The other day I sent a joke out on Twitter in response to a well-known educational quote.
Little did I realise how fragile teachers are. Aside from the insults sent my way, some teachers implored with me on behalf of their colleagues who simply wouldn’t be able to handle reading such a tweet. Their self-esteem, even their mental health would be at risk.
Funny how not one of these people gave thought to my own mental health. Insults directed at me were perfectly acceptable.
But enough of that.
What of the point of the tweet?
It is a feature of 21st century education both for teachers and parents to play the game of ‘guess what’s in my head’ with kids. It is so ingrained in our culture that people don’t even realise this is what we do. So they take offence. However, I hope that some are open-minded and interested in self-reflection enough to check themselves the next time they ask a child a question.
The thing to check is: given what you have told them before, could the child know the answer or are they relying on knowledge they would have had to access from someone else?
For those teachers reading this who are genuinely interested in improving their practice, try it. Ask yourself that question 100 times a day.
When hiring teachers at Michaela, we have candidates do model lessons. ALL of them, without exception, inadvertently play this game. All new teachers joining Michaela have to get themselves out of the habit of playing ‘guess what’s in my head’. We require all of our teachers to stop playing this game because we do not believe the game is helpful to real learning.
It is so normal for teachers to do this, that it isn’t something we hold against them when interviewing. We know that this is the norm in teaching these days, so we look past it and think, is the teacher flexible and open-minded enough to change it?
Teachers who apply to Michaela for a job tend to be more traditional. And even THEY do this far too often. They might do it less often than most, but they still do it.
That is because it is ingrained in what we think good teaching and good parenting looks like. We shy away from questions that recall facts. We naturally feel that it is wrong to ask questions about something we have already told them because ‘it’s too easy’ or it feels like ‘we have already told them the answer’. We feel we should ask them something that they don’t already know, ‘to make them think’.
This is normal practice.
What’s odd about the progressive position is that on the one hand they argue vociferously in favour of this type of more ‘exploratory’ questioning – asking kids things they don’t know because they want the child to ‘discover’ it somehow – i.e. – discovery learning. On the other hand, they deny doing this and feel deeply insulted that anyone would suggest this is the case.
Which one is it? They cannot have it both ways.
Of course the thing about questioning is that it is VERY hard to get right. You DON’T want your questions to only be about recalling facts. And you DO want some of your questions to extend their thinking. But that can only be done by scaffolding so that the weaker pupils (and the ones who don’t access extra information at home) can keep up and by mixing the questions up so that you can stretch the strongest. But your questions still shouldn’t require the children to guess. The distinction between ‘guess’ and ‘think’ is hard to pinpoint and our educational culture has been in the guessing arena for so long that we just cannot see it for what it is anymore.
Questioning is HARD. I struggle with it myself constantly, where you catch yourself asking a question that the child cannot answer. The entire profession struggles with getting it right. We’ve all seen it a million times:
Teacher: “What is X?”
A few hands go up. She picks a kid. Answer given. “Nearly… nearly… Come on… does anyone else think they know…?”
This goes on for ages (lots of lesson time wasted) and the kids don’t know it. She eventually tells them the answer. ‘Starters’ in lessons are based on this idea. Ask them questions about the topic you haven’t yet taught! Standard practice.
Our rule at Michaela is, if you don’t have 75% of hands up, then something is wrong. You haven’t taught it to them properly. And we don’t do starters. We also do lots of ‘warm calling’ by using ‘turn to your partner’ – to help those struggling or those who have simply forgotten.
That one little rule about 75% of hands in the teacher’s head makes all the difference. For teachers who are open-minded – try it. You’ll see how it will transform your practice. It will feel weird at first. But keep going with it. I promise you’ll eventually see a difference.
People commenting on this problem and working with it should not be shut down and no-platformed. Rather, we should welcome the opportunity to discuss the issue.
By all means disagree with me. But if you are on Twitter and can’t handle reading that tweet of mine, then maybe Twitter isn’t for you.