Something is Killing Thinking! Could it be me?

Most of us have been to trainings or professional developments on how to ask good, rigorous, thought-provoking questions. Whether we are using Blooms, or Costa, or Depth of Knowledge (my personal favorite), or any other measurement tool to get our questions to the level of rigor we are searching for in the classroom, sometimes it still doesn’t seem to be enough. If we ask lower-level questions, the students aren’t thinking hard enough, and if we ask challenging questions, our students don’t, or won’t, think hard enough to find the answer! Why is that?

Well, I’ve recently done several trainings on this topic, and the more conversations and observations I have surrounding questioning, the more convinced I am of one thing…


Now hear me on this…I’m not opposed to grades. In fact, as a mom, I want to know how well my son knows the content in his different classes. However, in my opinion, that’s what grades should be – a measurement of the learning. Once grades become a check-off list (“we need 11 grades each semester so I take grades on everything) mentality, they lose the effectiveness of measuring the learning.

For example, my son scored in the 90th percentile on our state assessment last year (proud mom moment), but math was consistently his lowest grade throughout the year. Ya know why? They did 10-minute timed practices almost every day, and while Tate has a math brain, he doesn’t necessarily process the problems quickly. So he made low scores on those assignments. He’d come home, and I’d have him rework the problems and he’d get them correct almost every single time. The grade did not reflect the learning.

So back to my statement above: GRADES ARE KILLING THINKING.

Let me explain – in order to really think, students often need the time to process. In order to process, students need the time to discuss. In order to discuss, students need to be free to take a risk – to be wrong – to go through the productive struggle and figure out why their thought process was wrong, correct it, and really make the learning connection. If we direct teach a new concept, have them take notes, and then give them an assignment we are grading, students will do their best to get a passing grade- which often means copying the “brightest” kid in the group.

When Jesse’s hand shoots up after you give directions for an assignment and he says, “Miss, is this for a grade?” We have 2 choices. We can say “yes” in which case, if Jesse is not confident in his ability to complete the assignment or if he hasn’t had enough time to process and actually learn the material, he will immediately go into the mode of how to get a grade – in which case will probably mean copying, and very little, if any, learning will take place.

But what if we answer in this way: “I’m not sure yet, Jesse. In this assignment, I want to hear you having conversations about this topic with your partner, and I want to see how you are thinking on your paper. That’s what I’m looking and listening for.”

We have still given Jesse a goal, and now we have promoted learning and processing of the content and not just a grade. If you are walking around the room and you’re really seeing that the majority of your students have had enough time to process and are showing their learning on the assignment, then perhaps that IS the right assignment to take a grade on. 

So, why did I start this blog with a paragraph on asking questions? Well, the reason we ask questions is to facilitate thinking. But if we are killing our students’ thinking with the way we facilitate the rest of the class, they are not going to be prepared or conditioned to let themselves think enough to answer a question. When they condition themselves to copy the “brightest” student because the end goal is a grade, they will also condition themselves to let that same “bright” student answer all the questions. There’s no reason to think if someone else is going to produce all the answers.

So how do we encourage thinking through student tasks and questions?

1) Set a goal for LEARNING, not completion or a grade, even if students are going to turn in an assignment.

2) Give wait time, or processing time, after asking questions or presenting new content.

3) Give specific thinking or discussion points as students are completing assignments.

Remember: what’s more important? That a student passes, or that a student learns? Are we setting a goal for learning? Or are we setting a goal for passing?

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