In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve ponders creating an environment that creates and encourages student learning, reflection and growth.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:14 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning, and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:41 Consistent and unpredictable: Creating an Environment For Reflection and Learning. In the book “Habits of Mind” by Art Costa and Bena Kallick, they state the following about reflection: “Reflection has many facets. For example, reflecting on work enhances its meaning. Reflecting on experiences encourages insight and complex learning. We foster our growth when we control our learning, so some reflection is best done alone. Reflection is also enhanced however, when we ponder our learning with others. Reflection involves linking a current experience to previous learning, a process called scaffolding. Reflection also involves drawing forth cognitive and emotional information from several sources. Visual, auditory, kinesthetic and tactile. To reflect, you must act upon and process the information, synthesizing and evaluating the data. In the end, reflection also means applying what we’ve learned to context beyond the original situations in which we learn something.” Wow. That really reinforces for me the complexity of the term and thinking that goes into reflection.
Steve: 02:19 At the start of my teaching career, working with the fifth and sixth graders, I remember bombing when I tried to get students to reflect on a solution they created to a math problem or an explanation that they’d given to a written question. Looking at the students’ work frequently over their shoulder, I would ask the student, “how did you get that answer?” And almost always got the same response: “I don’t know.” And I remember looking at students going, okay, so from heaven it jumped down here on your paper. But after a while, I realized that students had interpreted a pattern from my question and when I ask how did you get that answer? What the student actually heard was a statement that said, your answer is wrong. And so in effect, the student’s assumption was that I was asking them to explain how they got the wrong answer, which the student did not see much value being gained from and possibly predicted ridicule.
Steve: 03:52 The same occurred when I would sit to help my daughter at the time with her homework and if she showed me a piece of homework and asked me to look at it “and I said, how did you get this answer?” She frequently erased the answer before the conversation would go any further. And I would then tell her that the answer was correct and she said, “why didn’t you just tell me?” And I tried to explain that I didn’t know whether she got the right answer by accident or she knew what she was doing, which is why I wanted her to reflect and explain out loud to me how she arrived at the answer. So what I uncovered working with my fifth and sixth grade students is that I had to create a classroom climate, a classroom culture, a classroom expectation that was consistent and unpredictable.
Steve: 04:57 Make sure you catch the words. Not consistently unpredictable, but consistent and unpredictable. What’s the consistent part? Well, that’s the part that says it’s safe to make a mistake. It’s safe to give a wrong answer. No one’s going to be laughed at, ridiculed or put down for the wrong answer. What’s unpredictable? Well, you can’t tell what Mr. Barkley’s thinking when he asked you the question, “how did you get that answer?” It means that I needed to ask that question as often of students who had an outstanding answer as I ask the question of students who had made a mistake or had a misconception in their thinking. I had to reach the point where the question, “how did you get that answer” was actually a question that wanted a student to explain their thinking and the student couldn’t read what I thought about their answer through the question.
Steve: 06:18 That’s the part that I call unpredictable. So consistent – it’s safe to answer. Unpredictable – you don’t know what the teacher is thinking about the work that you’ve done. So if I ask, looking over student’s shoulder, “how did you get that answer?” And the student pauses to recall what’s gone on the previous minutes in class, the student can identify that two people who got asked that question, ended up having a brilliant response and another student found out that he or she had made a mistake. So my question doesn’t make the statement and instead the student needs to risk putting their explanation out in order to get the feedback. Now this was very important because getting a student to explain how they arrived at an incorrect response opened up a wonderful door to teaching and providing assistance to that student. But in order to get the student to take the risk of putting that answer out there, it required that culture of a classroom that was consistent – consistently safe and unpredictable.
Steve: 07:46 I don’t know the teacher’s thinking, I’m not trying to give the teacher the answer that the teacher wants. In my beginning days of coaching, I discovered that due to the experiences that teachers had had in teacher evaluation, they often followed a pattern with their administrators that was similar to the one I had established with my fifth and sixth grade students. So as soon as the principal asks, “do you think you had sufficient motivation at the beginning of the lesson?” The teacher’s response was, “I don’t know.” Or in some cases the teacher responded quickly with, “No. The kids weren’t with me.” Believing that that was the message the administrator wanted the teacher to get from the question. I found many administrators had a pattern in the way that they worked with teachers in a post conference. They would tell the teacher through a list of all the things that they saw as strengths in the lesson.
