I have been thinking a lot lately about the challenge we face as educators when well-intentioned learners make incorrect, inscrutable, thoughtless, or otherwise off-the-mark comments. It’s a crucial moment in teaching: how do you respond to an unhelpful remark in a way that 1) dignifies the attempt while 2) making sure that no one leaves thinking that the remark is true or useful? Summer is a great time to think about the challenge of developing new routines and habits in class, and this is a vital issue that gets precious little attention in training and staff development.
Here is a famous Saturday Night Live skit, with Jerry Seinfeld as a HS history teacher, that painfully demonstrates the challenge and a less than exemplary response.
Don’t misunderstand me: I am not saying that we are always correct in our judgment about participant remarks. Sometimes a seemingly dumb comment turns out to be quite insightful. Nor am I talking about merely inchoate or poorly-worded contributions. That is a separate teaching challenge: how to unpack or invite others to unpack a potentially-useful but poorly articulated idea. No, I am talking about those comments that are just clunkers in some way; seemingly dead-end offerings that tempt us to drop our jaws or make some snarky remark back.
My favorite example of the challenge and how to meet it comes from watching my old mentor Ted Sizer in action in front of 360 educators in Louisville 25 years ago. We had travelled as the staff of the Coalition of Essential Schools from Providence to Louisville to pitch the emerging Coalition reform effort locally. Ted gave a rousing speech about the need to transform the American high school.
After a long round of applause, Ted took questions. The first questioner asked, and I quote: “Mr Sizer, what do you think about these girls and their skimpy halter tops in school?” (You have to also imagine the voice: very good-ol’-boy). Without missing a beat or making a face, Ted said “Decorum in high school is very important. There has to be a climate that supports real learning. Other questions?”
Wow. I immediately made a mental note: always, always dignify the question – even if it means slyly evading the particulars; return the conversation to a certain plane without making a questioner or commenter feel dumb; control your facial expressions to always look appreciative of the contribution.
The challenge is heightened, however, when we have to call out a comment as unhelpful or inappropriate. This happens a lot in workshops. Someone will give a patently incorrect example of, say, and Essential Question (e.g. “What is a linear relationship?”), and I know that I can’t allow the non-example to slide, with time for understanding the concept so limited. Short of simply saying “No, that’s not an EQ because…” (which is sometimes the right response, if said in a flat tone of voice), one can put the challenge back to the questioner: Well, a minute ago we said EQs are open-ended and thought-provoking. Do you think your example meets those criteria?
George Hillocks in Teaching Argument Writing Grade 6 – 12 provides the rationale for always grounding discussions in such agreed-upon criteria as a way to balance dignifying the speaker with the quest for understanding:

One teacher talked about her unit on the hero. The hero, she said, could be “whatever the students came up with” – there were no criteria that had to be agreed upon. “Everyone has a hero, and we do not have to agree on the reasons.”  Does that mean, I wondered to myself, that students could say someone is a hero because she bites her fingernails, enjoys watching comedy shows on TV, sings out of tune… ? If so, then this assignment could not prepare students for the rigors of making a serious argument in any field.  Pp 108-109

