I'm thinking of...

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One of the things that I frequently see in classrooms that I visit is students who can mechanically produce an answer to a question or problem but who don’t really understand how or why the process they used works. As teachers, we need to focus more on the thinking process that a student used to get to an answer rather than on the answer itself.

Certainly there are times when simple recall is important, and when it’s best to give students a brief indication of whether their response is correct or incorrect. But for any question that involves reasoning, judgment, assimilation, synthesis, or similar higher level thinking, I like to ask follow-up questions like these:

  • “Why did you do that?”
  • “How did you get that?”
  • “How do you know?”
  • “What does that number/fact/word represent?”
  • “What does that mean?”
  • “Can you justify your answer?”
  • “Can you prove it?”

I ask these regardless of whether the initial answer is right or wrong. This has several benefits:

  1. I can get a better understanding of both the right and wrong answers a student gives. Was it simply an automatic application of a rote process? Is there valid reasoning going on with simple mistakes? Was the right answer a guess or a fluke? Does the students have a misconception that happens to work right in this instance?
  2. Occasionally a student will have a good justification for an alternative answer I hadn’t considered, and asking for the rationale saves me from a hasty dismissal.
  3. It makes it clear to the student that they are responsible for their answers, not me.
  4. It creates an atmostphere that is simultaneously more rigorous and more open. It becomes safer to be “wrong”, because when they can explain their thinking, we focus on the process instead of the result. It is rare that a student does nothing right in that thinking process, and so we can begin with “I understand where you are coming from. This part was really good thinking, but here is where you got off track and how you can fix it next time.”

So many times I have been in a classroom where a student gives an incorrect answer to a question, the teacher gets a correct answer from another student (or simply provides it him- or herself), and moves on. I’ll sometimes go to that student’s desk and privately ask for the explanation. “Show me how you got that,” I’ll say, and they’ll walk me through the process. It rarely takes me more than a few moments to explain the flaw in the thinking and help the student understand.

Take the time to question everything your students do. Create an environment for thinking in your classroom.

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