Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

12.18.13Meg Reuler and the Art of Checking for Understanding

checklistTeaching, arguably, comes down to replacing the answer to the question ‘did you teach it?’ with the answer to the question ‘did they learn it?’  This is known as Check for Understanding (CFU).

Doing CFU successfully involves gathering ‘real time’ data, as you teach, and this applies to teaching in pretty much every venue in which it occurs: math or reading; kindergarten or college; classroom or athletic field; scholastic or professional setting.

So the video we just cut of Leadership Prep’s Meg Reuler is probably worth its weight in gold to a lot of people. It’s an amazing example of observing for data, acting on it and, most of all, designing classroom materials to efficiently reveal data on student achievement- successful CFU based on straightforward actions undertaken with incredible fidelity and efficiency.

In the clip, Meg’s teaching the vocabulary word ‘disposition’ to her 5th graders.  She starts by giving them an example sentence that uses the word and asks them to predict  the definition.  She also asks them to identify the “word charge”- whether they think it has (is it positive, negative or neutral).  Then she gives them a high quality definition and asks them to use the word in various ways.

Among the “straightforward actions undertaken with incredible fidelity and efficiency” here is “Standardizing the Field.”  Meg has ensured that every student is working off the same packet and the packet is designed to allow her to collect data quickly and efficiently. Students all write their definition and not the word charge in the same predictable place in the packet. In the case of the word charge they circle one of three answers. Meg can circulate through the room as they work and determine at a glance how her students think about the word- what they ‘get’ and what they don’t.  She gathers data efficiently- no wasting time (or disrupting students) while she scans or flips to find what she wants in their materials.  As a result she is, amazingly, able to get a good idea of what sorts of errors are occurring in the entire room in just over ten seconds!

She very quickly realizes there’s a misunderstanding: the word “disposition” is neutral but because the example sentence describes someone with a positive disposition, the students have confused the example for the rule.  So just seconds after this error starts to occur, Meg is able to step in and fix it.  “I’m seeing a lot that are talking about [it] having good characteristics. It’s actually a neutral word.”  Less than two minutes into the clip she’s adjusting her teaching to make sure to address their misconception: “It’s positive here but it’s not always positive.”

By the way another thing that helps her recognize the error is “Tracking, Not Looking”- she knows exactly what she’s looking for and she’s keeping tabs on it, as data, as she goes.

Students then read a passage where “disposition is a key word.  You can see her circulating and checking to see if students have recognized their vocabulary word at about 13:18.  She’s asked them to underline it so again, observing whether they noticed is easy.

Meg then asks her students to write the answer to the question: “Why might someone who skips breakfast have a cranky disposition by lunchtime.”  Again they are all writing the answer in the same place so she can scan and assess quickly.  Again she’s tracking, not looking… keeping her eye out for specific actions- in this case whether students used the word “disposition” in their sentence, something she narrates back to her students so they know she’s looking for it.

Finally at 14:40 Meg asks students to describe the disposition of a woman in a photograph.  Again she is able to circulate and assess in just seconds because she’s looking in a standardized place for the same information and she know what details she wants to see and is focusing on that.  As soon as she notes a consistent error in the usage of the word—students struggling to use it as a noun–she stops them, shortening the feedback loop.  “I’m going to ask you to revise your sentences…. I see a lot of good ideas about what her mood might be but since this word is a noun, we should say, this woman has a blank disposition.”

There’s not much more inspiring and useful than a teacher who takes a few humble ideas—watching very carefully to see what students are doing, recognizing and acting on that data quickly when it doesn’t show that everything’s perfect, designing materials to facilitate data gathering in advance on the assumption that error is always inevitable—and puts them into practice in a way that makes the classroom better and which almost any teacher can adapt or follow.  The simplest things are often the best.  Thanks, Meg!

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