The Capital of Australia

Asking questions is one of the most important things a teacher can do to help students learn and to check their learning. If you ask a student a question, it requires them to think. To give you an answer, they need to recall information. Their answer gives you feedback about what they know and understand, and what they don’t. You can then use this to give feedback to them, or to make teaching points to others that you might not have considered otherwise. Asking questions is a powerful formative teaching practice.

However, when you ask students you teach questions, some of them (perhaps many of them) will only think of partial answers, and some will not think of any answers at all. It can be very difficult to know what all students are thinking. What can we do about this?

The capital of Australia

Imagine you are teaching 30 students and you ask the question: ‘What is the capital of Australia?’

Imagine, first, that you ask this question and allow the shouting out of answers. A student shouts: ‘Sydney’, to which you respond, ‘No, it’s actually Canberra.’

What did that tell you? Very little, other than the fact that one student in the class didn’t know the correct answer (and you hope that they now do, because you just told them it – and everyone else, too, because they all listened to you telling that student the correct answer. Didn’t they?)

Did any other student in the class know the correct answer? If so, how many? Or did nobody in the class know the correct answer? If they didn’t, was everyone’s wrong answer the same – did they all think that the correct answer was Sydney? Or did some students think it was Melbourne? It would be useful for you, as the teacher of this class, to have answers to all of these questions. However, doing what you did – letting students shout out and then taking the first incorrect answer and correcting it for the student – didn’t let you find out any of that.

You asked the question, ‘What is the capital of Australia?’ because you thought it was an important or worthwhile question to ask. If you didn’t, you probably wouldn’t have asked it. But what was the purpose of asking it?

Were you about to start a topic on Australia and wanted to find out what students already knew about the country? Or had you taught a lesson about Australia the day before, which included teaching students the capital of Australia, and you wanted to check that this had been remembered the next day? Or had you taught a lesson about Australia six months ago and wanted to check that, six months on, students remembered the capital? All of these would be good reasons to ask the question, ‘What is the capital of Australia?’

It is unlikely that you asked the question because you wanted to check if just one student knew the correct answer. Rather, I imagine you wanted to get a feel for how many students knew the correct answer, and if one or more didn’t know it, what they thought it was, and to offer feedback designed to address their mistake. Ideally, I imagine that you wanted to check what everyone in the class thought the correct answer was.

When you asked the question, ‘What is the capital of Australia?’ to your class of 30 students, how many, do you believe, were thinking about an answer? Thirty? Fifteen? One? And how could you know that?

Let’s imagine that all 30 students were thinking about an answer, perhaps because, after posing the question, you gave the instruction: ‘I want everyone to think about an answer. I’ll give you 10 seconds.’ And then you stayed silent for 10 seconds, counting down in your head, while holding an assertive stance, casting your gaze around the room to convey to the students that you are watching and expecting everyone to be thinking. You then selected a student and asked: ‘Marnie, what did you think?’ Marnie said: ‘Melbourne’, to which you said, ‘No, it’s actually Canberra.’

Had everyone in the class thought about an answer to your question this time? I suspect more students would have tried to – and had time to – than if you had simply asked the question and then responded to the first answer that was shouted out. You built in ‘thinking time’ and you didn’t allow shouting out – you chose a student to answer the question. But how could you check that everyone had thought about an answer or what it was? This is where getting all students to write down an answer becomes very powerful.

Students don’t have to write down much – just a few words – but doing so gets them to think about their answer. It minimises the chance of students disengaging to think about something they watched on YouTube last night while they rely on a few of their keener peers to do the thinking instead. It also makes them commit to their answer – what they have written down will be what they were thinking. Putting it in writing removes the ambiguity – they’ve committed to what they wanted to say. Powerfully, it also lets you, as their teacher, check that they had thought of an answer, including whether or not it was the correct one. ‘I don’t know’ would be an appropriate answer, because this gives you information about what they do or don’t know.

If you get students to write down their answer on a piece of paper (perhaps in their jotter), this is better than not getting them to write something down at all. However, it poses challenges for you, as a teacher, to see what everyone has written, because the chances are that some of their handwriting will be quite small and, logistically, it is difficult for you to move around a room of 30 students to see what is written down on a piece of paper on every desk, particularly if you have given everyone a clear instruction that they have just 10 seconds to do this.

The solution to such challenges is the Show-me board (or mini whiteboard). If every student had been asked to write their answer on a Show-me board and hold it up for you to see, not only would everyone have been expected to think about the question you had asked, but you would also be able to see what everyone was thinking. If 20 students thought that the answer was Melbourne, 5 thought it was Canberra and 5 thought it was Sydney, the use of Show-me boards will let you know all of that relatively quickly, which is incredibly powerful.

Teaching in this way not only makes students’ thinking visible to you, but potentially to every other student in the room. If students wrote their answer on a Show-me board and held it up, you could start to discuss the range of answers you were seeing, using some of these to make points such as: ‘Oh, that’s a really interesting answer – please tell us more about that’, or ‘Ruben, do you mind me reading yours out? Thanks… Who agrees with Ruben? Does anyone disagree? Why?’ You might walk around the class and borrow a few Show-me boards with different answers on them and then hold these up one at a time, inviting comments from other students. For example, you might say, ‘I saw that a few of you wrote this…’ while holding up and reading out what was written. ‘What do we think about that?’ After some whole-class discussion, you might hold up the next board and repeat the process. Teaching in this way would help generate discussion, help students learn from one another, and help you give specific feedback, including the addressing of misconceptions and misunderstandings. You might conclude by saying something like, ‘Okay, well only five of you have got that right today – this is something that, as a class, we will need to come back to.’

Show-me boards offer a powerful solution to the problem of how we can get all students to think and make everyone’s thinking visible. For me, their use should be as integral to teaching and learning in classrooms as a jotter.

Taken from The Teaching Delusion: Why Teaching In Our Schools Isn’t Good Enough (And How We Can Make It Better). Published by John Catt Educational and available at: https://amzn.to/2JnKPOa

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