regardless of genre all writers find a way to draw in their audience.
In math they can see that mathematicians are always making connections. Math is built upon reasoning and relationships. Strategies you use in addition can be used in subtraction and multiplication and fractions and so many other things! The different operations and problem types don’t live in a silo and mathematicians know how to connect different math concepts.
What to do Instead
First of all, we shouldn’t be teaching whole class novels anymore… a good topic for a new changing our thinking post. For more on best practice in Literacy join me on Tuesdays and check out the Literacy Instruction tab at the top of the page.
Think about the skills each reader needs. Books can teach a wide variety of skills. In one Bailey School Kids book I can teach about the mystery genre and how readers try to solve mysteries along with the characters. I can teach decoding skills as kids discover words they don’t know. I can teach fluency skills and encourage readers to let their voice reflect the tone of the story. I can teach that readers reread when things don’t make sense. I can teach that readers of a series learn about the characters and pay attention to their traits. I can teach that readers can connect the previous chapter to the current chapter. I could go on and on.
Switch your thinking. Instead of what skills can this book teach? Think, what skills does this reader need? Not every reader needs the same skills and most books can teach the reader the skills they need.
Teachers should no longer be editors in the writing classroom… another topic for a changing our thinking!
As you watch your writers work, notice their mistakes. Notice the skills that they have independently mastered and compliment them on those skills. Notice the skills that they use correctly most of the time but still make errors on from time to time. Notice the skills that they are beginning to correct on their own but don’t do it frequently. Notice the errors that they make all the time but don’t correct at all. Notice everything they do. Then decide what to teach.
When deciding what to teach not all writers will need the same skills. If a child is able to do something on their own, they don’t need to be taught that skill. If a child makes errors but never corrects them, this skill might not be in their zone of proximal development yet. They might not be ready for it yet. Teach in to the mistakes that they are beginning to correct on their own but don’t have down yet. Become their coach and teach them those skills.
Writers use punctuation to guide their reader. Writers use capital letters at the start of a sentence. Writers break their writing into paragraphs to organize their ideas better and make their writing easier to read. Writers use strategies to spell words correctly. These are all teaching points that can be applied to any piece of writing.
Switch your thinking. Instead of, what is this writer doing wrong? Think, what skills does this writer almost have? What can I teach them today that they can learn to do independently and apply to the next piece of writing?
Oh, math. So often in math we teach and prompt kids in the easiest way for them to get the answer. Isn’t math just answer getting? If you haven’t watched this video about answer getting in math then take a moment to do so. Math is not all about answer getting. When we don’t teach for reasoning and understanding we often teach for answer getting.
Instead of teaching the specific problem ask yourself what is a skill this mathematician could apply to every problem they encounter. Maybe they need to know that mathematicians struggle but they keep going when it is hard. Mathematicians construct arguments to explain their reasoning. Mathematicians create a model to try to solve an unknown problem. Mathematicians use different strategies to solve problems.
Switch your thinking. Instead of, how can this student get the answer? Think, what skills does this mathematician need? What skills could I teach them today that they can apply to future problems as well.
What I've Learned
Teaching for transfer has completely changed my teaching. I now reflect a lot of each child’s zone of proximal development and how to teach for independence. When I think about transfer it means that the child can do the skill without you and can bring this knowledge with them to any problem, book, experiment, or whatever.
Leave your thoughts in the comments below! I would love to hear about your journey in teaching for transfer and answer any questions you may have.