The power and problem with instructional concepts


By Barrie Bennett

I was having dinner at a friend’s house.
Their daughter, in Year 3 (nine years of age) was asked this question: “You’ve seen a lot of teachers since kindergarten. If you had to pick one characteristic that all teachers would have to have from kindergarten to high school, if they wanted to be a great teacher, what characteristic would you pick?”

I told her I was in no hurry, she could tell me before I left, or her dad could email me her answer.

Later, before I left she said: “Fun. They have to make learning fun.”

Interestingly, William Glasser (a medical doctor and Adlerian psychologist) argued we have four basic needs: to belong, to have power or control, to experience fun, and to be free.

So, a Year 3 student and Mr Glasser think fun in the classroom is important.

The challenge is how to go about invoking fun, safety, interest, meaningful learning and accountability.

The problem with concepts such as fun, and most of the other concepts we can identify such as making the classroom safe and learning meaningful and interesting etc, is that although they are powerful concepts, teachers cannot do them directly.

We might say to a teacher, “Well, just make sure the students have more fun.”

But that is easy to say and harder to do. One does not say, “Oh look at that teacher safety-ing; no one safeties like she does.”

Or, “Great job of accountability.” Or, “Look, the teacher is fun-ning!” Unfortunately, in our conversations with teachers, we often unwittingly suggest that they need to make sure the students feel safe or are all actively participating, or that their learning is interesting.

So, the question is, what actually happens in a classroom that indicates the teacher is invoking safety and accountability and interest and how does fun fit into the mix?

That said, we as teachers and principals have no choice but to identify those concepts such as safety and accountability and interest and meaningful as important; but in addition, we have to identify how the teacher did or could enact them.

For example, “How does a teacher invoke safety, accountability and active participation?” What would someone observing or a teacher observing themselves, say?

“You held them accountable and safe at the same time by providing students with the wait time to think and then share with a partner using the Think Pair Share method before you randomly selected them to share with the class. You also did not judge their answers, you simply thanked them and that encouraged them all to feel safe to share.”

How long have we known about this instructional stuff? Below is a quote from John Millar’s book in 1897. The quote is from one of his chapters titled, The Art of Questioning.

When teachers frame questions, they should frame them in such a way that every student is held on the alert. No sign should be given as to who will be selected to respond. The main thing is to select the student who is most [in] need of the question being sensitive to the needs of the class.

That opens up another level of complexity, student responses. Students can only provide us with about seven different types of responses: correct, partially correct, incorrect, a no response, a silly response, a guess and a convoluted response. Convoluted refers to talking all around the question but not answering it – a useful skill in politics.

If as teachers we know about those seven types of responses and ways to respond to those responses, we make the classroom safer. Students are then more likely to actively participate.

For example, if a student provides a wrong answer we can suspend judgment in that moment and say, “I’d not thought of that, we can come back to that answer in a minute.”

Or, if a student states that five times six is 25, then the teacher might say: “Ah, 25 is an important piece of information, five times five is 25, but five times six is one more five.”

The student then says, “30”. The teacher responds: “Exactly, now you are twice as smart as you were before.”

One of the most difficult is if the student provides a no response. Here safety is key.

Watch their eyes. If they are looking up or off to the side and you can see they are thinking, just wait and inform the other students to keep their hands down.

If the student looks right at you or furtively to the left and right, they are telling you to help them. Here you might say: “Sorry Janice, I think I confused myself with that question, let me re-frame it so it makes more sense and I’ll have you all discuss it at your table” (assuming the students are in groups of two to four).

So, even if the question was perfect, you, the teacher, take the blame. This allows the student to save face. Of course if you knew the question was at the analysis level of Bloom’s taxonomy, then you can rephrase it at the comprehension level.

Being able to control the cognitive complexity of our questions is another area that expert teachers explore to make the classroom safe but also more challenging.

Clearly, our teacher skills are what allow us to invoke those important but somewhat inert concepts such as active participation, safety, interest, meaning, challenging and accountability.

Dr Barrie Bennett is an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. He is an expert in the fields of teacher learning, instructional intelligence, and pedagogy.