Andy is teaching a lesson about energy changes in chemical reactions. He puts some information about a reaction on the board; that the temperature at the start is 21 °C and at the end is 34°C.

“ok, so can anyone tell me if this reaction is exothermic or endothermic…Maya?”

Exothermic sir.

“fantastic, well done.”

This is a short snippet, admittedly bereft of context, but there’s plenty there to get our teeth stuck into regardless. Let’s start with the good stuff:

  1. Andy could have verbally given the information about the reaction “…the reaction starts at 21 °C and at finishes at 34°C…” I see this a lot, and you are relying on students retaining quite a bit of information and processing it all at once. Much better to put the information on the board, so students don’t need to plate-spin all the elements simultaneously.
  2. Andy puts the name at the end of the question, which increases Ratio. Students don’t know who will be picked, so need to think about the answer, meaning more students are thinking for longer. (Sidebar: we don’t know if it’s a proper Cold Call as there’s no information about why Andy chose to ask Maya in particular)
  3. Andy leaves a good amount of wait time, which also increases Ratio. If there wasn’t enough time, Maya would have needed a couple more seconds to think after her name was called, and these are precious seconds that everybody else is now not using to think (as they know they won’t get picked).

There are two errors though. The first, and most obvious, relates to a simple rule:

“if you can collect whole class information using mini-whiteboards, you should.”

Using mini-whiteboards would have meant that Andy got responses from all students, improving his knowledge of their understanding. It also would have meant that more students would be thinking about the answer, as all students are expected to respond. This would have blown his Ratio through the roof.

This, however, is not a post about mini-whiteboards. To get to what this post is about, I want to highlight a second error; one that relates to the reliability of the response. Andy has given Maya a 50:50 choice: exothermic or endothermic. When Maya picks exothermic, Andy can’t be sure she really understands it. She could have picked it entirely at random, and there’s a 50% chance that she would have been right. Andy needs to work a bit harder to figure out if she really does know it:*

“ok, so can anyone tell me if this reaction is exothermic or endothermic…Maya?”

Exothermic sir.

“correct, but how do you know?”

This little change now puts Maya on the spot. If she really understands why it is exothermic, she will say something like:

because the temperature has increased

Of course, if she doesn’t know it she will probably blank out or confess her ignorance.

There may still be a chance that she’s just clutching at straws though. She knows that Andy has been waffling on about temperature changes, so takes a punt on the temperature increasing as being the correct answer. So Andy might push her a bit further, just to be really sure. Even if he is confident that she understands it, he might want to keep up with the questions in order to have Maya elaborate on and develop her thinking:

“ok, so can anyone tell me if this reaction is exothermic or endothermic…Maya?”

Exothermic sir.

“how do you know?”

because the temperature has increased

“so what?”

it shows that energy has been released

“to where?”

the surroundings

“Perfect. Well done.”

This is the kind of questioning I got praised for early on in my career. It’s often called Socratic questioning** or elaborative interrogation or something or other. To be clear, I think it is very good practice: it both tests student understanding and pushes them to form connections between their little chunks of knowledge. Andy could even push it one step further:

“Really good so far. Can you now answer for me in full: state whether this reaction is endothermic or exothermic and justify your answer”

It is exothermic. I know this because the temperature has increased, showing that energy has been released to the surroundings.

This is great, and it’s a joy to watch. In the space of a couple of minutes Maya has developed a full answer that demonstrates a strong knowledge. Happy days.

The only problem is that Maya’s done great, but what about everybody else?

Whenever I observe lessons I’m always trying to keep a class-eye view: I’m trying to look at how the teacher’s activities are affecting the rest of the class. And without fail, whenever this kind of elaborative interrogation takes place, I see the rest of the class slowly stop paying attention. Remember what I said at the start? That the second Andy says Maya’s name everybody else stops thinking? Well, maybe not everybody else, but as time goes on and Andy is doing a 1:1 conversation with Maya, the other students slowly drop off.

Of course, I could be wrong. So when I observe, I test my intuition. I quickly go to another student and just whisper to them:

What did Maya just say?