I have heard teachers many times make this mistake of treating every student contribution as if it were true or objectively helpful when it was not. This well-meaning attempt to honor the contribution often ends up badly since students may no longer know what the goal is. (The goal is arguably increased understanding supported by mutual respect through collaborative inquiry, not merely feeling a part of things.) Concept attainment and effective learning more generally require that teachers ensure that examples are distinct from non-examples and that incorrect responses don’t end up seeming correct because no criticism of any kind was offered about them, only warm gratitude for the contribution.
Hillocks’ point also reminds us that serious argumentation of the kind demanded by the Common Core is at the heart of the matter. Rational and respectful discourse requires clear agreed-upon criteria by which contributions can be dispassionately judged. If we agree to the criteria together, then my asking you to see any disconnect in the criteria vs. your example advances understanding with no loss of face.
This constant demand for justification addresses the challenge of dicey comments nicely: you as a teacher don’t ever have to say someone is “wrong” since you need only ask the speaker or other students to find (or not find) the relevant support. Such an approach dignifies the comment (since we seek to find out the degree of its truth) and underscores the core lesson that mere opinion is not sufficient. As I used to say to my English students: no answer is certain or true, but some answers are better than others – and our job this year is to figure out how that is so.
Core routines and protocols, therefore, should not just be about “behavior” but intellectual norms that de-personalize disagreements. Here are some Seminar Norms from my teaching days. At the very least, get everyone in the habit of following your lead in asking: “Where is that in the text?” or “What evidence supports your idea?” When students routinely ask such questions and take on such roles, discussion moves to a higher and more rewarding plane. (We discuss many more such intellectual routines in our new Essential Questions book.)
Alas, even with clear goals and ground rules, there are going to be times when kids say  unwise or unhelpful things. Students pay close attention to how you handle such situations. My favorite response was always to furrow my brow, look the kid straight in the eye, and say: Joe I know you know better than to be so insulting to Myra; you know the rules and why we have them. This is dignifying: it makes clear that Joe knows the rules and why the rules matter, and can normally be expected to act appropriately. It also honors the old aphorism: focus on the behavior, not the person.
One year I had a fairly sizable group of hockey players in my class, and one boy proposed a funny and ingenious solution to such problems: a penalty box, with 2-minute or 1-minute time-out penalties for “misconduct” as in hockey. I heartily agreed to the system, and deputized he and another hockey player to serve as referees. While the experiment lasted only a few class periods, everyone was both amused and enlightened by the protocol – the point was made, with egos intact.
So: what are some of the more off-the-wall learner comments you have had to deal with? What are some solid protocols and artful responses you have crafted to handle clunker comments? How might you work this summer on establishing more explicit and respectful routines?



27 Responses

  1. Something I learned while traveling in Guatemala that has stayed with me. When any one of us asked a question of the woman meeting with us, she responded with “Si.” (Yes.) or “Bueno.” (Good,) as is the custom where she lives. In that way, it was a two-step process. She received the question, and then she answered it. Relationship first, then information. That model makes all comments easier to field, because it assumes that both goals are part of the process.

  2. The broader point may just be that we all need to reflect and be thoughtful. That’s what we ask the students to do – so should we. We don’t need to be perfect in our behaviors, but maybe we need to be more perfect on reflecting and finding ways to give feedback that works (hey, that could be a whole series of books, “Classroom Feedback that Works”). Maybe we should be modeling this feedback more to our students – not being afraid to make a mistake, not being afraid to acknowledge it, and fixing it when we are not right.
    I agree that we also need to tell students when their thinking is flawed, or it doesn’t make sense. While there may be many right answers, there are wrong answers. We do the students no favor by glossing over it and saying correct with a smile on our face. We don’t need to be mean about it, but we must give feedback or it’s not really learning. If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t really learning. A mistake isn’t a mistake unless we acknowledge it and change something.
    How much capital do we build with our students when they see us reflecting and trying to do a better job? Students will do anything when they believe in the teacher enough.

  3. Thanks Grant for your important posting.
    In my work at Socratic Seminars International, training teachers across the nation in Socratic Seminar leadership skills, this topic arises regularly in my workshops and trainings. Since the most powerful Socratic Seminars are started with an Opening Question that is open-ended and not closed-ended, leaders of Socratic Seminars as well as students need to be aware of which type of question is being asked. Closed-ended questions (“What time of day is the story occurring? What color shirt is the main character wearing?) often arise in seminars begun with a great Opening Question. These closed-ended questions are important as participants can only begin to make inferences, to make meaning of what they collectively comprehend.
    Ensuring that students know when an open-ended question is posed by the leader or their peers is crucial. Keeping a focus on the difference is one of the many roles of an effective Socratic Seminar leader. With that said, what does one do when the response to “What color of shirt is the main character wearing?” elicits a student response of red, when the title of the story is “The Blue Shirted Cowboy?” I agree first and foremost with your suggestion that students are looking for how you, the leader, responds, and honoring and dignifying each student contribution is how students learn to take intellectual risks. There are no expert leaders, there are just experienced leaders. There are a variety of ways to respond to student contributions, but the common denominators should be a strong mix of wonder, curiosity, and inquiry.
    Numerous times in leading Socratic Seminars with adults and students, I have been pleasantly surprised by the expanded replies I receive when I respond with genuine respect to either a closed-ended or open-ended question and say something like, “That is so interesting that you say that. I am so curious as to why you think that is true. Please explain to us why you think that is true and help us to see what in the text makes you think that.” This type of response honors the individual, and equally important, signals that the spirit of collective inquiry, discovery, and meaning making continues, and it is in their hands, and it is not for them to look to the leader for a “right answer.” I love what you said to your English students, “ no answer is certain or true, but some answers are better than others– and our job this year is to figure out how that is so.” I agree. Socratic Seminars can be this and more; a safe place for students to individually and collectively make meaning of a text and its big ideas. This happens best when we respond to each student contribution with wonder, curiosity, and thoughtfulness.

