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The scenario is all too familiar to me: One of my kids comes home with an assignment to complete. She brings it to me for help. Not wanting to do the work for her, I start by asking her to tell me what she knows.
“Okay,” I say, looking at the paper she’s handed me. “What are you supposed to be doing here?”
“I don’t know,” she says.
I hand the paper back to her. “Read the directions to me,” I say.
Reluctantly, she reads. As I listen, I realize I don’t quite understand the instructions, either. We wrestle with the task for a few minutes, I offer one possible approach, and when that idea is rejected, I offer another. As the conversation progresses, my kid gets more and more distressed; it has become abundantly clear that I’m not going to be able to tell her how to do it.
I should mention the assignment is not the kind where creativity is the goal. We’re not talking about a task that encourages divergent thinking or has multiple possible right answers. That’s not it. This assignment and almost all the others we find ourselves stuck on are worksheets produced by large companies where the task just isn’t worded clearly. It’s obvious that one right answer is supposed to be given. We just can’t figure out what that answer is supposed to be.
I should also add that my kids, in general, do not struggle in school. Early readers, good at math, high test scores, no behavior or attention issues. So we’re not talking about students who tend to take longer to understand things. These are three bright kids who do well in school, but this scenario has played out with all three of them at different grade levels and with different teachers throughout their school years.
So then I say, “Well, did you go over this in class before bringing it home?”
And she says, “Yeah. Sort of.”
I say, “Did you understand what you were supposed to do then?”
In return, I get a blank stare. “Not really.”
Here’s where I start to get irritated. “So did you say something?” I ask. “Did you tell your teacher you didn’t understand?”
“No,” my kid says. Then she adds, “I didn’t want to get in trouble.”
That. That right there. That’s when I feel my flipping out reflex start to kick in. When my professionalism starts to waver and the hysterical, teacher-bashing helicopter parent voice starts whispering in my ear. No student should feel like they can’t ask questions in school. No student should go home not understanding how to do their homework. No student should ever worry that asking for more explanation will result in punishment.
Two Sides to Every Story
At first, I imagine the worst: A teacher like some I remember from my own childhood, teachers who regularly said things like, “A stupid question deserves a stupid answer,” and, “You know we just went over that. Sit down!” They never said these things to me, but when I heard them said to my classmates, I knew I’d be better off keeping my mouth shut.
I can imagine this scenario, and the irrational part of my brain wants to assume this is what’s going on.
But I taught middle school for seven plus years. I know exactly what it’s like to give 100 percent effort in your instruction and see that some kids are completely tuning you out. I know how it feels to answer the same question four times in a row. I know that when a student tosses his paper aside and says, “this is stupid,” we don’t always recognize it as a cry for help; sometimes we respond like regular humans, let our egos get in the way, and simply interpret it as misbehavior.
I also know how unskilled students can be at asking questions. I remember how easily students could misinterpret, oversimplify, and misrepresent things I said. I know how often students ask for help two seconds before the bell rings, or two seconds before an assignment is due. I know that “I don’t get it” can actually mean a hundred different things.
So when I try to figure out why my child is sitting in front of me with an assignment she doesn’t know how to do, I know all too well that my kid’s version may not be the whole story. Maybe the teacher did explain it. Maybe she provided time to work on the assignment in class. Maybe she showed examples. Maybe my kid was talking, or daydreaming. Maybe my kid was in the bathroom. Maybe there’s another student in class whose very presence makes my kid feel embarrassed to ask any questions at all.
There are dozens of possible reasons why she doesn’t understand this assignment.
But what can’t be argued is that the thought of telling her teacher this makes her uncomfortable. There’s something about that teacher or that classroom that isn’t as academically safe as it could be. Every time a student chooses not to ask for help or clarification, it’s a missed opportunity for learning.
And it’s something we have the power to improve.
Making Your Classroom a Safe Place to Learn
Here are a few simple, powerful ways you can make your classroom a place where students feel free to ask questions and take academic risks. If you’re already doing most of these, you may only pick up one new idea, but it may be just the thing your students need to grow as learners.
Build in More Checks for Understanding
Most teachers are already doing a lot of this: We teach something, then we make sure students understand what we taught them. We just may not be doing it as much as we could to make sure everyone really gets it.
- Ask questions instead of asking FOR questions.
When teachers finish delivering some kind of content (a lecture, a video, a reading), or giving a set of instructions, we often say, “Does anyone have any questions?” This is one of the least effective ways to actually find out what questions our students have. For one thing, when a person doesn’t understand something, they don’t always know what they don’t understand, so it may not be possible to formulate a question. On top of that, many students fear looking stupid, so even if they do have a question, it’s only the bravest who will put themselves out there. So instead of asking, “Are there any questions?” ask targeted questions to see if students understand what you just taught them: “Ciara, can you tell me what you’re going to do after you get your test tubes?” “Jordan, what could happen if you forget to carry the one?” “Mikey, where should everyone put their journal today when they’ve finished?” These brief exchanges will get everyone’s attention, provide a quick review, and help students identify areas where they might be confused.
