HOT v. the most appropriate

Every now and then I’m confronted with the idea of asking higher order thinking (HOT) questions. A lot of teachers are. In fact, there seems to be an unhealthy infatuation with HOT questions in education.

Don’t get me wrong, HOT questions certainly have their place. They serve to connect ideas, broaden perspectives, and deepen understanding of the content being learned. I strive for HOT questions. Even if it’s indirect, the heart of any good lesson, I believe, revolves around them. They’re a must.

That said, there’s much, much more to questioning than HOT questioning. In fact, by placing so much focus on HOT questions, we can lose sight of how questions build off one another and their dependency on current levels of student understanding. What is the goal of the question? How will it lead to the next? HOT questions can be too demanding and, consequently, create a gulf between what is currently understood and what’s expected. Any question is entirely dependent on our students – nothing else. They must meet them where they are.

What I strive for is not necessarily asking more HOT questions, but finding the most appropriate questions given the context. “What” and “when” questions should not be frowned upon if they are frequently used during a lesson. Instead, we should be critical of the sequence of any and all questions we ask and how this sequence impacts students’ abilities to answer HOT questions.

 
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The day after

london_underground2

I don’t like review days before exams. I’d much rather spend that day after an exam analyzing mistakes and relearning. I find this to be crucial in promoting a growth mindset in my students. My struggle has been how to structure these post-exam days. Here’s a formative assessment idea that I’ve used a few times this year.

The day after an exam, I set up the room in 3-5 stations. Each serves as a place to study a particular concept that was on the exam.

My bell ringer asks students to check their exam performance on the bulletin board in the back of the room. It lets them know for which concepts they earned proficiency. I also email the kids their performance immediately after assessing the exams, but many don’t check.

I hand back the exams and they move to a concept that they need help with based on their performance. If they have earned credit for every concept on the exam then I ask them to float and help others. At each station they use notes, each other, and the feedback I provided on the exam to analyze and learn from their mistakes. I also have practice problems at each station so they can make sure they understand the concept. I float around the room and help. Of course, the SBG data allows me to sit with students who need me most.

After a student feels they have successfully relearned a concept, and I usually check in to confirm, they can retake that concept. The retakes are in folders in the corner – students grab one and do it anywhere in the room. They submit it and begin working on another concept, if necessary. It doesn’t matter how many concepts a student retakes during the period, but it usually works out to be 1-2.

Before I did this activity I was concerned that since the stations would be full of students that struggled on a concept that they would all sit together and get no where. This hasn’t been the case. The kids are diligent to relearn. This may be because they like retaking exams and earning proficiency during class time, as I usually make them come after school to do this. It helps that the relearning is targeted and individualized to each student. Plus, it’s all formative. They go wherever they feel they need to. They assess themselves, but use one another in the process.

It can look and feel chaotic. But that’s the point. Improvement is messy. It’s also amazing – especially when it happens amongst your students.
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“You need to have your aim posted”

What impact does posting the aim, or central question of a lesson, have on teaching and learning? What purpose does it serve?

I’ve heard throughout my career that “you need to have your aim posted” at the start of every lesson. @stoodle got at this idea recently and made me realize that I myself have been pondering this for quite some time.

A year ago someone at a PD mentioned that they never post the day’s aim. Nor do they “announce” it at the beginning of class. Instead, the aim is elicited from students during the learning process. The essential question is built upon their prerequisite knowledge and pulled from their comprehension of what they learn from the lesson. It is never given, but rather discovered by the students.

When I heard this, I had an ah-ha moment. It made complete sense. Other than in the classroom, how often are we informed of what we’re going to learn before we actually learn it? Sure, you may have a goal you want to accomplish (e.g. complete yard work before 1 pm), but what you actually learn in the process (e.g. how to mow my lawn as efficiently as possible) is often unknown at the onset. We notice, strategize, experiment, learn, and then realize what we’ve learned.

Recently, I didn’t post the aim of a lesson on arithmetic sequences. I required my students, as part of their exit slip, to write what they thought the aim was for the lesson. Not only did 90% of the kids nail it, but one was even better, and more creative, than what I originally intended for the lesson.