  4. I love open ended questions, and I totally agree with honoring answers and steering the towards a more critical answer. However, I sometimes wonder if we have gone too far with open ended questions. What I mean is this; open ended questions are great, but they need to serve a specific purpose. In life we are (or should be) encouraged to think creatively. The problem is that we have an ultimate goal in mind and we are often constrained by other factors. So what we want is creative thinking within the confines of a specific problem/goal. I think this gets forgotten far too often.
    If we are talking about soccer, the students can think creatively, but there are rules. Do we as teachers do a good enough job of making that crystal clear? We do in sports, but I’m not sure we do in academics. I wish there was another term for open-ended, I really do. We do not want open-ended answers. We want creative thinking in the confines of our particular issue/challenge that are creative, yet focused at the same time. This is truly the tricky part of teaching and I see many teachers struggling with how to sort it all out. In academics we are like pendulums – we swing one way or the other. We go from closed-questions and test prep to lolly-gagging around too often. This is where I think having students assume identities and working through a problem can be very useful. For example, in math assume you are going to open a restaurant. Find the square footage, angles, shapes, and polygons, but with the understanding that in real life it has to work out. Same with writing ads for resorts, cruise ships, and so on – creativity is nice, but you still have a building, property, or ship as the constraining factors. Designing a playground can be a great math project, but at some point someone has to insert reality into the project and make sure that it is possible. All of the project has to be possible and that is where many “dreamers” fall flat. Open-ended creativity is sort of like zen navigating. Maybe we need something like the Yin and Yang for these – a dreamer and a realist working together. Maybe that should be the foundation for answering the EQ’s…? Maybe this could be part of Socratic Seminars – rotating the dreamer and realist traits.
    The problem with the realist is that we don’t like negativity and we actually don’t like criticism very much. Want to kill a meeting? Start making suggestions for improvement. Start asking how something is going to work based upon our circumstances. Ask how a decision was made. Do any of those and look at the many sour faces looking at you wishing you’d shut up. We really need to teach more of the dreamer/realist approaches and encourage the dreamer and the realist to be part of normal thinking. Look at Apple. Steve jobs was the ultimate realist, Jony Ive the dreamer – it worked out pretty good for them.

    • I agree that the phrase ‘open-ended’ is not particularly evocative or helpful. But it has come to stand for asking questions that have no easy/obvious/final answer. And I agree with you that in most instances creativity has no meaning of substance without noting that creativity involves working within limits to find something innovative or value-added. That’s why I have always argued that ‘authentic’ assessment involve situational context and conditions. Indeed, beyond ‘declarative’ and ‘procedural’ knowledge is ‘conditional’ knowledge. That’s the essence of creative soccer/architecture/writing – working with a set of conditions concerning audience/purpose/constraints/opportunities.
      But as I have long said and written, ironically most academic assessment is unrealistic and arbitrary in its constraints. 40 minutes to write with no feedback or resources; a quiz across a month of content coverage that had no priorities; no ability to ask questioners of the ‘assessor’; the only audience is the teacher and there is no purpose or situation, etc. Creativity is most unleashed, on the other hand, when there are no secrets, just a need for imagination and initiative.

