Slowing down student thinking…learning to notice


I approach a group of students discussing a problem in my class. I listen. I watch. I interpret their thinking. I sense a misconception. I ask a question to clarify what and how they are thinking. Hopefully, in the end, they reach a higher level of understanding of the problem and I reach a higher level of understanding of their comprehension.

Just like other teachers, I often do this sort of complex analysis of my students in under 10 seconds. I’ve been trained to.

That said, what if I could improve this skill I have learned over the course of my career? What if I could somehow train myself to be more attuned to student thinking?

That brings me to my next project. I’m partnering with MfA this year to bring some exciting, new PD to my school. It involves using video to record student discussion and interaction around a specific task (with no focus on the teacher). Afterwards, a group of teachers gather to watch the video, brainstorm about critical moments that occurred, interpret student thinking, and formulating questions that could be asked to clarify the thought process of the students.

It’s all based on the research by Elizabeth A. van Es and Miriam Gamoran Sherin. Here’s a follow up article they wrote on selecting clips and an overview of their work.

The idea is to slow down student thinking to the point where deep analysis can happen. My hope is that teachers at my school, along with myself, are able to use this process to improve our abilities to interpret student thinking and how we address it during our lessons.

Here are some of the challenges I foresee.

  • Introducing it to teachers. You can only introduce something once and first impressions have impacts that can last until June. I must make it good.
  • Teachers accepting the idea that interprepting student thinking often contains loads of uncertainty, and that this is okay. Not everything needs a final answer.
  • Developing engaging prompts for the group when the conversation is lagging. This may depend on the quality of my preparation beforehand.
  • I don’t see overall engagement being an issue, but you never know.
  • Being able to record and edit video clips in a timely manner. Luckily, at least in the beginning, MfA will be helping with this. But how sustainable is this type of PD in the long term?

Here are a few other unrelated thoughts.

  • How will teacher analysis differ if the focus is on student understanding versus misunderstanding, if at all? Does this impact “next steps” after the session?
  • Speaking of next steps, how will those look?
  • Can I channel teachers to certain moments in the clip based on my preparation beforehand? Would this be useful?
  • I may facilitate the initial sessions, but I want to learn perspective from my colleagues about how a student may be thinking. My MfA experiences have been scintillating in this regard. There were things mentioned that I would have never thought of.
  • This PD involves using video in the classroom. When most teachers think of video, they think of the teacher being recorded as s/he teaches with best practices as the center of attention. This is not that. It should be interesting to see this dynamic play out.
  • Each session I’ve attended with MfA has focused on one group of students discussing a task. How would the session change if we examined multiple groups of students from different classes – all discussing the same task? How would this affect the analysis?
  • This type of PD hinges on teachers understanding the content, in my case math. That notwithstanding, is there a way to run something similar that focuses on student discussion, but has a more interdisciplinary approach? Perhaps CRE/advisory?


Blogging: One Year After


0. I have now eclipsed one year of blogging.

1. Before I started, I never thought I would have had time to write. I also never thought I would have enough to write about.

1. Dude. I was wrong.

2. I wrote/posted 40 entries in my story this year.

3. I now find myself needing to write. If I don’t get up a post for a good amount of time, I get restless and it shows.

5. This past year, I never wrote for anyone but myself. It was a personal reflection and I like it that way. That may change, but who knows.

8. Blogging has reframed my teaching and how I view my own development. Writing has allowed me to get to know myself in a completely new and exciting way.

13. I contribute my initial blogging motivation to TMC14. Those wonderful people in Tulsa lit the fire. Too bad I couldn’t return the favor at Harvey Mudd last week.

21. I didn’t read enough MTBoS blogs this year. I’m shortchanging myself if I don’t tap into this idea-rich resource.

34. Who knows if I’ll make it another year. What I do know is that I’m a better teacher now than I was last July and I owe my blog loads of credit for that.



Quadrants for assigned seats

I meant to do a write up about this during the year, but forgot. So here’s a short, but long overdue post about how I assign seats. Surprisingly, before this year I never assigned seats (gasp), so I really felt the need to post about this strategy. Oh, and I can’t take credit for this…John Scammel put me on to it during his session at TMC14. Awesome dude.

It’s a pretty simple technique that goes a long way at efficiently grouping students in diverse ways. During the first month of school or so, I assign each student four different seats. Each seat is assigned based on academic ability, group dynamics, proximity to me, students that can’t see the board, etc. These four seats are their assigned seats for the semester. I call each of the four seating arrangements a “quadrant”.

When students arrive for class each day, the day’s quadrant is posted on the bulletin board by the door. They walk in, check out the day’s quadrant, and go to their seat that corresponds to that quadrant.

Quadrant for Seating

Because I strategically place students in each quadrant, I select the quadrant based on that day’s activity. Some days require Quadrant I while on other days Quadrant III may provide a better set up. Each seating arrangement provides strengths and weaknesses to the class dynamic, so I vary the quadrant day to day. There were even a couple days during the middle of class I had students change quadrants based on how the lesson was going.

It worked well last year. It afforded me another layer of differentiation and flexible grouping, which was nice. Plus, the majority of the students enjoyed having a variety of seats around the room. The only hiccup I came across was students not remembering where they sat. Crazy. I guess they weren’t accustomed to remembering four different assigned seats. I probably should have posted up the seating arrangement for each quadrant somewhere in the room, but I was lazy and expected them to just know. Next year, I’ll post them.