I Don’t Get It

I say the same thing or “tell me what you are thinking so far”. I tell my students who are afraid of going “blank” on a test to come up and talk to me. Most of the time “tell me what you are thinking so far” gets them right back on track without a word from me. When students come for help, anything I say (hints) obscures my view of what the student actually understands and makes it harder to diagnose what they don’t understand. (Jane Taylor)

The way we talk about teaching is just so, so so so interesting.

Sentence #1: When I tell a student “tell me what you are thinking so far” they get back on track

Sentence #2: Anything I say obscures my view of what the student actually understands

Am I being ungenerous here? Even if we were trying to, how much more direct a contradiction could we devise?

3 thoughts on “I Don’t Get It

  1. Yea, I do think you’re being ungenerous here. While I am not a researcher, my own anecdotal data from listening in to teacher-student interactions suggests that there’s a big difference between questions or statements or feedback that shift students from their current thinking onto some wholly other track (thus short-circuiting 2 things we might value — our ability to learn about what the student was thinking, and our ability to demonstrate to the student that their own thinking is productive and worth attending to and following) and questions or statements that support students to continue to productively follow their own thinking.

    I’ve just been reading Dylan’s blog post on Game About Squares (https://fivetwelvethirteen.wordpress.com/2015/05/18/hints-and-squares/) and one of the things that’s happening below the surface in this remarkably illustrative story* is that Dylan is doing a careful diagnosis of the student’s mental & emotional state and determining the very thing the kid needs to hear in that moment to allow them to continue with their own thinking. From his own experience of the game, and his own knowledge of his kids, Dylan was able to give the perfect hint — as we think about planning wisely hints (deepening our knowledge of the game) I don’t want us to miss out on knowledge of kids. A lot of teachers’ fallback feedback phrases (or should I say “frases?”) are diagnostic questions: “Tell me about the story.” “Tell me what you’re thinking so far?” “What have you noticed?” “What’s making the problem hard?” “Tell me one thing you DO understand.” It’s only if you have a really good diagnosis (or really good hunch) and know the game really well that you can be confident that a hint will allow students to continue, or return to, their own best thinking, instead of being derailed (and thus robbing you of both diagnostic & mindset-developing opportunities).

    Part of my extreme confidence in the value of not derailing kids comes from my extreme confidence that math MAKES SENSE and so the ideas of ANYONE DOING SENSE MAKING can lead, on their own beautiful paths, to accurate mathematics. I believe in the telling kinds of hints when they move kids from actively avoiding sense back into actively seeking sense (e.g. Dylan’s kid who was now moving his squares at random), and (sometimes) when they offer useful habits or representation schemes that help kids turn good but messy thinking into good but useful thinking (STOP ERASING YOUR GUESSES!) and (almost always) when the student’s own thinking has led them to a place of articulating the need for an already-invented mathematical tool and I can say, “yes! Descartes has your back here. Let’s name the locations by counting how far up and over they are from the origin. Cool, huh?” (e.g. Dylan’s kids who were basically like “this g-d- game needs a way to go back to the start when you clearly have it in an impossible configuration! Oh, that’s what that button’s for? Awesome!”)

    *Everyone should just teach kids to play Game About Squares and take careful notes on everything they learn about teaching and learning, all summer long.


    1. I agree with 95% of your comment. The remaining 5% has to do with what precisely is happening in an episode like the one Jane identifies in her comment:

      * A kid is stuck. The teacher comes over. “Tell me what you’re thinking so far.” The kid gets back on mathematically productive work.
      * This is an example of not saying anything. Had I said anything, I would have lost an assessment opportunity and robbed a student of a sense-making chance.

      In this moment, the teacher is being metacognitive on behalf of the student. The teacher is redirecting the student’s attention to what they’ve done so far. This is mathematical work, and it certainly ought to count as “saying something.”

      No doubt, this is often a good move. And it does leave a lot of sense-making for the student to do, and it also allows you to see how the student was already thinking about the problem. Yes yes yes. But let’s call it what it is — doing some of the mathematical work on behalf of the student.

      Imagine if instead of giving the order/making the request to “tell me what you’re thinking so far,” the teacher said “it’s often helpful when stuck to say out loud what you’re thinking so far.” Now, this is certainly saying something. I think “tell me what you’re thinking so far” redirects the student’s attention in (almost) exactly the same way that the request does. So we ought to see these as equivalent teaching moves.

      If all that we were saying is “I find it particularly helpful when I talk with kids to just ask them to tell me what they’ve thought of so far” then I would have no kvetches. I agree. In my experience this helps get the kid back on track a solid, I dunno, 40% of the time without any more input from me, and it definitely depends on the topic and the group I’m working with. (I suspect some of the differences in how helpful this questions is will ultimately come down to our specific teaching contexts, i.e. hs vs. elem vs. everyday teacher vs. pd vs. coach vs. professor vs. whatever.)

      What I disagree with is that this should be seen as “doing nothing.” But, honestly, I do find it interesting that for so many people this counts as doing nothing. I am genuinely curious as to why this is.


  2. It’s starting to feel like the home of the point of contention here is the social contract between teacher, student, and math problem.

    For example, is there a difference between saying something to a student who has come to you to say “I’m stuck” vs. saying something to a student who is working with their group or on their own and not seeking your counsel?

    What is the difference between saying “tell me what you’re thinking so far,” and saying “it’s often helpful when stuck to say out loud what you’re thinking so far.” ?

    I wonder if “tell me what you’re thinking so far” is less likely to be picked up by the student as a hint? I wonder if that makes the student more likely to want to do it (“okay, to get the help I want, I have to do this thing first… oh actually I didn’t need any help”). I wonder if, on the flip side, students who do receive the explicit hint “it’s often helpful when stuck to say out loud what you’re thinking so far.” are more likely to pick it up as a behavior to repeat on their own.

    Perhaps we, as teachers, need a better way to distinguish responses-to-students-that-keep-them-productively-on-their-own-path and responses-to-students-that-disrupt-or-discredit-their-current-thinking, because I think that distinction is hugely important, and I think it’s important to not pretend that the first is “letting the student do all the work” because it’s a LOT of work for the teacher and it is still a response to the student. It is a thing, not a nothing.

    So, see, we agree!


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