      • I think we are saying the same thing. I am very concerned with the future as we seem to be moving further and further down the road of not being critical thinkers. Critical means weighing the pros and cons, the good vs the bad – but we don’t want to here the bad part. Maybe we need to work on ensuring that our feedback is relevant and timely. I used to work at a school that had Individual Pivotal Objectives (IPO’s). These were critical points of deflection where we could change a behavior or academic skill. Maybe we need something similar when giving feedback. At what critical points do we need to give feedback, and to individualize it, how should we give that feedback to each student?
        I know we as educators study formative assessments, but this is where those targeted assessments, questions, and feedback could just make a world of difference in the lesson.

  5. The timing of this blog was interesting because I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately about how my legal education has informed my career in education, and what educators could learn from law schools and vice versa. I’ve been working on organizing a panel about unusual careers for a celebration of 60 years of women at Harvard Law School this fall. One of the other people on the program committee referred to people who “weren’t using their law degree”, which was a bit offensive, because I use my legal education and the skills I used to practice law every day, both in the classroom and in my current position working with teachers.
    As we roll out Common Core, I constantly see parallels with the way I was taught in law school to think and to interact with knowledge and information. As law students and (sometimes) as lawyers, we were expected to analyze, evaluate, synthesize, Identify and solve problems, make connections, figure out the best way to communicate something, and always, always question, question, question. What better preparation for students in today’s world? Unfortunately, I see far too little of that kind of thinking in the classroom, which made me think… What if we educated teachers like lawyers and lawyers like teachers?

    • I think there is much to be said for your idea, especially in terms of learning genuine argumentation. However, from my work with the clinical law people they feel that too much of legal education is off the mark in terms of really learning to practice law (which might be said to be an attempt on their part to combine the legal and educational training you are proposing.)

      • Actually, I think there are things that the legal profession could learn from teacher training. Certainly, when I left Harvard Law, I was a babe in the woods in terms of doing anything practical, which made working for a law firm that would train me in the practical practice of law essential – I can’t even imagine going out and starting a practice without a few years under one’s belt. When I became a teacher, my first education course, curriculum and instruction, was basically a course in constructivism. It turned out to be a fortuitous choice because it at least gave me a practical approach that I could take into the classroom and use immediately, while also providing a philosophical underpinning that gave me a framework for beginning to think about the philosophy of education. So much of good teacher education is that way, so why wouldn’t we transfer that to law so that the law student walking out of law school has at least a few practical tools to go with the ‘way of thinking’. I think that is actually the direction some schools are moving, at least for the third year.
        On the other hand, I haven’t seen a lot of focus on deep thinking in most of the professional development I’ve attended, and I’ve done vast amounts of PD over the past nine years. There are obviously exceptions – notably, your and Jay McTighe’s workshops, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Lynn Erickson, and the Critical Thinking Foundation – but most of the educational PD seems to involve giving teachers one or more “strategies” (not!) that can be plugged into a classroom. When I started working with struggling teachers last year, I kept getting comments like, “Can’t you just give me a strategy?” I guess my theory is that some mix of the two methodologies could work well for both professions. I’ve been filling in for a teacher at one of our schools for the past couple of months teaching a couple of classes of IB Theory of Knowledge. I was struck by the sense of deja vu; it was a bit like being back in law school which I loved, although I didn’t love actually practicing law. However, I have lately been seeing more and more connections between the structure of legal study and what we are trying to accomplish in the classroom.

        • A propos the 1st point: that is why I found the whole clinical legal education offerings a nice breath of fresh air: it started from the backward design premise – what is needed to practice law?
          As for most PD – SIGH. But I think the wish for a practical ‘strategy’ reflects the poor training in the 1st place. There is something to be said about practical tips – I found a lot to like in Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion – but you always end up thinking: but what baout improving the learning of substance as opposed to teacher control of the setting?