Now if the student responds

Energy is released to the surroundings

Then all is well. I was wrong, move on to the next thing. But that isn’t normally the case, and normally the students say things like not sure, sir. Or even sorry sir I wasn’t listening. Sometimes I don’t even need to ask because I see their inattention drifting off into distracted behaviour, having a little chat with a neighbour or making eyes at someone across the room.

No blog is complete without a graph

I see this happening a lot, because the 1:1 interrogation sort of makes sense as something that would happen a lot. The 1:1 interrogation – or keeping the one – is a good thing: the issue is what it does to everybody else. You keep the one, but lose the many.

I see it in other types of scenario too:

  • When a teacher asks a student to give a lengthy verbal answer. Other students struggle to pay attention to the whole thing (which is often not 100% clear or coherent) and drift off.
  • When a teacher is getting sucked into a behaviour confrontation with a student, involving quite a bit of back and forth.
  • When a student (normally a year 7) asks a related but vaguely off-topic question, and the teacher spends a good amount of time answering it.
  • A student responds to a question quite quietly.

Other than the behaviour one (never get sucked in) these examples are all, in principle, good things. We want students to give their answers, we want them to be excited and ask questions, we want to interrogate their understanding. I know that some people have a really strong penchant for making the kids bellow out their answers (PROJECTTTTT), but it often makes me feel a bit uncomfortable telling quiet people to be loud, and I want to respect them but also make sure everyone else hears and feels part of the lesson.

So, how do we make it work?

Let’s try the below:

“ok, so can anyone tell me if this reaction is exothermic or endothermic…Maya?”

Exothermic, sir.

Hm ok.” *breaks eye contact with Maya* “Right now listen up guys, I’m not going to say whether or not Maya’s right, but I’m going to ask her to explain her answer, and I want everyone to listen up because she may make a mistake…”

Job done. Andy has done a couple of small things which massively increase the chances of other students continuing to attend to Maya’s responses.

The key steps are to a) signal to the rest of the class that they are still a part of it (break eye contact, verbally tell them to listen up) and then b) find a way of bringing them into the answer.

He also could have tried:

Quick hands up on three if you think she’s right, 1, 2, 3…

Doing that at every point in the questioning makes it clear to others that they are still a part of it.

Other things to try:

  • Ok, I need everyone to listen in carefully. I’m going to ask somebody to repeat Maya’s answers, so make sure you’re listening…
  • In this classroom, the way we show respect to each other is by listening to their answers and helping them learn more by pointing out they’ve made a mistake. If Maya makes a mistake and I don’t see hands going up, I won’t be cross with her, I’ll be cross with you
  • Thanks Danny, I’m not sure everyone heard that, so I’ll just say it a bit louder so everyone can hear your answer…
  • That’s a brilliant question, Danny. I’m worried not everyone was listening, which I think is a shame, so please ask it again louder, and I’ll be upset if anyone isn’t listening…[deliberately keeps eye contact with rest of the class]…so the answer to Danny’s question is…
  • That’s a really lovely answer, Maya. Danny, what did she say?…That’s really upsetting [breaks eye contact] all eyes up her please. Look, I’m really sad that Danny didn’t know, because it shows he wasn’t listening. In this classroom we listen to each other, and don’t be the person who I notice isn’t listening…
  • Danny, what did she say?…Do you know why I asked you? Say it louder so everyone can hear – everyone listen in please – yes, that’s right: because I could see you weren’t listening…

Etc, there are loads of ways to do this. In each case you get to keep the one – i.e. interact extensively with one student – without losing the many. Some of the scripts above will suit you and the way you build a classroom culture, and some won’t. Have a think about it, figure out which formulations work for you and try it out. Trust me, you’ll notice the difference.

Of course, all the above can be solved by using mini-whiteboards. But often you’ll find yourself wanting to talk to one student for a length of time, and when you do always remember: when you’re keeping the one, don’t lose the many.

* Inspired by Doug Lemov’s Stretch-It. As is pretty much every other thought in my head.

** I’m not getting bogged down in naming arguments, so don’t try it.