Thursday, March 14, 2013

Where does it hurt?

Me: (after a fairly lengthy description of open questions) So what did you hear? What are you thinking?
Teacher: (long pause) I don't know what you want me to say.
Exchanges like this happen more often than I like. People have been trained to believe that when a teacher asks a question, he or she is looking for a particular answer. We want to be good students which means providing the expected answer. It reminds me of a book discussion on Diane Rehm about how patients and doctors fall into a routine that can result in mistaken diagnoses and unnecessary tests.

Proud parents with Dr. Hilary at MSU COM graduation
This book came to mind when the teacher responded as she did. You see, I have tried to get in the habit of asking questions I do not know the answer to; it ensures that I avoid falling into an educational rut, and it makes my job as a teacher much more interesting. I tried to explain to the teacher that my question was an attempt to gather some information about what she had attended to in order to make a decision about our next steps. I said something like, "Think of me as a doctor trying to make an accurate diagnosis of your 'health' in regards to understanding of this topic. It's like I'm asking, 'Where does it hurt?'" She laughed and then went on to describe what she had understood about open questions. As the discussion went on, I would stop every now and then to ask, with a smile, "Where does it hurt?"

This is one of the ways we might use warm-ups more appropriately (see last week's post for my perspective on this problem). We could treat it as a way to diagnosis the readiness of the learners to move on or determine what issue we might need to address. (Here is an example of the latter.)

I saw an example of this earlier in the week. Students worked on some scale drawing questions, and after giving the answers the teacher asked if there were any of the questions students needed help on. A student called out a number. So far, so good. However, instead of doing more of a diagnosis, the teacher fell into the rut of showing the student how to find the answer. After a couple of minutes, the teacher stated, "That means the answer is 1/2 an inch. Okay?"

Fortunately, the student responded, "So 6 centimeters, right?"

Now the teacher could do an accurate diagnosis. The problem was not in finding the answer - it was interpreting the answer. "This is 1/2 an inch (holding his thumb and index finger close together). 6 centimeters would be more than two inches (expanding the distance between his thumb and finger). I wonder - were you thinking that 6 inches is half of a foot, so half of an inch is 6 centimeters? (She nods yes.)"

How often do we jump into treatment before doing an accurate diagnosis? I know that it seems inefficient to spend time listening to the student explain "where it hurts," but is it? Drs. Kosowsky and Wen found that it was important for physicians to take more time listening to their patients in order to get their diagnoses and treatments right. The same could be said for teachers.

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