The Thinking Behind the Answer - Steve Barkley

The Thinking Behind the Answer

This past week I spent a full day observing in middle school classrooms, providing follow up coaching sessions to teachers and an overview to the school’s leadership. One teaching behavior emerged as a pattern when I observed teachers reviewing work with students. Teachers often explained why the “right answer was right” but not the thinking process behind answering the question.My thought was that this practice leads students to believe they are suppose to KNOW the right answer rather than that they are to develop a PROCESS for solving the problem.

One example emerged in a science class. Students were reviewing for a test with this question on the smart board:

In what order bottom to top would the following items be found in sediment?

a) sand, clay, rocks, pebbles
b) pebbles, sand, clay, rocks
c) rocks, pebbles, sand ,clay
d) rocks, pebbles, clay, sand

Using white boards, students shared their decisions. Noticing a variety of answers, the teacher announced that she would call on someone who had it correct and have them explain the reason for their answer. The teacher then went on to remind students of activities that they had done in class (Water, clay and sand in a bottle that they shook and then observed). When she finished, it appeared that most students agreed that (C) was the correct answer.

What I felt was missing was a discussion of what thinking would be used to solve the problem. In other words how would one figure out the right answer?

What is the first question I might ask myself?

“What would influence the order in which the elements would settle?”

Deciding that weight would influence the order, I’d then ask, “What would settle first?”. The heaviest.

Then, “What‘s the heaviest?”. Rocks. Then, “What’s next and next and…”.

I was concerned that students saw this question as one they should know the answer to rather than this is a problem I need a strategy to attack.

In a math class I observed a student tackling this problem:

If a recipe calls for ¼ teaspoon of salt, how much would be in 8 recipes?

When I looked at his work be had written ¼ X 8 =32/4. Then he divided 32 by 4 and arrived at 8 as an answer.

When I asked what he did he said multiply. A common teacher approach at that moment would be to work on the ¼ X 8 problem since that is the skill they were studying.

I asked the student to draw a picture of the problem. He really didn’t know where to begin. Through a series of my questions he produced 8 ¼ teaspoons. He realized that 4 of them made 1 teaspoon and soon arrived at 2 teaspoons as an answer. Then we went back to tackle the problem using multiplying with a fraction. He was delighted when he arrived at 2 teaspoons with a different math strategy.

I observed a very similar pattern as students in an ELA class were reviewing this question:

Which of the following words would be the best synonym for enthralled as it is used in paragraph 8 in the passage? There were four choices for the students to select from.

The teacher reviewing the question explained how students could rule out two of the choices and then select from among the two remaining.

What he didn’t model was, “What was the first thing you would do to solve this problem?”.

I’d read the paragraph and ask myself, ”What do I think enthralled means?”. Then I’d try putting in each of the words and realize two don’t work. Then I’d say, ”Of the two words that are appropriate, does one seem better?”.

Let me know if you see a similar pattern in your classroom observations.

I am thinking that the same issue is important when coaches are modeling for teachers. Teachers need to hear the thinking process that the coach is using to determine the “next move”. This should be occurring in planning conferences; lesson debriefs, and even “live conversation” during the lesson when possible. The questions and thinking that lead to how to make the decision is the key teacher learning.

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4 Responses to “ The Thinking Behind the Answer ”

  1. Kathi Says:

    Hi Steve!
    Wow… I didn’t know you were at MY school! This is a most helpful observation to approach students’ learning rather than just producing a correct answer. This will definitiely be included in my coaching opportunities with teachers. Thanks.
    And, by the way… happiest of holiday wishes to you!

  2. Michael Says:

    Hi Steve,

    Your story illustrates good teaching strategies and good leadership traits. Effective leaders know how to ask the right questions whether they be classroom teacher leaders, coaches, or school principal leaders.

    Enjoy the season!

  3. Karen Marklein Says:

    After reading your post this week, I felt compelled to tell you about an experience I just had with my 7th grade son. He was completing his math homework while I was preparing dinner. He had gotten to #17 and said, “Mom, I can’t do this one.” I said, “You have done 16 problems, why can’t you do #17?” He said, “Because #17 is different from #16.” As a good mom, I took a deep breath, and explained to him that each of these problems is asking him to repeat the same skill. This was quite an epiphany for him–he never realized that math problems were repetitions of the same skill even though the problems may look different. When I told him that one problem may have a negative number or a “t” instead of an “x”for the variable, he was genuinely shocked. I wonder if this think-aloud process could have made that connection for him sooner!

  4. Stephen G. Barkley Says:

    Thanks, Kathi, Michael, and Karen….

    I think Karen’s example with her son illustrates why as Michael and Kathi noted, getting to the thinking behind the problem solving is critical for coaches and leaders.
    Students and teachers too often find school work just doing….

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