Instructional Pitfall #1: Q & A teaching

This is the first in a series of blog posts on ‘Instructional Pitfalls,’ common practices in the classroom that can stand in the way of our students getting the most out of our lessons.

‘Q & A teaching’ is a practice I was sometimes guilty of and that I’ve often see throw off a lesson in many other teachers’ classroom.  This occurs during the direct instruction portion of the lesson (‘I do’ / INM –pick your acronym) and the instruction turns into a Q&A session instead of the teacher giving a clear model or explanation.  Here's an example:

Teacher: I’m now going to model how to solve this type of problem.  First I set up my equation.  Now, who thinks they have an idea of what I should do next.
(30 seconds waiting for hands)
Student 1: Solve for x?
Teacher:  Well, before that.  You’re on the right track, but what would I do first?
(more waiting for hands)
Student 2: Get the x by itself?
Teacher:  No, not quite.  What I’m going to do first is…

…and then the lesson goes on in that confusing, start-stop fashion. 

It’s easy to understand why we do this – we want students to be involved and stay engaged with the lesson.  The problem, though, for a lesson that it covering a new skill, is that the end result is a disjointed model of the skill that can include wrong information solicited from students who weren't prepared for how to answer.  This can result in students not understanding since it wasn’t presented clearly and succinctly.  Another possible risk is that it can throw off the pacing of the lesson since this ‘Q & A’ is usually impromptu and so not accounted for in the timing of the lesson.  ‘Q&A teaching’ is often the culprit when you realize your direct instruction took 30 minutes and you’d only planned for it to take 10. 

Here are some ideas for how to avoid it:
 

  • Openly tell the students you’re doing a model and that you’ll check for their understanding at the end.  Announcing that can often be enough of a reminder to yourself not to talk.  If you’re comfortable, you could assign a student to make sure you don’t interrupt your model by asking them questions.  My students loved it when they got to be in charge of me for something.

 

  • Prior to your teacher model of the skill, give the students a little time to try to figure it out themselves.  This can be particularly effective in a math class or for some sort of problem-solving situation for which they have learned some of the concepts or skills already.  In this scenario, the kids are engaged in trying to problem-solve on their own and then when you’re modeling, they’re anxious to see whether they got it right or what your solution is and so are likely to stay engaged as they follow along.

 

  • Script out & practice your model ahead of time.  This can be time-consuming, but can really pay for important lessons.  When you script & practice what you’re going to say, you’re able to make it more succinct and really make sure you know how you’re going to put a concept or skill into words.

 

  • Use a timer for direct instruction.  If you’ve been talking for 15 minutes and you’re still not done, 90% of the time talking longer probably won’t make things any clearer.  So just go ahead and stop and let them try the task in their groups or partners.

 

  • Video your direct instruction and then watch it.  This can be terrifying for some, but it’s incredibly helpful.  We often make assumptions about our teaching and only realize some of our tendencies until we actually see it.  When you watch it, you can identify if ‘Q & A teaching’ is a problem for you and what kinds of distracting questions you’re asking kids.  Once you know that, you can plan for how to avoid it.

Stay tuned for more strategies on common instructional pitfalls!
 

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