The Power of Constraints: Binary Questions

One strategy I often employ in professional learning with my educators is to rate themselves on a scale of X to XX.  Similar to estimation on a number line, they are to reflect and consider where they stand with relation to a given prompt.  Though this line of thinking supports “correct” responses anywhere along the continuum, it is missing one key ingredient: a constraint.  There is no true decision making required, no absolute committment.  There is no one or the other.  No A or B.  No 1 or 0.

Enter: Binary Questions.

Recently, I introduced the concept of Binary Questions to my educators in a professional learning experience.  This small act prompted many, many conversations centered around possible prompts for their own classroom.  (Success!).

The constraint of decision making adds a twist to this reflection in a new way.  This is not a popularity contest or true/false question.  Rather, it is a visible sign of individual voice.

In the future I will not abandon the number line, approximation form of questioning by any means, but I will certainly consider this structure as well.

I am building a list of Binary Questions and archiving them here: Shot 2018-01-25 at 7.35.50 PM


Stay the Course

I worry about teachers this time of year.  I worry that they hear two messages from administrators: one of accountability and state assessment and one of high quality teaching practices.  I worry that they fear poor ratings and in response make poor teaching and learning decisions that are contrary to what they know is best for kids.  I am not referring to all teachers here, but I am confident this applies to more than one and one is too many.

So, I share 7 tips to help you stay the course.  You can do it.  I know you can.

1.  Refer to your curriculum as your guide.  A guaranteed and viable curriculum is reassuring for you and for your students.  It helps you sleep at night knowing you have provided opportunity for your students to access the learning and that no student drew the short straw and ended up in your room.  If you don’t have a curriculum to depend upon, call me.

2.  Consider what you are measuring and what matters.  Keep one eye on profound, long-term learning.  If the work you are providing your students cannot be ultimately mapped to this, reconsider your plan.  I challenge my teachers to design the best in the world learning experiences for their students.  Loosely paraphrased, this means you should do the best you can with what you have, and we have a lot.  This also means that   we have lessons that bomb, that hindsight is 20/20, and that’s ok, too.  When we know better, we do better.  Period.

3.  Focus on the quality teaching practices you have come to know.  Remember the goal is LEARNING.  That’s it.  Your job is to remove all barriers possible to provide access to the content for your students.  Sometimes you are able to help a student make the smallest little inch down the developmental progression of learning.  Celebrate this, as this is learning and movement in the forward direction.  Think about what your students will learn today – not what they will do today.  Let’s have less doing and more learning.

4.  Reflect on past lessons, units, and years.  Focus on what has worked.  Do more of that.  If you don’t know, ask your students.  They know what helps them learn.  Find one thing that you did that led to learning.  This might be the way you designed your classroom learning environment, it might be a tool that helped your students see an abstract concept, it might be one good, solid question that got them thinking.  Whatever it was, embrace the positive and replicate it.

5.  Reach to your team and your PLN.  Do not be afraid to reach out to others with questions.  Advocate for the students in your classroom.  You are not alone in needing help.  The absolute strongest, most confident teachers did not get there alone and they have not arrived at perfection.  Keep growing.  

My PLN amazes me.  Some days on my commute home I reflect on the contacts I’ve made that day and think about the great minds in education to whom I refer as my friend.  Here’s a little backstory: If I have met you in person before and we’ve talked math, you’re my friend.  This may not be reciprocal (yet) and I am ok with that.  If I have not met you in person before, but I know we’d hit it off, you are my “friend” and I look forward to dropping the quotations.

6.  Give yourself a moment to take a deep breath.  Don’t panic.  Don’t revert to short-term, superficial learning experiences that you know deep down are not good because you feel rushed.  Find one good thing and do that.  Then find another.  Until you feel like you can breathe again, when you are able to make bigger plans.

7.  Avoid the countdown.  (This may ruffle some feathers.)  If we are focused on learning, then why are we counting down to a time that we will no longer be together to learn?  This message may say to kids, there are only X more days I have to see you in my class (that’s terrible, by the way).  Let’s focus on today and tomorrow, not next year when I may not get to see your smiling face everyday.

I encourage you to do the right thing and do it all the time.  You know what that right thing is and your students deserve it.