Wrapping up Teach Like a Champion 2.0 this week. Shooting to have it your neighborhood bookstore before the end of 2014. Here’s a little snippet from Check for Understanding–which gets TWO chapters in the new version!!!–reflecting on why it’s so hard to take action when data starts to emerge, real-time, that maybe students aren’t mastering what you set out to have them master.
“Acting on the data” is risky. I mean that in the psychological sense. It can mean doing something new and possibly unanticipated, live, on the spur of the moment, sometimes in front of a room full of potentially skeptical adolescents. The data tells you something is wrong, and so, as the students look on, you set out to devise an antidote, changing your lesson plan and instructional methods in unexpected ways that may not jibe with your ambitious lesson goals or fit within the ten minutes you have left in class, never mind the urgent pressure you feel to finish the unit on respiration by next Wednesday. All the while a distant tick-tick-ticking reminds you of what happens when you fail for more than a few minutes to engage your students. When you adapt your lesson, not only are you boldly creating something new, you are blowing something up—specifically, the lesson plan you labored over to arrange just the right sequence of events and maximize every instructional minute. There’s potentially quite a bit of fear: fear of failing, of uncertainty, of changing course; fear of running out of time; fear of making more advanced students wait as others circle back. No wonder we sometimes bury the data. It makes you wonder, perhaps, who in their right mind would ever do anything else.
One of the best ways to reduce some of the anxiety and therefore make it more likely that you will take action is to Plan for Error. After all, while it’s hard to predict exactly who will struggle with what, it’s almost inevitable that errors will occur. It’s just a matter of which ones and when. Predicting a single, specific error is difficult; predicting it broadly is not. You know it’s coming, and foresight can help make adaptations not so much deviations from your lesson as variations (often predictable ones) within them.
Troy Prep Middle School math teacher Bryan Belanger provided me with an impromptu clinic on this topic. A group of us were reviewing a series of his recent lesson packets. His packet for an 8th grade lesson on slope intercept formula, I noticed, had more problems than his students could ever do in a class period—more than 50! They ranged from simple to complex, roughly in sequence. “They’re never going to do all of these problems in one class,” I commented. “Not a chance,” Bryan said with a smile. “I’m just planning for how things might go in [each of my] classes. If Homeroom Union is ready to jump ahead, I’ll skip forward a few problems. If Homeroom Princeton is struggling, I’ll loop back and do a few extra. I pick and choose what problems they need and how fast we go as the lesson happens.”
In ordering problems roughly by complexity, Bryan can more easily navigate as he reacts to data throughout the lesson. He compared it to a “Choose Your Own Adventure” Novel, the sort you read in third grade, perhaps, where you flipped forward and back through the book as you made one decision or another. Light bulb! There was no one, single path through Bryan’s lesson. His preparation assumed that he would need to be responsive to where his students’ learning took him. In response to struggle or success, he could merely tell his students to flip back or ahead a few pages in the packet. I often advise teachers to choose a few key points in the lesson to intentionally check, but Bryan’s lesson planning assumed he would always be reacting to data. Every time his students finished a problem or two he’d planned to ask himself, “Loop back for more or push on a little. Or perhaps a lot.” Voila, response to error (or success) at almost no transaction cost with almost no delay or on-the-spot re-thinking required. And it was all in the planning.