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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

"Q & A teaching" is a practice that I was sometimes guilty of, and one that I've frequently seen throw off a lesson in many other teachers' classrooms. This occurs during the direct instruction portion of the lesson -- the instruction turns into a Q & A session instead of the teacher giving a clear model or explanation.

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?

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 in the lesson. The problem for a lesson covering a new skill, though, is that the end result is disjointed instruction possibly including wrong information, since students were asked to contribute aloud before they were ready. This can lead to confusion for students, since the lesson 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 not accounted for in the timing of the lesson. Q&A teaching is often the culprit when you realize that your direct instruction took 30 minutes and you'd only planned for it to take ten.

Here are some ideas for how to avoid it.

1. Announce Your Intention

Openly tell the students that 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 make it conversation. 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.

2. Raise the Stakes

Prior to your direct instruction, give the students a little time to try figuring it out by themselves. This can be particularly effective in a math class or another problem-solving situation for which they have already learned some of the concepts or skills. 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.

3. Rehearse the Lesson

Script out and practice your direct instruction ahead of time. This can be time consuming, but it can really pay off for crucial concepts. When you script and practice what you're going to say, you give yourself the opportunity to really make sure that you’re putting that concept or skill into words -- and doing it succinctly.

4. Watch the Clock

Use a timer for direct instruction. If you've been talking for 15 minutes and you're still not done, 90 percent of the time you probably won't make things any clearer by talking for even longer. So just stop and let your students try the task with their groups or partners.

5. Watch Yourself Teach

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 when we actually see ourselves doing them. When you watch that video, you can identify whether 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.

Keeping your direct instruction clear, succinct and as short as possible is essential for ensuring that students are spending as much time as possible grappling with the concept and practicing new skills. What other strategies do you use to keep your instruction succinct and avoid Q & A teaching?

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