- Have students explain things to each other.
After teaching a concept or giving instructions, have students do a think-pair-share to explain it to each other. This gives each student a chance to process their thoughts to a low-risk audience of one, and the act of trying to put what they just learned into their own words has massive cognitive impact. Once students have explained it to each other, they can correct small misconceptions, and if they can’t, they will be more likely to ask you for help after discovering that someone else is confused about the same thing.
- Do the first few steps together.
Instead of assigning something, then sending students off to do it on their own, provide time to get started together. The I Do, We Do, You Do structure is a classic method for modeling a task for students, and by building this kind of scaffolding into most tasks, you’re saving yourself a lot of time that would have been spent re-teaching later on.
- Have students score a sample completed task.
When you’re giving a more complex assignment or project, give students a completed sample—ideally with a few problems built in—and have them evaluate it. This forces students to pay closer attention to the assignment criteria, and it will call everyone’s attention to areas that may be unclear. (By the way, creating this model is a valuable lesson in itself. Around here we call this dogfooding your lessons, and it’s one of the best ways to improve the assignments you give to students.)
Teach Students How to Ask Questions
Students don’t come into the world understanding how to monitor their own understanding, then formulate respectful questions that target their exact area of misconception. The only way they’ll get good at doing this is to practice. So in your classroom, whether it’s formally or informally, show students how to ask these kinds of questions. You may even want to provide question stems that show them the kinds of questions they could ask to clarify their understandings:
- This is what I do understand… (summarize up to the point of misunderstanding)
- Can you tell me if I’ve got this right? (paraphrasing current understanding)
- Can you please show another example?
- Could you explain that one more time?
- Is it ______ or _________? (identifying a point of confusion between two possibilities)
By encouraging students to ask these kinds of questions, you’re teaching students how to monitor their own learning and get the help they need.
Provide Time for Private Questions
If the only time students are given to ask questions is when the whole class is listening, some students may never raise their hands. Ever. And the reasons could run a whole lot deeper than basic shyness. Here are some possible situations when a student may not feel comfortable asking a question in front of the whole class:
- Students who are aware that many of their classmates are academically stronger than them and don’t want to look stupid.
- Students who have a crush on someone in class and would rather die before putting themselves out there.
- Students who are currently embroiled in some kind of argument with another student.
- Students who are being bullied by another student.
- Students who just this morning found a huge zit on their forehead or have some other totally embarrassing physical “situation” going on.
I could go on and on. The possibilities for humiliation are endless. So make time for your students to approach you privately with their questions and you’ll definitely get more of them. If you allow students to ask each other first, or establish an Ask 3 Before Me policy, you’ll cut down on the number of times you have to answer questions directly while still giving students a chance to clear up misunderstandings.
Create Contingency Plans
It’s frustrating to be working on your own, find yourself in a tight spot, and not be able to get the help you need right away. Students need to know what they should do if they are stuck—at home or at school—and you’re unavailable to help. Set aside some class time to talk about your response to these questions:
- Is it better to make a wild guess or leave an answer blank?
- What if their school-based resources (textbook, worksheet) don’t have the information they need? Is it okay to look for more information online, or would you rather they stick to the materials from class?
- If they don’t understand a question, is it okay to write, “I didn’t understand”? Could they also add an explanation of why they didn’t understand? Letting students do this would show you that they didn’t just give up, or blow off the question, but that they had a question that couldn’t be answered.
- Is it acceptable to give two different responses to the same question, along with a brief explanation for each interpretation of the question?
These are all decisions my own kids have struggled with when they got stuck on an assignment. I’ve said to them, “Go ahead and bring it in and tell her you didn’t understand how to do this one.” Shock and horror when I say that! It’s like, “Nooo! I’ll have to sign! I’ll clip down if I say that!” And I’m thinking really? You’re going to get punished for saying you didn’t understand? Either this teacher doesn’t value learning very much, or my kid doesn’t understand the rules in that class, and they need to have more discussion about what to do if they’re stuck. Talking about these kinds of contingency plans would be a great use of 20 minutes of class time.
Ask Your Students
One of the fastest ways to understand how your students feel in your class is to ask them. You can do this one-on-one, but this will be incredibly time-consuming, and if students already feel intimidated by you, they may not be very forthcoming. It’s more efficient to survey students in writing: Ask them whether they feel comfortable asking questions in class, if they feel they can get help if they need it, if they feel comfortable asking questions in front of their peers. If you want to take a really accurate temperature of your class as a whole, make the surveys anonymous, or have students put names on them if you’re looking for more individualized feedback.