“Good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers.”
From the first day of class, it is vitally important that a teacher demonstrate that the environment will be one of exploration and explanation and NOT one of “right answers regurgitated.” Start each period with an exercise that you are absolutely sure 95% of the students can accomplish without your help. This may be a review of the previous day’s work, or completing a simple writing prompt, or counting the number of students wearing socks. It is always better to tie the exercise to the work you have done, or will be doing, but there are THOSE DAYS where everyone, including the teacher, needs a break from the routine. The exercise should be couched in an open-ended question so that you are not seeking one correct answer. “What problem do you think Pythagorus was trying to solve when he established his formula for right triangles?” “How is the story we read yesterday reflected in the relationships in our school?” ALWAYS have students write their answers on a sheet of paper that you will collect at the end of the exercise. There is no threat of failure here. There is no correct answer. Students of all ages like to share their ideas about all kinds of subjects. You have established that this is a safe environment in which to share those thoughts.
As you add rigor to your lessons, you should follow the same process. Always ask open-ended questions. “How might….”, “What do you think….”, “In what ways….” are all good questioning prompts that allow you to assess student knowledge, progress and understanding. If you have students who might need assistance, or who may have missed days important to instruction, you can always establish scenarios that allow them to succeed as well. The easiest of those is to allow students to use their notes or their textbooks in order to formulate their responses. Your goal is to teach them, so allow them to learn. If they have not been diligent in their preparation, using notes/textbooks provides a way for them to do the work and avoid embarrassment. Most of all they do not want to look foolish in front of their peers. Allow them to catch up, and they will learn to prepare for your class.
Another effective method here is to have students individually answer the question and then write their responses on a sheet of paper. Then, have them form a dyad and review their answers. They must choose the best response from among their individual responses. You can stop here, or go on to have two dyads compare answers and have them decide upon which response best answers the question. What have you accomplished here? Firstly, you have insured that every student has a written response to share. Secondly, when you moved to dyads, you insured that all responses would be “safe,” as they have been arrived at jointly. If you moved on to the two-dyad consensus, then you have added an additional layer of safety. Further, we know that all students learn more and retain that knowledge longer if they learn from participation with their peers. You have not only created a “safe” environment for response, but you have automatically established a productive learning environment.
So, the method works for the students. WHAT IS IN IT FOR YOU? Simply put, this one approach establishes a positive, productive learning environment. You have eliminated the most dreaded of all responses: “I DON’T KNOW.” No student can answer in this fashion. EVERYONE has a written answer in front of them. That answer was arrived at through the exchange of ideas. Everyone has a safe backup, their partner. In the case of the double-dyad, there are three others who support the response. Even if you stopped the process with individual responses, you would still have the advantage. If your most uncooperative student at first replied, “I don’t know,” then your response can be one of the following, “What did you write down?”, or “Check your notes/textbook, I’ll let you finish your thoughts and come back to you in a moment.”, or “Who can help Johnny?” Regardless, you have employed several methods here to allow Johnny to recover and respond in a safe fashion. Johnny won’t try the old “I don’t know” ploy again, because he knows you won’t allow it to work.
There are two cardinal rules here:
1. NEVER ACCEPT I DON’T KNOW FOR AN ANSWER
2. ALWAYS COLLECT AND MARK THE WRITTEN RESPONSES.
If you break either of the rules, the safe, interactive environment will collapse. Students are pretty savvy about avoiding “Do Nothing” exercises. Who wants to work for no reward or satisfaction? Make sure that you maintain the integrity of that environment by making sure that every student feels safe in their participation, and every participation is a success.