Steve: 09:10 And then if the administrator had an area of concern, an area that they thought could be improved, they frequently responded by asking the teacher a question. So as soon as the question was asked, the teacher knew that was the part of the lesson that the principal thought needed to be improved. And depending on the teacher’s disposition, some teachers at that point would, you know, plead guilty quickly – say “I need to work on that.” And that way be able to exit from the conference. Other teachers at that point would become argumentative. In either case, pleading guilty or arguing didn’t achieve what was really needed for growth, which was reflection. Questions that caused the teacher to ponder about the issue being raised. So again, early in my coaching, I copied some of those strategies that I had used with my fifth grade students. Meaning I would pick something in the lesson that I saw was strong and ask a question about it.
Steve: 10:24 And then if there was something that was less effective in the lesson, I would ask the question about that part in exactly the same way. So, for example, the teacher may have had a strong motivational entry to a lesson and I’d ask the teacher “do you think the students were sufficiently motivated at the beginning of the lesson?” And the teacher might come back and state to me “I don’t know.” And my response back to the teacher would be, “really, I thought it was really powerful and you had them all” and I’d get this surprised look from the teacher because it’s not what they were expecting. And I might even be able to get them at that point to agree with me that they did think that the strategy they had used worked well.
Steve: 11:16 Perhaps later on, I thought there wasn’t enough a repetition and practice before the students were sent off to work individually. And at this point I might ask the teacher the question the same way. “Do you think there was sufficient repetition and practice before the students started the individual work?” And what I’m looking to get as feedback from the teacher is his or her actual thinking. So if the teacher looked at me and said, you know, “I didn’t give that a lot of thought.” Or if the teacher said to me, “I thought when I was planning it, was going to be enough. But seeing how the students struggled during the independent time, I’m only realizing now if it wasn’t enough.” Or the teacher might say to me, “actually I didn’t give it any thought at all.” Whatever the response I get back from the teacher, the critical element that you want back is an honest response as to what it was that the teacher was thinking.
Steve: 12:21 So to make that happen, I’m really looking at the same guidelines of being consistent and unpredictable. Consistent in my coaching means that you really can’t give me a wrong answer because what I’m really asking is to uncover your thinking. That’s the consistent part. I really do want your thinking. That’s consistent. The unpredictable part is that the teacher can’t draw a pattern. Can’t find a, a statement within the question that I pose. A general guideline that I work from in my coaching is to avoid sharing what I’m thinking with the teacher until I know what the teacher is thinking. If the teacher’s thinking differs from mine, I can still decide to share my thinking but I’m going into the conversation knowing the thinking that’s taking – on the part of the teacher. Or I can hear the teacher’s thinking and reinforce that my pondering has led me to the same conclusion that the teacher has.
Steve: 13:36 I still frequently have teachers who will respond to a question by trying to identify what the answer is that they “think I want.” And it takes some repetition of questions in different areas to establish that thought of consistent and unpredictable. A recent example emerged in a pre-conference that I was having with a teacher and he was describing a science lesson where the students were going to be problem solving in small groups of three and four. And when I probed him as to what were the most important student behaviors, learning production behaviors, he needed during the lesson he shared with me that one of them was student talk and dialogue. And he stated that the students knew they would be accountable for sharing in the group.
Steve: 14:59 At that point, I asked him were the students responsible for sharing their own thinking or were they also responsible for causing everyone in their group to participate? He paused for a moment and then responded, “That’s a really great question. I don’t think I’ve thought about that.” At that point, there wasn’t a need for the teacher to make a decision as to how he would answer that question. Walking away from the conference pondering on it is the type of thinking and reflection that can cause teacher growth. I guess listeners to this podcast wouldn’t be surprised that I really value the phrase “learning by pondering with others.” I think as a coach, three critical conferencing skills to hang on to are: one, asking to listening and three, waiting. I often find coaches who are new and in training feel this need for an immediate response to something that the teacher says. That pause time where you are yourself reflecting on what you heard the teachers say, provides the opportunity for you to put a question back to the teacher and then allowing some pause when the teacher first stops answering, encouraging the teacher to add a little more or go a little deeper can often open the door for continued teacher reflection and continued teacher learning.
Steve: 17:15 So take a look at your coaching conferences and see what you think about approaching it with a consistent and unpredictable framework. Thanks for listening.
Steve [Outro]: 17:33 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley ponders out loud on iTunes and Podbean and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.