  6. I liked when you wrote “in a flat voice” because that has a lot to do with how students take the criticism or correction. I have found that most students can take being off the mark if they are not humiliated or embarrassed. A big part of that is the culture in the classroom. If the culture embraces mistakes as opportunities to learn, then being off the mark is not a big deal.
    When I have students “near the mark,” I will often reply with something like, “Who wants to build on this?” This develops the idea that a complete answer is more of a collaborative process.

    • Nice move for dignifying and building collaborative spirit, but it slightly finesses the harder question of: does the student (or the others) grasp what was and wasn’t on the mark? That’s the tough part of the dance as facilitator to me. My question suggests that you would need to return to the original comment to underscore where it was on the mark and where not, to ensure understanding. (Notice how my own comment tries to practice what I am preaching!)
      In terms of your point about tone of voice, every teacher ought to tape themselves and learn to hear their voice as others hear it. (I do it regularly still). It is an odd oversight in many teacher training and supervision experiences that tone of voice is not emphasized since it is the principal way in which teachers try to cause learning.

      • I am intrigued by the suggestion that one of the moves of the leader in this dance is to ensure understanding. I wonder how students learn to discover for themselves the fallacies in their own thinking when they see it is the leader who tells them when they are off the mark. I suppose the question then is what is the mark? It makes me think that students should clearly know what the marks are, one of the marks being collaborative and collective inquiry. Once students repeatedly and regularly engage in a culture of inquiry, might a leader be able to trust this collaborative process to right the ship if it begins to list or heel, though crewmates return to shore wet and windblown?

        • I certainly think that self-correction is the goal. That was certainly my approach in Soc seminar: I made it clear that I was not the only or even key facilitator, once we knew the ropes. But that doesn’t quite solve the ‘inquiry’ and understanding side of the equation. The situations that I fret over most are those in which students leave with erroneous views because their close reading skills weren’t up to catching fallacious claims. It’s of course wonderful when kids self-correct each other and themselves, but when significant errors are unaddressed we are in a bind, eh?

  7. First–thank you for the great SNL laugh with Jerry Seinfeld–I’m going to watch it again after I throw my two cents in on this discussion.
    As an elementary teacher (5th grade), there seems to be more emphasis placed on developing thinking through reading and writing, but not as much on listening and speaking. I have noticed that some students have difficulty with formulating a sentence in response to a question while others have difficulty following the thread of discussion. Asking students, “why do you think so” or “what in the text (or in our discussion) has made you think this?” can help while giving dignity. A great vocabulary word I like to teach is “clarify”. How can we express our thoughts more clearly–through examples, a text phrase, etc?
    I have had autistic students who struggle with inferring from class discussion and if participating, will sometimes say something very odd or off the mark. I will respond with, “well that’s an interesting thought about _____”, filling in the “blank” with words that can take us back, and then “would anybody like to piggyback?”. What I’ve discovered is that most students respectfully recognize when this happens and help get us back on track. It’s my hope that modeling respect teaches respect. Of course, I’m not teaching middle school!
    FYI: I attended Oscar Graybill’s introductory Socratic Seminar training here in Texas and it was wonderful.

    • I think euphemisms like ‘interesting thought’ or ‘unusual insight’ is often the best way to go, especially once kids are familiar with your moves and the ground rules of working to achieve understanding together. That is especially useful if the situation gets cleared up right away by someone else’s comment. On the other hand, when the next comment is equally off – then you have a problem! That’s the high-wire risk of student-led discussion. I think in that case an exit slip on the issue at hand is probably wise to ensure that students were not misled by the contributions. (The corollary question to this blog post one is: when do you decide to say, even with the press of time and other objectives – Time Out; we’re confused here…)

  8. I teach pharmacology “lite” in a vo-tech setting, and have a student who keeps coming up with new suggestions that someone should research. For example, when we were talking about a certain class of antidepressants, she explained (at some length) about how it cleared up her constipation after many years. It might be interesting to try to figure out why, but these students don’t have any chemistry or physiology background. I ended up saying, let’s talk about how you could research this after class, but she isn’t interested in doing any more research herself, she wants someone else to do it. Who? How? she has no idea. her thought was the pharmacists. But pharmacists don’t research, really–they have all they can do to dispense and keep up on current stuff. Anyway she didn’t want to meet after class. I am not satisfied with my answer, but don’t know what else to do. We have ONE DAY to get enough pharmacology in to enable safe med giving–and I don’t write the curriculum. SO MUCH more info we need to cover than one atypical side effect…

    • Hmmm, tough one! Maybe you could give her extra credit for doing an interview with a researcher? Or have a discussion about off-label prescriptions? You may have done all you can do by dignifying her interest.

