A good bit of the teaching that occurs in a discussion-based classroom happens behind the scenes. The preparation of the questions, especially when it comes to making sure they are worded well and scaffolded appropriately, is time-consuming and difficult, but getting it right is crucial if the kids are to learn the material. Any teacher who has written a project for a class knows what I’m talking about. The wording of the description of the project is quite possibly the most important part of the project, and unfortunately you don’t find out how well, or how poorly, the directions are worded until after the kids have the directions in their hands. At times, it’s the questions that come immediately after you hand out the information sheet that clues you in to exactly what needs to be reworded. At other times, it’s not until after the projects are turned in that you realize you didn’t get anything close to what you thought you were requesting, and you certainly didn’t get the information about how well the kids understand the material.
In a discussion-based classroom, every exercise you assign has the potential for this to happen. Fortunately, in the third year of using the problem sets we wrote for honors pre-calculus, most of the bugs have been worked out (though we found two typos in the last week alone), but there is still the matter of writing the questions for the individual exercise sets (we’re not calling them “tests” this year, and several kids have mentioned that just the removal of the word “test” does lessen the anxiety…credit to Carmel Schettino for the idea), and since we write a new set of exercises for these every year, the process never really ends.
The difficulty this year has been writing the discussion exercises for my algebra 1 class. Some of the worksheets have worked as expected, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the way the kids have tried the exercises for homework and discussed them the next day in class. In particular, I love the fact that these are non-honors freshmen, and yet they have taken to the discussions just as well as the honors juniors in my pre-calculus classes. A few of the worksheets have not worked out as well, and while it is tempting to just give in and show the kids what I meant, I have come to understand the importance of having the kids struggle with the material and make sense of it for themselves. I have also come to understand that if the kids didn’t get it, it’s probably because I didn’t ask the correct questions, or at least didn’t ask them in the right way, and as such the appropriate response on my part is to search for and ask the right questions. During my career, I have heard many teachers place all of the fault for not understanding the material on the kids, unwilling to take a critical look at the way they presented the material. Lecture-based teachers say that they have explained the material as well as could possibly be done, and the rest is on the kids. Discovery-based teachers say that the directions in the activity are absolutely clear, and the rest is on the kids. While I agree that there are a few kids who aren’t learning the material because they are actively refusing to learn it, now that I am in the habit of critiquing everything I do for my classes, I have become far more aware of the fact that the lack of learning is more than likely my fault, and it’s my responsibility to fix it.
Most of the kids are trying to succeed in our classrooms. Most of the kids are preparing for and actively participating in class. If they’re not understanding the material, our first port of call needs to be to ask ourselves what we could have done better, period.