Saturday, December 8, 2012

Why did you do that?

We just completed another semester at Grand Valley State University, and once again I found myself asking our teachers-in-training some version of "Why did you...?" after many of the observations. I try to make it clear that this is an authentic question not some sort of accusation of wrong doing that demands an accounting. Seriously, I want to know the rationale behind some of their teacher moves. Also, I want them to be mindful of why they make certain decision during their lessons. Consequently, this is what I would call a win-win question.

For example, many student teachers struggle with time management during class, and on their Action Plan they will ask for suggestions about how to be more efficient while conducting a lesson. During the subsequent observation, I often see a typical lesson component. (Stigler and Hiebert were right about there being an often unconscious script associated with teaching math.) The teacher provides some time for individual or small group practice followed by a whole class discussion of the practice items. 

Afterwards, I ask, "Why did you go over all the items? What did you see as you walked around that made you decide that this was necessary?" Again, this is intended to be a serious question, and I sometimes get answers that teach me something about them as teachers and their students as learners. Some of the teachers say something like:

  • "I noticed that most of them were struggling on [some aspect of the practice] and decided we needed to look at it as a class." or
  • "There were a few different approaches and I wanted the class to see that problems can be solved in multiple ways." or
  • "While they got all the practice items correct, I wanted to provide them an opportunity to communicate mathematically. They still struggle with vocabulary and precision and I thought this would be a good time to practice these given that they understood the concepts."
But occasionally, the response I get is, "What do you mean? We always go over the items after their practice. You mean I can skip this.?" The discussion that follows is nearly always goose-bump-inducing as the novice teacher begins to develop phronesis (what could I do here and what's worth doing?).

My goal as a teacher educator is not to develop a bunch of Dave Coffey clones. One is enough. Besides, my approach would not work for all the different teachers I work with over a semester. But if I become the voice in their head that asks after a lesson, "Why did you do that?" - I can live with that.

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