As part of my 2022 Online Event, I’ve been transforming old questions into something I would use today, I found myself repeating several techniques. So, here’s an overview of those ten ideas.
1. Don’t aim for average. If I aim for average, I set a ceiling that limits half of my class. Then, half of my class will finish and wonder, “What do I do next?” This question means that I underestimated my students’ abilities. So aim high. No higher! Assume that you have at least one student who can do college-level thinking. Now, not everyone will get there. But I guarantee you that no one will get there if you aim for average. Once you have a high-level expectation, you can scaffold down as necessary and make it approachable for other students.
2. Build sequences. Since I left the classroom, my biggest realization is to never ask one question or give a single task. Now, I always write a sequence that sweeps through Bloom’s taxonomy. A great lesson won’t target one level of Bloom’s. Instead, it will use each level to set up the next level, climbing up throughout the lesson. And, yes, not everyone will get to every question or complete every task, but that’s differentiation!
3. Checkpoints. Wait. How do you handle all of these tasks and questions? In my class, I’d give just one task at a time. Then students would bring me what they came up with. I’d either check it off and give them the next task, or I’d say, “Hmm, I think you could do better,” and hand it back. This way, I’m ensuring quality all the way up, I’m taking care of grading as I go (very few things need an actual grade), and I’m interacting with all of my students.
4. Start simple. If you use Byrdseed.TV, you’ve noticed that the first step is often super short and asks for a tiny bit of work. Ask for too much too early, and students will shut down. But make it surprisingly easy to get started, and you build momentum. You’ll get higher up when you have a running start. You’re also laying a foundation for that higher-order thinking.
5. Get to analyze. When I’m trying to figure out how to aim higher, I make sure that I always hit the Analyze level of Bloom’s. I think this level is vital. As a new teacher, I’d either stop my questioning below this level or I’d jump right over it – and lose my students. Once my students are Analyzing, this naturally unlocks the Evaluate level of thinking. And that makes it much easier for students to Synthesize and develop a new idea.
6. Sharpening questions. Ask a more specific question, and you’ll get more interesting answers. Don’t ask, “Which option is best?” Sharpen it with criteria. Try, “Which option is most surprising?” or “least efficient, but most interesting,” or “Which option would Abe Lincoln choose?”
7. Maximum requirements. As a teacher, I’d always set minimum requirements. But that leads to students trying to just barely hit the minimum. Outside of school, we’re typically bound by a maximum. I only have 40 minutes to teach. This newspaper only wants a 200-word blurb. The publisher will only print 300 pages. Maximum requirements force us to focus on doing good work within a constraint. And, when you set a surprisingly low maximum requirement, students might just ask this amazing question: Could I write more?
8. Think deeply about products, not just content. When your students produce something like an essay, a story, or a skit, be sure to apply a high level of Bloom’s to those products. Ask them to compare and contrast each other’s work and evaluate the pros and cons. You can bring in criteria like, “Which one’s the most unusual?” or “Which one’s the most convincing?” or “Which story would Voldemort like most?” You’ll get your students thinking critically about their product, just like we do when we discuss movies, TV shows, books, or games.
9. Test drive questions. I was amazed by how unclear some of my questions were. But it’s because I never tried answering them myself! A question can look fine but contain all sorts of hidden problems you won’t notice until students come up to you and ask for clarification. Be like a chef who tastes their food before sending it out to customers. Bonus points if you have another adult look over your questions.
10. Expect explanations. Too often, I found myself begging students to explain their thinking. Nowadays, this would be a basic expectation in my classroom. We always explain our thinking. I don’t need to ask students to do that, just like I don’t need to ask them to write in complete sentences or capitalize proper nouns. It’s expected. And if they aren’t explaining their thinking, I just give it right back to them!