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05.25.16How to Break It Down: A Bit of Sage Advice from Juliana Worrell


Juliana Worrell

Break It Down (Technique #35) is a  valuable and important teacher move, but it’s also without a doubt one of the hardest techniques in Teach Like a Champion to execute.  The idea is that when a student gives an incomplete or wrong answer, the teacher replies with a question that provides just enough hint, reminder, or new information to allow the student to try again and get the answer correct.

In an ideal world the teacher provides the smallest viable cue- that is the least amount of information possible to still allow the student to solve- thus causing the student to do the greatest amount of cognitive work.

Like I said, this is very challenging.  It means being ready with an array responsive questions on the spur of the moment and in reaction any number of responses from students. Break It Down requires teachers to think fast.

I had a great chat with Uncommon Schools’ Associate Managing Director Juliana Worrell yesterday, though, and it really helped me think about how to make Break it Down more doable for teachers.

Basically Juliana focused her guidance on the challenge of speed- that Break It Down requires teachers to think fast, in  front of other people, while also holding a conversation.  And rather than trying to train teachers to ask questions faster she focused–brilliantly–on helping them slow the game down just a little… but in a very productive way.

First, she advised, start your Break it Down with a rollback. That is, simply repeat the original answer back to the student (and the class) so he/she/they can hear again, being careful not to let your voice inflection emphasize any mistakes and thus tip students off to the error.  Here’s a very simple example:

Teacher: So Kalia, you were asked to distribute (x-1)*(x + 2). What’d you get?

Kalia.  I got x2+x +2.

Teacher: You said “x2+x +2.” [or Kalia said “x2+x +2.”]

Here the teacher might pause briefly.  Ideally Kalia would hear her own mistake with no further help and immediately self-correct.  “Um. Wait. It should be “x2+x -2.”  Then the teacher might simply say. “Yes. Nice catch. x2+x -2 is correct.” Or even, “Let’s check that.  Kalia has corrected her work. What did she change and why?”  Again this shows why it’s really important that when you say “You said “x2+x +2.”” nothing in your voice emphasizes that place where the mistake is. Or even that there was a mistake.  Total neutrality is necessary.

One other possible outcome is that Kalia would not yet notice her error but she might notice the hands of her classmates going up into the air. Seeing hands might cue Kalia that there was a mistake and then cause her to find it.

If hands didn’t start to crop up you might add a prompt like “evaluate” or “assess” at the end of the rollback. As in “Kalia said ‘x2+x +2.’ Evaluate.”

This gets at the beauty of rollback.  It’s the smallest possible hint and it allows students to practice self-correcting, which is what we want in the long run.  But Juliana pointed out another benefit.  Rollback is simple for the teacher and thus allows you time to think about follow up questions in case the rollback is insufficient.

During the rollback you can, think: “Hmmmm. What’s my next question if Kalia doesn’t see her mistake?” But you can do so calmly. Without everyone looking at you.  You’ve slowed the dynamic down just enough to let yourself work.

Plus, Juliana pointed out, you can start gathering data from students.  If their hands are shooting up because they’ve seen the error, you may not need to think of a Break It Down question.  You could let students.  As in, “Ok, I see some hands up.  Without telling Kalia what you see directly, who can provide a small hint?”

Or—I love this idea—Juliana suggested a Turn and Talk (technique #43).  Again the Turn and Talk would work best if you were very careful w voice inflection and emphasis not to reveal that Kalia’s answer was in error and/or what part was wrong.  So you might say:

‘Kalia said “x2+x +2.” Turn and Talk to your partner for 20 seconds to evaluate. Go.”

Of course to make this work you, would also need to respond like this sometimes to correct answers so the Turn and Talk didn’t automatically signal “mistake.”

And of course during the Turn and Talk you could circulate and hear student’s thinking or just think yourself.  In other words, the Turn and Talk could end with a student speaking analyzing Kalia’s error or with you speaking, and helping to Break It Down for Kalia.  Something like, “Kalia, the rules of multiplying negatives are very important in a problem like this.”  You’d have time to script a very small hint like that rather than the far less useful “Should it be positive 2?” because you slowed the game down and bought yourself time to think while students still did high value cognitive work.

Anyway, all this hinges on Juliana’s somewhat brilliant suggestion to make Break It Down work by always starting with a rollback, which provides you just a tiny bit of time to think.  Often that’s all you need.

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