Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

03.26.17The First Answer is Rarely Sufficient: A Common Opportunity for More Rigor

under constructionThis is my third of three posts about “common opportunities” to make good classrooms more rigorous.  I posted last week about replacing “agree or disagree” prompts with something more nuanced like “develop,” and about making it clear to students how you wan them to participate in class. Today’s idea is making the reworking of ideas—verbally and in writing–the expectation. 

Simply put, the expectation among students in the strongest classrooms I’ve been in is that the first thing we can think of to say in answering a difficult or substantive question is rarely sufficient.  It will almost always need development and refining before it is “done.”

I don’t necessarily mean to suggest that teachers should refine the first response to every question … after all the answer sometimes is pretty straightforward. But for key questions- say most important questions of any lesson—I think it’s valuable to build in students’ minds the expectation, the habit, that a first answer is a starting point not an end point.

Here are some examples of things teachers might say in response to a good answers:

  • Great start. Let’s see if we can refine that a little.
  • Let’s take that idea and see if we can make it more precise.
  • Let’s try to use technical (or sophisticated) vocabulary here to really capture this idea.
  • Let’s see if we can broaden this a little.


Or you might even steer it less:

“Great. Thanks Kiley. [To the class]:  How can we improve that?

When students write something you might take similar steps: they write an initial response, they discuss the topic using their initial responses but then—this is to key step–you send them back to their original answers and say: “Great. Now that we’ve discussed this a bit more see if you can refine what you originally wrote by adding key ideas and terms from our discussion.” Or perhaps you make this a group activity.  Great, Now that we’ve discussed this let’s take one of the original ideas you guys wrote and rework it as a group to make the best answer we can.  Then maybe you construct this exemplar with constant input from the class at the board.

But maybe the most interesting thing is that the process of making refinement normal and natural can start even before students have answered. It can start when you ask a question. When you do you can subtly imply that the process of refinement is a given:

“Who can share some initial thoughts?”

“Who can get us started?”


Notice that both of the above question prompts frame the first answer as a starting point.   If you wanted to be a little more explicit you could go with something like this:
“Let’s hear what you’re thinking and then we’ll refine it.”


Either way you are constantly seeding the field with reminders that there’s no reason to think the first thought in response to a substantive question would be sufficient.


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