Aim

(This is directly related to the overarching problem from the lesson)

This made me think. Whatever a student feels the aim is (during or at the end of a lesson), provides remarkable feedback as to the effectiveness of the lesson.

Another thing. I’m a firm believer that lessons should be based purely on questions. One question should lead to another, and then another, and then another. Ultimately, the central question – the heart of any lesson – should eventually be provoked. Because of this, I want my students to need the central question of a lesson to accomplish a task or goal. They can’t need it if I openly post it.

I’m left with many questions about this widely-adopted practice of aim-posting. What are the consequences of openly telling students the aim of a lesson? Conversely, what are the consequences of structured learning that promotes the discovery of the aim? If I don’t tell my students the aim, how do I frame a lesson from the onset? Does explicitly stating the aim perpetuate a top-down approach to learning? How can we use student-generated aims to inform our teaching?

 

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Plickers

 Last summer at Twitter Math Camp I learned about an incredible formative assessment tool. I’ve actually started using it fairly regularly now, so I figured I would get out a quick post about it.

It’s called Plickers. It’s essentially a poor-man’s Clickers (think Turning Point Technologies). They’re pieces of paper that you print off for free online and distribute to your class. Each student gets one Plicker. The teacher puts up a question and the orientation in which a student holds their Plicker determines their answer choice. Where the magic happens: download the Plickers app to your mobile device and you can “scan” the room with your camera and the app picks up all the student responses. Think exit slips, class polls, checks for understanding, and the like. It is remarkable. The first time you see it, you literally can’t believe your eyes. Here’s a video.

Pros:

  • Allows me to collect assessment data relatively easily
  • The kids seem to love using it
  • Easy to replace in case one comes up missing
  • No software to install; it’s all web based and the app is user-friendly
  • Free

Cons:

  • Requires preparing prompts ahead of time
  • Cannot export data (or maybe I just I don’t know how to)
  • Requires lamenating for long-term use

There are many things in educational technology that are impractical and overdone. This is not one. Plickers leverage technology in a way that’s simple, accessible, and useful.

In short, Plickers are game changers.

If you haven’t tried them yet and are interested in a slick formative assessment strategy, I would definitely check them out.

 

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Traffic Light


Traffic Light

I’ve seen and read about many “traffic light” strategies used in the classroom. In most instances, its a label we use for a strategy thats helps us gauge student understanding or receive feedback. Here’s another twist on it.

I’m using it as a formative assessment strategy that I fittingly call Traffic Light. (Very creative, I know.) I’ve laminated red, yellow, and green pieces of paper and slid them into another laminated piece of paper that I half-taped to the top of each desk.

During any given lesson, I mention “Traffic Light!” and my students hold up a color corresponding to their level of understanding at that moment. Sometimes I see a sea of green, sometimes a mix, and sometimes I see so much red that I myself turn red. Either way, I have found the cards to be an indispensable tool to keep a pulse on how things are going and, if need be, change things up on the fly. There are plenty of instances where I needed to re-explain something, regroup students, or change the approach to a concept. And, without this in-the-moment feedback from the kids, I probably would not have been aware that a change was necessary.

I must put out a disclaimer. When I first started using the cards, I found that some of the quieter students would hold up a green to avoid me eyeing their yellow or red card – essentially making them “stick out” to me. I had a talk with my classes about how their learning is dependent on their integrity. We also discussed honesty as it relates to their understanding and how this is a driving force of everything we do. I did find that all this helped encourage the kids to provide more accurate responses.

Besides the obvious benefit for me, their teacher, the students actually enjoy using Traffic Light. At the end of the first semester, I asked each student to provide me with one thing they thought went well and one thing they felt needed improvement in our class. I was surprised by this, but several students actually mentioned the Traffic Light cards.

Feedback Traffic Light

(“the new grading system for exams” refers to my shift to standards-based grading)

It could be the interactivity. Students get to, essentially, voice their opinion…and teens love to do that. It could also the message it sends: that I’m willing adjust any lesson based on how they’re learning – and then to actually adjust it. Who knows. I’m just glad they’ve taken to it.

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