Facilitating the smart aleck

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We talk about wanting classes full of critical thinkers. I think this is a great goal and I am generally very high on empowering students to authentically think through complex situation.

But it’s not all pros. Cons do exist. (Nothing… nothing… is all rainbows and unicorns.) Especially when you consider that critical thinking is a skill we are becoming more equipped to foster and practice, while discernment is a skill that is best taught by life experience and generally comes along much more slowly.

So, we need to make sure that we are embarking up the critical thinking mountain soberly. The fact is that “critical thinking” is an easily-transferable skill set — this is why it is so attractive to us. But what happens when the students decide that they want to turn that critical thinking on you as the teacher? When our undiscerning young learners want to practice critical thinking in an authentic setting?

Are you being fair? Are your instructional decisions reasonable? Did your grading of that test make sense? Your work becomes much more scrutinized when you have 25 sharp-minded critical thinkers on your journey with you. And with their lack of discernment that almost goes without saying (students don’t behave professionally), you are almost empowering smart alecks – on purpose.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. This came out of a third grade class.

The teacher is trying to talk about division. The book uses the example of someone who knits glove who makes the fingers of the gloves separately. The question was if the person created 25 fingers, how many gloves could they make. Seems like a pretty straight forward intro-to-division word problem. Except…

One of those kids was a critical thinker.

And she said, “Why would that person make 25 fingers? That’s five gloves. Wouldn’t she make 5 more fingers? Or quit at 20? Why would someone make 5 gloves?”

Interesting questions. Critical thinking questions. And for some teachers that would be a great question. For others, it would sound like the wonderings of an tangentially-on-task smart aleck.

In reality, it might be nothing more than the mental overflow of a student who is really exploring a context they way we taught her to. And the context didn’t immediately make sense, so she asked a clarifying question. That sounds like critical thinking. But, in the ears of some teachers, the word “critical” is in bold. And while, I suppose, it is possible that the student was intending to be disrespectful, I think it is exceedingly more likely that she wasn’t.

We wanted her to engage context. She did. We wanted her to think critically. She did. We wanted her to apply her answer to check for sense making. She did.

But it’s not going to stay in math or science or reading. This skill set transfers, remember. So, you may want to consider each of the following:

  • Making sure your grading policies are properly aligned to the messaging about teaching and learning in your classroom. (Critical thinkers can poke holes in inconsistencies.)
  • Making sure your student discipline policies are consistent with your messaging about teaching and learning and applied equitably. (Critical thinkers see patterns and draw conclusions from them.)
  • Making sure that each of your activities is meaningful and has value toward the learning goals you have for your students. (Critical thinkers tend to be more comfortable making their own decisions about what is and is not worth their time.)
  • Make sure you develop a habit of adjusting your planning based on their feedback (or at the very least, have a darn good reason why you won’t and be willing to be transparent. Critical thinkers ask questions and know the difference between useful information and useless information.)
  • Be prepared to sell your coursework and learning targets and spend some significant energy inspiring and compelling students to engage it. (“Because it’s going to be on the SAT” isn’t a natively meaningful sound byte for many of them. So, if this is the best you got, you are going to have to at least take this argument to the next level. They will if you don’t.)

In general, these are things you should be doing anyway. But, if you are properly fostering critical thinking in your students, you may find that some of the elements of you coursework that you felt were “good enough”, may not stand up to the scrutiny of 25 critical thinkers with still-under-development discernment and very little professionalism (as we understand it) looking to poke holes in it.

Embrace that. The smart aleck in your room might well be practicing the skills that we want him or her to have. The trick is to recognize what we are looking at. They might be trying to be critical thinkers and apply their new skills. Take their effort. Analyze it with them. Teach them how. Model respect.

Throughout geometry, we’d explore proof-writing (which is basically a formalized, mathematics version of persuasive writing.) I used to sell it to my students by saying “Stick with me and I will teach you how to win an argument with your parents.” And I’d refer to that all year. “Let’s look at the argument you are trying to make.”

And rule #0, is if the argument is going to work, the LISTENER needs to change his or her mind when you are done. That means keeping them with you the whole time. That means not doing or saying anything that will shut them off. So, if you are trying to convince your parents (or other adults) to change their minds, you have to present your case in way that won’t shut them down. Now we are talking respect, evidence, cool heads, eye-contact, word choice… That’s proof writing. That’s argumentation.

That’s taking the smart aleck’s skill set and turning into functional critical thinking.

Undoing Old Expressions ( #MTBoS30 )

During my undergrad (a decade or so ago now), there was a fairly common expression that I believe was designed to comforting interns who were struggling with classroom management and student engagement.

“No activity will work for every kid.”

It played like, “Hang in there, no one’s perfect. You did the best you could.” Nice enough message, I suppose. However, we need to be careful that a second, much less productive (and potentially harmful) message doesn’t begin to run parallel to it.

