cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Thursday, September 26, 2013

"Wow, what a great question!" or Repeat After Me: A Unit Test is Still a Learning Opportunity"

I have met teachers who refuse to answer questions of any kind at all during tests, and I admit that this puzzles me because from where I sit, those are some of the highest-leverage teaching and learning opportunities I will ever have.

I just hate to waste them.

For they are the moments when I have my students' complete and undivided attention.

And that means they are my best hope for encouraging and guiding students in the process of productive struggle.

During a test, I will happily entertain anybody's question about anything. Really. Ask me anything. I will gladly offer encouragement and encourage their courage because for many students, THAT is the moment at which they are most deeply engaged and present in the process of struggling with their learning.

But I am apparently the most frustrating person in the world because the best answer I will ever give students is to say, "THAT is a GREAT QUESTION!"

I smile and nod and encourage them and urge them to keep going. And at first, they really think they hate me for it.

During today's Math 8 test, kids kept asking questions and I kept answering, "That is a GREAT question! What a terrific insight!" and leaving to move on to the next questioner. "But is this RIGHT?" They would ask, sounding wounded. And I would say, "You are asking a FANTASTIC question! Keep going!" and move right along.

Finally somebody thought to ask me in a tiny and supplicating voice, "Dr. S, is THIS a good question to ask?" And I peered over and looked at their paper and exclaimed, "Yes! That is a super-fantastic question!"

I was certainly the most annoying person in the room, but they are starting to catch on to this whole productive struggle business. Eventually it became a humorous trope. "Oh, yeah — don't bother asking. I'm sure that's a really GREAT question."

To which I would chime in, "Yes — it really IS a super-great question!"

Don't get me wrong — this is NOT an easy thing to do. It takes strength and practice and intestinal fortitude. It will never be featured as "great classroom action." But it is the most precious and valuable thing I know how to offer my students.

I can say this because I have also been on the receiving end of this kind of teaching. It is a teaching about the value of struggle. It is an incredibly precious gift, but nobody can ever explain it to you. You actually have to experience it in order to understand what a profound act of respect it is for the primacy and centrality of your own personal experience to your own personal learning.

I spent plenty of years complaining bitterly about meditation teachers who practiced this kind of bounded containment. But I sat with it. I stayed with it. I learned first to accept it, and then to embrace it. After a lot of struggle, it humbled me. It changed me in ways big and small. It opened my heart and empowered me to discover the value of struggling within my own life's journey, as well as in subjects like mathematics. That kind of preciousness and wholeheartedness is all too rare in America, but I hope that all human beings will at least taste it at some point in their lives.

So even though it was in some ways a crappy day and a frustrating day and an exasperating day, it was also a kind of gift day too. I want to remember that.


  1. Wow! I hope to follow in your path, Liz--I always wondered how to handle those questions!

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I am a new teacher and wonder about answering questions on quizzes and tests. I related to your comment that during assessments you have the kids' undivided attention. I've noticed that sometimes that's the first time they've come across a subtlety of a concept or type of problem they never noticed before, perhaps because they missed it during a lesson, or any other reason. I'd rather them learn it late in the game on an assessment than not learn it at all. I probably give away too much on assessments because I am willing to guide students through a problem sometimes, so I like your idea of just responding with - That's a great question! or some variation.

    1. Hi Emily,
      You are wise to recognize the value of these moments. I cannot put into words the gift you are giving your students by honoring their struggle and by teaching them through example to honor their own struggle. Today, when I handed back the tests, along with the remediation plan and the placement recommendations moving forward, I was genuinely moved by the subtle shift in my students' attitudes. Even the students who were most resistant and frustrated in the moment recognized today that this was exactly the little push they needed to help them power themselves forward to the next level. In our mini-conferences, one kid was brutally honest about his own realization. He said, "I didn't 'get' what you were doing at the time, but now I can see that you really had my back when you were telling me that."

      I can't imagine a more powerful piece of feedback on my teaching.

      - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

  3. I like your spin much better than mine. I usually just say, "This is my turn to ask YOU questions."