A few weeks ago I came across an article on my Twitter feed that I thought was really good, it was not a long read but it was one that really challenged me to think deeply about my practice and what constitutes a good day of teaching, I would strongly suggest that you give it a read at some point. The article is 'When is a Good Day Teaching a Bad Thing' by Timothy F Slater (click the link to open the article). The article starts with a description of most teachers idea of an ideal day. Limited behaviour issues, got through the work you planned, students seemed to engage by both answering questions correctly and asking questions that you could answer. It goes on to say one particularly important point
"I submit to you that when everything seems fine, it s probably the perfect time to carefully find out exactly what depth of learning is actually occurring in your class."
The article goes on to talk about a hidden contract between students and their teachers which is an unspoken set of rules that both parties follow. Students agree to behave, do their work, ask and answer questions if the teacher agrees to organise well detailed lessons and work, try to make it interesting, assign work that is very similar to that clearly gone through in class and show them exactly what they need to do to achieve a high grade.
No one ever speaks to each other about these contractual agreements, but you notice it in a class if someone breaks them. If the teacher breaks it by assigning a question that has not been specifically covered as an example in class then the off task behaviors and the cries of "this is unfair, you haven't shown us how to do it" ring out. If a student breaks the contract by not behaving then they are often removed from the class.
When I read through this I went back and re-read the first part and could clearly see that hidden contract at play and the greater importance of that quote. It was seen as a good day teaching because everyone was meeting their part of the hidden contract. However one of the fundamental parts of that contract is that there is little emphasis from the student or the teacher on having to truly think for themselves, they just need to reproduce the work the teacher has already done for them. Students could easily answer the questions as the teacher had already given them the answers, they had written them on their page, they didn't have to synthesise a response, they just had to find it. The teacher could easily answer the questions from the student because the student was only engaging with the work on a superficial level, the work they had gone through, and the questions they had been asked didn't challenge their thinking, didn't target their possible misconceptions, didn't deepen their understanding or draw connections to previous work, it was more than likely just a slight extension on the previous lesson. There was no way of them thinking deeply enough about the work to ask a really good thoughtful question.
Those days where there are tasks given to students or questions asked of them that target some deeper thinking are often not associated with quiet classrooms, Students are challenged and sometimes this means they are frustrated that they are making some mistakes or that their approach just doesn't seem to be working as they thought it would, they might be frustrated that the are not sure where to start. This may be coming out of them thinking they should already have the answer somewhere in their book, it might be coming out of the idea that they have to think about things differently to they ever have before.
What ever that reason for the frustration it can be a powerful motivator for learning and a powerful tool for improvement, but the key is just keeping them frustrated enough to keep trying rather than so frustrated that they simply give up. That frustration of knowing you can do something, but you just don't know how to yet is a frustration I know well, but it is one I have had to learn to become comfortable with. The idea of knowing there is just something small you are missing, someone you need to talk to, a different way of looking at it, something that is just outside your reach is one that is important in not only building conceptual understanding but students who know how to learn and have resilience in the face of setbacks.
Senior Leader of Pedagogical Innovation and Mathematics Coordinator in Regional South Australia.
Opinions in this blog are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of my employer.