“No activity will work for every kid” is just a short morph to “understand that a certain number of disengaged students is just the cost of doing business”. And the latter is an extremely risky mindset. While students are going to struggle to stay fully engaged 100% of the time given our limitations as instructors, that should never stop being the goal. “No activity will work for every kid” might need to get reworded into “Make sure your classroom activities have the POTENTIAL to meaningfully engage EVERY student in class, and don’t stress over factors beyond your control.”

That’s a message that is much trickier to morph because the first portion drives so much.

Every single lesson plan for every single class period should include opportunities for each kid to meaningfully engage. What does that look like?

Well, every struggling learner will be supported every day. Every excelling learner will be challenged every day. Every fidgety kid will get a chance to get up and relocate every day. Every kid will get a chance to practice and get feedback every day. Every kid who needs some worked examples will have ready access to them every day. Every kid will be held accountable for their participation every day. It’s a mindset. Does my lesson have the potential to engage 100% of the learners?

It looks like every question being answered by every kid. It changes from “Any questions?” to “All right, take 3 minutes, solve these two problems and I’ll walk around and look at them.”

One formative assessment attempt is okay with disengaged students. No news is good news, right? The other formative assessment values each student’s thoughts. Okay, yeah… the second one takes a minute or two longer. But then again, the students are much more likely to learn something. That seems like a fair trade to me.

It looks like removing assumptions. “Okay, so back in 4th grade, you were taught area or rectangles, so…” falls away and “Okay, every one draw a 3 in by 5 in rectangle. Use a ruler. Try to make it perfect. Oooh! Look, Alex used graph paper! Nice move! Now, let’s see if we can find the area. No discussion right now. 60 seconds of silent, individual work. What’s the area of that rectangle?”


One sets up a barrier for students who don’t know, don’t remember, or weren’t taught. The other leaves nothing to chance, demands that each student demonstrate their skill set and gives opportunities for reteaching as needed.

It looks like creating expandable experiences. “All right, once you’ve finished 3-13 (odds), you’re done for today” falls away and “Okay, so, if you can get through 3-13, I’ve got the answer sheets floating around. Make sure they’re right and then come and see me. I’ve got a challenge for you. Remember, you knock out 5 challenge problems during the quarter and you get a…”

One generates rush to “get stuff done” with lack-of-productivity being the reward. The other creates incentives for pushing yourself.

And no. These plans aren’t going to work for every student. There. I said it.

But they are ways to make sure that each student will have something meaningful to engage it when they decide to.

The environment for risk-taking

Yesterday, I was in a local elementary school having conversation with grade-level teams about their students’ math learning. I heard something that I found incredibly impressive.

In one particular grade level, there was a small number of students who were still not quite mastering the targeted skills, but were getting really close. Many of these students had begun the year with a long way to go, so this is a very impressive amount of growth for these students. (In some cases, some of these students experience a year’s growth in their math abilities during the first semester.)

We started examining what had led to such growth, one of the classroom teachers remarked, “Well, they really try hard. They like to work problems out in front of the other students. They make mistakes, but the other students correct them.”

I paused.

Think of that. Just… do me a favor, will ya? Go ahead and picture the typical struggling math student. Got the image? I’ll bet you that student just LOVES putting their math skills on display for the whole class to see, don’t they? I’ll bet that student loves letting the other students in the class critique his/her work. (Sarcasm may not come through real well in the blogging medium…)


I asked this teacher, “You’ve created an atmosphere the atmosphere in your classroom that makes that student feel safe to make mistakes in front of the other students?”

Teacher shrugged as if it were really no big deal. “Mmm-hmm. Yeah.” (As if to say, “Sure, what’s the big deal? We’re all just trying to learn as much as we can.)

I love that it’s no big deal to her and her colleagues. But that is not common.

Believe me, I am convinced in the power of students examining and critiquing each other’s work, but ordinarily there is a bit of strategery involved to keep the pieces of work anonymous. (See Best Reflection for an example of what I’m talking about.)

But that’s not the case for this teacher. What a vision for a classroom. A place so safe and so locked into the mutual learning process that there is no need for anonymity. A student can stand up in front of his/her peers, submit their best try, the peers appreciate the sincerity and can offer feedback.

It’s just no wonder that the students who entered that class behind their peers were catching up so fast… and imagine where they’ll be by the end of the year.

#EdTech Tips for New Teachers

Last night I was blessed with the opportunity to talk to about 50 new teachers about instructional technology.

As I prepared my talking points, I considered what I would have needed to hear when I was 23 and in the midst of my first year in the classroom. Here’s what I came up with.

Here were my closing tips:

Don’t fix things that work well – When you discover a new tech tool that you want to employ into your work (either instruction, assessment, or organization/workflow), don’t attack an area that is currently functioning well. Use the new tool to attack something that really needs some serious improvement. That way, then the roll-out inevitably falls short of your expectations, you are much likelier to be satisfied seeing an improvement. And you haven’t ruined a process that was productive.

