My apologies for not blogging recently, or frequently in the past few months. With the holidays over and the new year up and running, my blogging will become more consistent. Over the past four weeks, I have been full time student teaching at an urban high school in the Rochester City School District. With only one day left of teaching my Living Environment students, I want to take this time to reflect on my experiences and share a few reform-based pedagogical techniques I have learned along the way.
One technique entails clarifying content knowledge for students, while also allowing them, the students, to arrive at the accurate conclusion. This effective technique requires a constant monitoring of students’ frustration level and also thinking. Monitoring is one of the 5 Practices that have shown to be effective in cultivating an inquiry and reformed based science learning environment. Such practice gives teachers access to “how students are thinking about the task” and and to a “whole layer of activity that is going on in their classrooms.” This access is crucial because without it, “teachers have little hope of guiding it [student thinking] in productive directions” (Cartier, et al., 2013, p.98). Guiding students towards productive directions then introduces the second aspect of this technique, questioning.
As a teacher, one must learn how to ask appropriate prodding, questions, based off of the student’s thinking and learning progress. After monitoring the student’s thinking, level of understanding, and level of frustration, if the student is still willing to be challenged, asking more general or open-ended questions regarding the topic can be effective. For those students who have struggled with a subject matter for quite some time and are almost out of patience, a quick switch in questioning to more close-ended questions will be more impactful. Lastly, if a student is completely lost or shutting down, that is when the questioning ends, and you, as the teacher, need to provide a direct, explicit explanation of a topic.
As a strong believer in never directly telling students the answer, I am actively trying to improve my monitoring skills to better tailor the timing and types of questions that I ask students. This technique demands that you, as a teacher, fine tune your listening and observation skills to fully read a student. In doing so, you can meet a student where he or she is and then guide him or her in a productive direction. Ultimately, this will foster a more successful teaching and learning moment.
A second technique that I was recently reminded of was the art of asking assessment questions. Unlike the previous technique’s focus on the timing and type of questions being asked, this technique is implemented for informal formative assessments. Such questions may include: So what is the most important finding in this experiment? Can you summarize what our task for today is? These types of questions can be directed towards the whole class, smaller groups, or even individual students. Moreover, they are low stakes, informal questions that just provide a quick evaluation of a student’s understanding – be it on task instructions or on new content knowledge.
A third and final technique is encouraging student-talk and crafting whole class inquiry assessments. Giving students the opportunity to talk out loud with their peers and with you, the teacher, provides students with the opportunity to take ownership of their thoughts and voice their opinions. Through such vocalization, students build their own agency. Additionally, through student-talk, and whole group work, interactive, inquiry based assessments can be given. One common type of such assessment is Whole Class Inquiry (WCI). This model of assessment provides an evaluation of “a student’s ability to work with other students and collectively apply knowledge to a problem in an authentic setting” (Gallagher-Bolos & Smithenry, 2008, p.39). Through these talking and inquiry based assessments, students rely on one another as resources and as a bonus, build the classroom community, all while learning. So keep the talking going!
Monitoring, asking questions, and encouraging student-talk can make significant improvements to the learning environment. Not only do these reform based practices enhance one’s teaching, but they also cultivate a safe, engaging classroom culture in which students can freely share their thoughts and be the drivers of their education. In an education system that is more heavily enforcing state and national learning standards and high stakes assessments, promoting and protecting such a culture and learning environment is a liberty that teachers still have and one that has a powerful impact on student learning.
For more assistance in facilitating effective discussions, please refer to my previous blog post on or check out 5 Practices for Orchestrating Task-Based Discussion in Science by Cartier, et al. (2013). To learn more about the significance of student-talk and countless types of questioning, I would recommend reading A Discourse Primer for Science Teachers (Ambitious Science Teaching, 2015).
Cartier, J.L., Smith, M.S., Stein, M.K., & Ross, D.K. (2013). Encouraging and Guiding Student Thinking, In 5 Practices for Orchestrating Task-Based Discussion in Science (pp.85-98). Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.