Monday, October 21, 2019

"Does This Make Sense?" Doesn't Make Sense.

Yeah...so this got a lot more traction than I expected. But I also never know what tweets will get a reaction and what won't. I just say stuff I'm thinking about, and sometimes it hits a nerve.

Because it's important (to me, but I actually like the engagement of twitter, not just the engagement numbers*) not to leave a popular tweet like this just floating contextless in the education space, I want to talk about the why of it all, and where I'm coming from. Then we'll look at what some other people in the long long thread had to say.

"Does this make sense?" is a pretty terrible check-for-understanding question to ask students. How will they answer? They'll say, "Yes." That's actually the whole line from GHOSTBUSTERS. "Ray, if someone asks you if you're a god, or if what they just taught makes sense, you say 'YES!'" It's in the extended edition. Don't google it, just trust me.

Students will default to Yes for a variety of reasons- They don't want to look like the one kid who doesn't know. They weren't listening and Yes is a safer answer than No. They do actually understand, at least part of it. They know Yes will probably get you to stop talking. They think they understand but actually don't. They are a god. None of these things help me as the teacher do my job at all. The question is too open-ended, too vague. At the least, it requires a few follow-ups questions. But those need to be done one-on-one with a student and can come off as "I'm trying to catch you not being honest" questions.

The cousins to "Does that make sense?", in case you're curious, are "Any questions?", "Everyone got it?", "Soooo...yeah?",  "Can we move on?", and "Eh? *gestures at board* Eh? Right?" Holy cow, there was so much punctuation in that last sentence.

The problem is, "Does this make sense?" seems like it should be a good question. We assume our kids are honest, and I think they mostly are. We assume they want to learn, and I think they do. We assume they will tell us when they're confused, and...that's a learned skill coupled with everyone's favorite Education Word- relationship-dependent. My students will, for the most part, tell me if they're confused. By now, eight or nine weeks in, we've built a relationship and a trust and hopefully encourages that and has made it clear not understanding is not a bad thing. I've got a few kids I can depend on to ask for help, and a few who, at parent/teacher conferences the end of November, I know I'll be telling their parents "I would really like it is s/he would ask some more questions in class." Because it is on the kids to take their learning into their own hands. If this is a conversation then it should be two-way, but I can't expect them to do it all themselves. And asking bad questions like "Does this make sense?" is not helping.

We must be more specific with our questioning.

  • "What's something cool you noticed about what we just did?"
  • "If you had to explain this to my six-year old, what would you say?"
  • "Can you please give me an example based on what we just learned?"

You know- specific questions that cannot be answered with Yes/No. And those can still have follow-up questions. I love having the kids re-explain what someone else said. You know what's really fun, and I only do it occasionally because it's not a well you can go back to a lot without it running dry? For a Think Time option, rather than Turn And Talk, I tell my kids I've hidden an invisible white mouse in each of their desks. Please open your desk, gently take the mouse out, cup it in your hands, and whisper what you think/know/learned/understood to the mouse, then hold it to your ear and listen for what the mouse says. Then tell me what the mouse says. Friends, the first time I did this was because I had, as I often do, and idea that began "Wouldn't it be funny if..." and then I decided to see what would happen. And they all did it. It was awesome. They ask to explain things to their mice. They name their mice.

I'm also thinking about this question, and other in-the-moment assessment questions like it because I've got a student teacher, and he's working on these same skills. As with everything I tell him, I have to run it through my personal Teacher Brain first. What am I telling him? Why am I saying it? What's the pedagogical point? Why do I do that? He's trying to find the best way to do comprehension checks too, just like we all are.

Hence, the tweet. Now that's I've gone on for a while, let's check out some of the responses in the thread, shall we? Learn from each other.





I like a lot of the ideas in this. I think that I'll be specifically trying to add the "You must ask me two questions" thing. I also completely agree with Alicia that no matter how good our questioning is, at some point you've still got to know your kids and just be on the look out for the floating question mark over their heads. That's part of being a teacher. We should have to take body language classes in university, like Tim Roth on Lie To Me, except not to be cops about it. Never to be a cop about it.

It's also worth scrolling through the responses to the original tweet because so many teachers said something along the lines of, "Oh man, me too." This is a goodness. We're all in this together, we're all struggling and making mistakes, and we're all doing things that we know aren't the best, trying to fix them, but still being honest about it happening. It's not saying "I sucked today", it's specific, detailed reflection that is actionable. You know, just like what we're trying to ask our students.

Here's one last funny thing about tweets like this- There is no request for help in this tweet. It doesn't ask for advice. But a lot of teachers just can't help themselves. And, to be honest, that can be a little off-putting, no matter how well intentioned the advice is. We need to be able to see the difference between "I have trouble with this, what should I do?" and "I have trouble with this." Those are two very different statements. In this case, after advice continued to roll in, I choose to lean into it. Why fight the tide? Truthfully though, who amongst us actually enjoys unsolicited advice? I say all of this as a guy who has responded to tweets that do not ask for advice with advice and got shot down hard for it. The women (yes, I too succumb to the mansplain and I'm doing everything I can not to, and these experiences getting shot down helped me with that) who shot me down were right to too. They didn't ask, I assumed. So even though this whole thread came out good, and there was a lot of helpful ideas shared, I think it's important to be aware of the difference between a statement and a request. Personally, I try to remember to ask, "Yeah, do you want to know what I do?" before jumping in with "Here's what I'd do." Everyone just wants to help. Not one person in this thread was being a jerk or being rude or being anything but open, honest, and helpful. But even a lifeguard doesn't jump in until the person asks for help or can no longer ask.

We want our kids to ask us for help before we help them. Then they know they need it, they feel safe enough to ask, and they know what to ask for. We need to help them by asking the right leading questions. When everyone comes together in understanding for understanding, everything is better understood.

Does all that make sense?

*"But Doug, I hear you cry, you barely responded to anyone in the thread. That, dear reader, is because it blew up while I was teaching, then I went straight from school to my bass lesson, then straight home and my wife went to a PTC meeting at our oldest son's school and I had the two boys. Then they went to bed and she came home and we spent some time together and now I'm up in my office writing this. Sixty-two replies (as of this moment) is a whole lot to respond to. I'll try later.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

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