Don’t try to do too much – Get really, really good at using one or two tech tools before you try to add to your collection. Sure, you run the risk of students saying, “Guh… we use Socrative ALL THE TIME…” But this won’t last forever. You’ll pick up more tools as you explore more. And it’s a big improvement throwing so many tools at your students that neither they, nor you, get really proficient at using any of them.

Be patient with your students – Don’t get caught up in what they “should” know how to do. In reality, as far as your course, they probably shouldn’t be expected know anything. And even if they’ve explored some of the tools before, you probably use them slightly differently than the last teacher. So, go ahead and assume that each tech tool will need a guided exploration BEFORE you can expect them to engage meaningful content with it. Mixing a new tech tool and a new bit of content in the same activity should be avoided whenever possible. Otherwise, you risk the tool becoming the END of the learning rather than the MEANS.

Ask questions – Find yourself a mentor in your building who will help you explore instructional tech pieces. Take advantage of your district coaches and know who you can reach out to at the county level. Make e-mail friends with these people. Demand to be mentored.

Network, listen, and read – Find a social media platform you are comfortable with and turn it into an non-stop educational brainstorming session. I use Twitter. Use it to get ideas. And then try them out. Talk about them with the teachers near you. Join local PLNs if they exist. (Folks around mid-Michigan can join #CapitalAreaEdTech). The time/energy demands tend to be fairly light and the potential upside is huge.

Don’t fall in love with specific tools – They are going to break your heart. That free tool you loved was awesome… until it wasn’t free anymore (e.g. Newsela). Moodle was IT! Until Google Classroom came out. (Apple is getting ready to unleash an iPad based competitor to Google Classroom, by the way.) You had just nicely gotten the hang of your students’ laptops when the school switched to Chromebooks as a money-saver. Listen… listen… These things WILL happen. It’s not an “if” situation. It’s a “when”. If you tie your professional heart to these tools, you are going to find their removal difficult to recover from. Instead, fall in love with the types of student interactions these tools facilitate. Then, hang on loosely to the tool. It is temporary, as much as we’d like to pretend it isn’t.

Have I missed any? Care to push back? Use the comments. Perhaps share an anecdote from your first year teaching. With the right support, we can keep our young, excited teachers in the classroom.

Flipped Learning and a bit on Zaption

You know, flipped learning is a precarious structure. In some sense, it seems quite progressive, empowering to the student, allowing the student to take ownership of his/her own learning. In another sense, though, it replaces live teacher lectures with video-recorded teacher lectures, which actually seems like a backwards step. Clearly not all instructional models that include videos are created equal.

Now, I have been an advocate of a while of using video to enhance instruction, if for no other reason than that a properly-chosen, properly-timed video can grab students attention really well when they are tired of interacting with me and with each other. However, videos largely have the problem of being passive activities for the students.

I’ve tried a variety of different things to attempt to add some interactivity to videos. There’s the ol’ pausing-the-clip-every-90-seconds-to-engage-the-students-yourself technique. I used this move when I taught physics. “Hollywood Physics” was where we’d watch a clips filled with delicious energy transformations or breakdowns in Newton’s laws. Lots of pausing and discussing.

I’ve also used tools to try to embed questions that break the video up and make the students reflect or predict. This little ditty from 2011, The Bowl Problem, although not my best work, reflects a desire to try to create a video that has some interactive elements to it. That was created with a digital camera and PowerPoint. It was prohibitively time-consuming. There has to be a better way.

And Zaption might be it. I’m not a spokesperson for these folks. In fact, they are not the only service out there that embeds interactivity into videos (Educanon and Bubblr are two others). I just found Zaption to be the easiest to use and the most useful as a formative assessment tool.

In trying to learn how to use Zaption, I made this quiz video. Go ahead and give it a try. (I’ll be able to tell you more about the built-in, free analytic tools if I can get lots of people to take the quiz. So please, give it a try.)

You don’t get to see your results, which will bother some, but the results are tallied and shown in a series of well-made reports that has the potential to inform a teacher about how students engaged the video (it shows how long the video was watched, how many times each questions got skipped, etc.), and give you some insight as to their understanding of the content.

It’s not a perfect tool. If you wanted to use it in an actual quizzing/grading type set-up, the grading of the results might be a little tricky. Additionally, this, like every bit of instructional tech, has a learning curve. Having said that, though, I found that choosing the right video to practice on was the slowest part and that the process of creating the questions to be pretty easy to pick up.

Flipped learning has its critics (I have been among them at times), because there is a demand for instructional technology to get implemented meaningfully. Instructional technology isn’t a savior. However, the effective use of instructional technology does have the potential to make a huge dent in some of the improvements we need to make. We want it to give us a chance to do things that we previously had to work too hard to do. Tools like Zaption help make a previously passive activity, like watching a video, potentially more active for the students and informative for the instructor.


Update on 2 Jan:

Since posting this, I’ve received a tweet about an additional software to embed instructional items into videos. And since I’m mentioning Zaption, Educanon, and Blubbr, I figured it was only fair to add this one. I’ll just show you the tweet.