Friday, April 29, 2011

The Most Important Word to Use in Your Classroom

One of the toughest jobs that a teacher has right now is to overcome the culture of standardized test prep.  The pressure to pass state tests has lead us to a place where more importance is placed on memorization of factual nuggets, learning test taking tricks, and following memorized procedures than real critical thinking.  For many teachers, it's tough to remember that we entered this profession to inspire the next generation to greatness when we spend the majority of our time filling our students' heads with unrelated facts.  The term "problem solving" used to mean the ability to actually come up with practical solutions to real problems.  It has evolved to mean "coming up with the right answer to a math problem that is written with words." 

That's not problem solving.  That's not critical thinking.  That's the ability to read and make a calculation.

It doesn't take real thinking.  It won't help you figure out how to solve the problems that will face you in life.

When it comes to reading and social studies, our demands on students are no better.  We still ask for the main idea of a passage that students have no interest in reading, but never insist they read something they feel strongly about and give them a change to motivate their fellow students to action.  We ask for the date of the American Revolution and the cause of the Civil War, but never insist that they find parallels to current world events. 

It's as if those in power want us to pump out automatons that blindly follow orders instead of innovators who can mold the future. 

Can we rise above these pressures to inspire students, demand critical thinking, and at the same time prepare our students for state tests? Is there something that can be done which doesn't take a ton of professional development, training, or an overhaul of current practices?  Is there something we can do right now?

Yes.  Start asking "Why?"

When your students tell you the answer they came up with on your math assignment, don't tell them whether it's right or wrong.  Ask them why that's their answer.  When your students tell you that the main character in the story was "friendly", don't let them off the hook.  Ask them to prove why he was friendly.  When your students tell you that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, ask them "why?"  Make the use of "why" so ubiquitous in your classroom that your students know it's coming before you even ask.

Your students will hate it at first, and for a while it will probably be uncomfortable for you.  They'll look at you with blank stares, speechless at the fact that you are making them think.  After all, they've been convinced by our standardized testing culture that this type of real thinking is unnecessary.  They'll hope that staying silent for long enough will convince you to give them the answer.  They'll tell you "because the textbook says so."  They'll hope that telling you, "I don't know" will shut you up.

Don't let them get away with it.  Demand an answer that shows real understanding. Do this until the culture in your classroom is one where critical thinking is expected.

Do this, and your students will be able to do more than just pass "the test."  They'll start to evaluate and judge.  They'll start to wonder and debate.

Something else might happen, too.  You may start to remember "why" you chose the profession that creates all others.  Along with inspiring your students, you may find renewed inspiration yourself.


  1. Another great post. I love how you put words to the feelings that many teachers have and encounter every day. This post is a great reminder to get back to the basics and help children to understand why and be able to explain it. How many times a day do you ask "Why?" of your students?

  2. Techytuner,

    Thanks for the kind words. I've made "why?" such a habit that it's tough to keep track. I've got to give credit to Steve Leinwand, who I was lucky enough to see speak a few summers ago. His presentation on how we should change math instruction to demand more critical thinking was instrumental in convincing me to see how I could change my pedagogy. Once I saw it work in math, I started exploring how to carry the same concept into other subjects.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. I agree completely! To add to that, there is a reality in the world today that jobs filled by automatons are moving to other countries. I know first hand being in the IT industry. Daniel H. Pink's book "A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future", outlines this very thought. He explains that the new MBA is really an MA. Critical thinking, seeing the big picture, thinking out side of the box are the skills needed in today's work force. It is refreshing to know that this is visible by teachers.

  4. "Show me how you know this" is another phrase. If kids are uncomfortable with "why?" Sometimes, "Why" causes students to shut down instead of open up.

  5. Michael

    Just discovered your blog through Chris Lehmann's. Digging your writing and realized that you're not far from me. I teach in the Wyoming Valley and teach math. I LOVE this particular post (from long ago, I realize) and want to add another key question. I teach math to high school students and mostly AP level so this colors my habits here. But, in addition to asking "Why?" I will regularly follow up by asking them to tell me what our current topic reminds them of from their math past. The ability to connect ideas is SO crucial and I think that it does not even occur to most students. I just subsrcibed and look forward to more thoughtful posts.

    1. Thanks for commenting, neighbor! I love asking students to make connections - both to math and to other subject areas. One of the great disservices we do to students is to teach without context. We've compartmentalized everything to the point that the connections you speak of don't come naturally anymore. Thanks for subscribing, too. I look forward to more great interactions.