Hearing Student Voice Thanks to Better Questions

So true confessions: classroom discipline was never my strength. How many times did I wish for a class that would just BE QUIET, let me tell them how I wanted them to do the math, and then replicate my process without complaint?

Fast forward to now, as I watch silent classrooms with student faces hidden and wonder “What are they thinking? Are they following? Does what the teacher is saying make sense to them?” And the uploaded photo of perfect mathematical procedure does not comfort me at all.  Did they get it or am I just looking at photomath in all its glory?  If I could only know what’s happening inside those student brains!

Because if pandemic teaching has shown me anything, it is that my early dreams of silent studious classrooms where all students absorbed my thinking like a sponge and regurgitated it on command is

  1. Not possible.
  2. Not what I want.

 Students do not work that way. Learning doesn’t work that way.  

Currently I work as part of a team of teacher coaches, supporting new hires through the state mandated Induction Program (formerly known as BTSA). Our new teachers each choose a teaching practice to focus on for the semester. There are almost 40 separate teaching practices that these young teachers can choose from. This fall almost every one of them chose CSTP 5.2: “Collecting and analyzing assessment data from a wide variety of sources to inform instruction.”  

Because we all felt it – the need to know what our students were thinking, what they understood and didn’t understand. We could not plan or teach without this vital information. 

Fast forward through this semester. Some teachers have found more successful ways of hearing what students are thinking than others. Teachers who haven’t found ways to hear where students are at and what they are thinking are for the most part frustrated.  They have a segment who seem to be learning and some that are turning in garbage, or nothing at all. And even for the students who are doing well, the nagging doubt remains about whether the work truly represents their own mastery of the material or just what some app tells them. 

I have thought alot about what choices made the difference. Some tech platforms are great tools for gaining insight into student understanding. But the bottom line seems to be the questions we ask. Teachers getting better glimpses into student thinking aren’t just using better tech. They are asking better questions.  

Writing better questions is a skill that can be learned.  We are used to asking for answers, and which it turns out is pretty close to useless in assessing student understanding. We are all learning to question better, but between learning new tech, planning new lessons, creating distance resources, and writing new assessments, teachers have little time to dig deep into honing their question asking skills. 

So here we are – hungry to hear authentic student thinking about mathematics but with zero time to develop curriculum and assessments that give us an opportunity to hear and build instructional experiences based on those student ideas. 

This is why I am so grateful for the new curriculums we have adopted.  Middle school’s Illustrative Mathematics and high school’s CPM curriculums are built to elicit conversation and give us an opportunity to hear what students understand and where they are struggling. So different from a page of practice problems, they have felt unwelcoming to many teachers who want the familiar 1-29 odd type of experience. But after this year, I realize I want more than just correct answers that photomath can easily give me. What I really want is not just “answer producers”.  I would like math to make sense and to connect to the things students already know in meaningful ways. These curriculums ask those deeper questions, draw connections, and ask students to explain, apply, and reflect on their learning. 

10+ years ago I worked with a talented teacher and mathematician who finally got to teach Advanced Math students.  By the second week she stormed into my room in frustration. “These kids will not think! They keep waiting for me to tell them what to do!”

Those kids were the kids that were good at the system of school math.  And school math for the most part meant replicating other people’s thoughts, not thinking for themselves. 

Maybe it is taking this pandemic to show us just how broken this old vision of school math is.