Monthly Archives: August 2013

Observations: Socratic Dialogue or Socratic Monologue?

(This is from a short series of posts about some of the things I learned from a year of observing and being observed with a colleague)

(hey, I’m a math teacher, not an artist).

Has this situation ever happened to you? One thing that my colleague and I talked about over and over was how we engage in Socratic dialogue portion of our classes. What kind of questions are we asking? What kind of answers are we getting? What do these answers actually tell us? One thing that we both noticed was that occasionally you can get in a flow where you keep a learning conversation going by taking one word student answers and fleshing out their thoughts fully, or just finishing their sandwiches sentences for them. It feels so good because it feels like THE WHOLE CLASS is on this EFFICIENT AND WONDERFUL thought train going at just about the same pace as someone who is basically an expert in the subject. And as “duh” how counterproductive this is to learning, it’s something that I totally didn’t notice until I had someone in my classroom to point it out to me.

What’s the whole point of Socratic dialogue in the first place? Well, for you, it is a way for you to check for understanding. Are students listening and understanding what is going on? And for them, it is a way to get them to think. Are they just taking in what you are saying or are they turning it over in their heads and taking it to new places? If we finish their thoughts for them, we are not only robbing them of the opportunity to think and learn, but we are deceiving ourselves about what they actually know and understand.

Here are some strategies that we discussed to avoid this:

HOLD THEM ACCOUNTABLE: Turn that into a full sentence please. Try that again with better mathematical terminology.

FOLLOW UP QUESTIONS: How do you know that? What do you think of _____’s answer? (Crucial to do this for both incorrect AND correct answers).

ASK BETTER QUESTIONS: Explain…. Why… How… If the question can be answered in one word, it’s probably not a great question.

STRUCTURED RESPONSE: Think-Pair-Share. Quick written reflection with cold calling.

BE EXPLICIT: Be direct about what you value in student answers.

I grew more and more aware of this as the year went on and I think I got much better at not only asking better questions but eliciting better responses from my students. I think this heightened the level of mathematical discourse in my classroom, and also gave me a much better idea of where they actually were in the learning process. It didn’t mean that students wouldn’t try the age old SHOUT ANY MATH WORD YOU CAN THINK OF to answer a complicated math question, but at least they understood why I pushed them further.


Observations from Observing: Methods

This past year, I had the distinct pleasure of serving as a mentor to an excellent new math teacher who was an absolute pleasure to work with (and is definitely going to be a superstar). All of the teaching fellows at my school took a seminar with an administrator, and then each one had a mentor who observed them and generally gave them advice. Though we did some lesson planning together, and we worked a little more closely at the beginning of the year, our main form of interaction was weekly observations.

For the whole year, she came to my class once a week, I went to her class once a week and then we met once a week to debrief. Sure, she tells me she learned a lot, but this was also the best professional development possible for me too. I learned so much over the course of the year and engaged in so many excellent conversations about teaching – I grew so much from a commitment of a little over an hour a week.

It makes me realize that I should have been doing this all along with a colleague, apart from the whole school appraisal process. Though it seems so easy, and I of course exchanged the common “I’d love to come visit your class” with so many colleagues, it never happened before. I think the thing that made it work with us was a structured commitment, and the formation of a habit in our schedules (it didn’t feel like something ON TOP of everything else, it was part of what I did every week). Any observation program, even if an informal agreement between colleagues, needs to be structured and scheduled so that we don’t push it away for the million other things we can do with our time. It can’t be something like “Go and visit someone’s class in the department at least once this term.” In my experience, that just does not work.

As I pore over my notes from the past year, I am going to dedicate the next few blog posts to my major takeaways from a year of observations. But first…

How We Observed Each Other

There are a million different ways to do observations, but here is how we did it:

  • All visits were mutually scheduled beforehand, at the beginning of the week. We got so comfortable with each other that knowing someone was in the room was REALLY not a big deal, and wouldn’t change how we would plan our lesson.
  • We did this so we could touch base beforehand to see if there was anything that the observer should look for. This was helpful when we were workshopping a technique, trying out a new type of activity or just wondering about something that is happening in the classroom.
  • The observer would always take notes in the following format, which is something we developed based on other formats, and which we found simple and effective:
    blog-observation notes
    The time column really helped us pay attention to something that is often the last thing you pay attention to when directing a classroom. The middle column helped us talk about what happened and helped us remember everything that happened in a class. The column on the right was an acknowledgment that we aren’t just robots sitting there, but have helpful opinions and suggestions, but it helped us focus our subjective comments by basing them on what was actually happening in the class.
  • Then, we would find a time to exchange notes and just talk about everything that happened in a comfortable and frank manner. We would talk about the objective things that happened in the class and share ideas and observations based on those. It wasn’t hard to talk for 45 minutes about teaching, but we could share notes in 15-20 minutes if pressed for time.

What worked for you for observing? Any other way of taking notes or organizing a program?