Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

03.11.15‘Levels of Evidence’ and other thoughts on teaching students to stretch themselves

I watched an interesting lesson today, a pretty good one, in which the teacher asked her students to describe the setting of Amy Tan’s short essay “Fish Cheeks.”  When one student did so—describing it as a “weird and different Christmas,” the teacher asked him for evidence to support his claim. When he provided it, she asked the class students to find additional evidence to support that claim.  Eight or ten hands went up and the teacher did a nice job of saying, “Go back to the first paragraph on your own and underline at least one piece of additional evidence that this is a weird and different Christmas and be ready to share.”



After a minute or two, she stopped them and asked, “What other evidence could we use?”  Pretty much every hand in the classroom went up.  It was a nice demonstration of using Wait Time to build Participation Ratio, ensuring that everyone does the cognitive work, both in her method of executing it (lots of wait time, sending the kids back to the text to re-read to teach them how to be successful at answering questions, asking them to do something observable as they worked) and in her placement—the moment was at the beginning of the lesson so, she successfully had every kid in class seeking to participate and discuss the story at the outset. That’s a great starting point for a lesson, especially if she goes forth to up the rigor.  She’ll be more likely to have more kids with her as the questions get harder.

In watching, we had a couple of a-ha moments.  That’s the benefit of watching game tape, you get to watch and analyze and think about the small changes that a teacher could make to “win back the margins.”  We use the benefit of 20/20 hindsight to consider guidance that we might give to teachers going forward.

As we watched again we observed the kids who’d had their hands up from the outset. Some of them went back to the text to find more evidence but several remained sitting with their hands up, not looking for more.  They knew the answer and wanted to be called on. But that was keeping them from continuing to work.



We were also struck by the quality of the description students were seeking to support with evidence:  “a weird and different Christmas.”  We saw a clear opportunity for students to upgrade the description of the setting. Given the smart choice to focus on searching for more evidence, it seemed like a good idea to make sure that the initial claim had been refined a bit first to make it more rigorous and college-ready.

But then it struck us: first that this was a classic differentiation problem: roughly a third of the kids found the question easy, rightly a third struggled with it and for roughly a third it was about right.  How do you deal with that efficiently and in the moment?

One potential solution, it struck us, could come in two parts.

Part one: Change: “Go back to the first paragraph on your own and underline at least one piece of additional evidence that this is a weird and different Christmas and be ready to share,” to “Go back to the first paragraph on your own and underline at least one piece of evidence that can help us refine our notion that it is a weird and different Christmas and help us be more specific and precise.  Be ready to share,” or to “Go back to the first paragraph on your own and underline at least one piece of evidence that this is a weird and different Christmas; if you already have one, try to find a piece of evidence that can help us refine this notion and make it more precise.”

This has the benefit of giving every kid a challenging task.  First you ask for the evidence for “weird and different” and then you ask: “OK who can help us refine and improve?”

Of course the downside is that unless kids do it all the time, they may not know how to do it well. And it takes long to explain this. And you have to remember to explain it and to take answers to both questions at the end.  But, we realized, this was a perfect thing to routinize in the classroom: you make a habit out of “whenever I ask for evidence, if you feel like you have some already, take the challenge of pushing  on to find ‘refining evidence,’ evidence that helps us understand and express it a little more precisely.”  Or maybe you have kids hold up their books to show you their underlined evidence (Affirmative Checking, Teach Like a Champion 2.0 technique #6 ) and if you give them a thumbs up, they get to go on to find “refining evidence.”

Maybe you even have a poster on the wall that you use to remind students, in a very Carol Dweck kind of way, to push themselves to take on a harder challenge whenever they can. Something like this:

Levels of Evidence

Evidence is key to building arguments.,  When we seek it out we always push ourselves to move to a higher level as soon as we feel ready.

Level 1

Level 2

Level 3

Evidence to support an idea.

Finding more and subtler evidence to support an idea.

Evidence that refines the original idea and helps us understand it
more precisely.

Scout’s line in the first paragraph shows that she doesn’t agree and
thinks Dill is foolish

It says that her eyes rolled upward momentarily, which shows that
she’s skeptical just for a second before she catches herself.

I think Scout’s lines in the next paragraph show that she might be
making an innocent comment rather than a cynical one, I think we should change
“is” to “might be”

You’d probably practice it intentionally for a few weeks—“Can anyone push us to level 2?”

You’d want to reinforce it regularly—“That’s really level 3 evidence, Charles”

And over time, your students would ideally come to own the idea of not only using evidence better, but using it to improve, not just support, ideas. And you would give them a road map to self-manage differentiation.  In Teach Like a Champion 2.0, I write about Stretch-It-as-culture- the idea (learned from teachers) that the goal is to teach students to ask themselves Stretch It questions.  As Dan Cotton pointed out, this would be a great way to build toward that goal.

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2 Responses to “‘Levels of Evidence’ and other thoughts on teaching students to stretch themselves”

  1. Shona Davidson
    March 11, 2015 at 11:10 pm

    Thank you for this post. It’s exactly what I needed to read and I’m off to use it today. So glad that other people have time to be reflective on our behalf.

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