      • that’s a thought, though. I feel like I ended up NOT dignifying it. I didn’t give her any way forward.

  9. Great post. I teacher philosophy in high school and use Socratic seminars quite a bit. The most pervasive issue I experience is a quiet student who needs an ‘on ramp’ to get involved in a discussion Often, a student or I will ask him/her a question. There is silence and then a murmur “I don’t know”. I try to then follow up with “Well, okay, what would you say if you did know?” The first time I use this, the kid looks at me when a curious glance but then, often, he/she begins to speak. In a strange way, it turns their original confusion “I don’t know” into a sort of philosophical thought experiment that gives the kids permission to take a risk and imagine that they knew the answer. The conditional “if” has an energizing influence. It is very subtle and doesn’t work all of the time but for many kids it’s just what they need.

    • This is a great move, as it’s vital to get the quiet folks talking. When I did Soc Seminar over time I used a more oblique approach. The discussion started in groups of 3 where each group was tasked with bringing a question to the whole class. Everyone spoke, and they had to bring a question, not an answer, so it was low stress and really got the whole group off to a running start. (I taught philosophy in HS years ago, as you may know. Made every day interesting. Where do you teach?)

      • I like that ‘group of 3’ idea to motivate a question and I’m going to try that. thanks
        Yes, I knew from your response to a previous post that you taught philosophy. I sensed your philosophical thinking inside the way in which construct training and the whole UBD approach. I teach at Maine West H.S. in Des Plaines, IL. I attended one of your multi-day training seminars– I want to say in the late 90s.
        I was able to argue for and teach a new philosophy elective class which is concluding its second year. It has been a wild ride thus far… I am always amazed at just how interested kids are to the subject, if you do it right. I really think that the cultivation of philosophical thinking is necessary ingredient to all good things that come out of learning. But, as I’m sure you would agree, many people think philosophy is a bit of a waste because you can’t categorize it in any meaningful way.
        (This is tangential but since you appreicate philosophy, I feel compelled to share)– I’m serving on a committee through the APA which is geared towards pre-collegiate instruction in philosophy, a movement which is growing a little steam. Chicago is hosting the next major conference in Feb and the focus is connecting Common Core and philosophy. The mission here is to take philosophy and hook on to the Common Core bandwagon and try to infuse philosophical teaching into K-12 in the process. Anyway, if you are at all interested in staying informed/getting engaged in this work, let me know. Given your schedule, it is a pipedream but…. you never know. You would bring immeasureable credibility to what we are trying to do. Thanks.

        • Ha! What goes around, comes round. When I was teaching philosophy in the late 70s, the first national movement on the teaching of philosophy K-12 began. The first conference was at Union College and the 2nd was at U of Toledo. I went to both and presented at the 2nd one. There I met Matthew Lipman who had just begun his Philosophy for Children work at Montclair State and Richard Paul who went on to head up the Critical Thinking Center at Sonoma State. Probably the most important move was when Michael Scriven, a few years prior, got philosophy in the curriculum officially in the state of CA by establishing certification requirements for teaching it, as I recall).
          Anyway, of course I am interested in staying abreast of this movement! I think philosophy is a natural for rigorous reading and argumentation so it is an easy sell. I can’t say whether or not I can participate in February without knowing particulars, but keep me in the loop, ok?

    • My favorite moment of all time was when a student reprimanded me for make a sarcastic comment that was ‘against our rules’. That’s really the power of being driven by Mission/principles/rules that people ‘sign off’ on as part of the process.

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