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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How to Check for Deeper Understanding and Engage All Students

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Consider the following two scenarios, though fictitious. Two different teachers teaching the same learning objectives using checking for deeper understanding as their main method and strategy.

Classroom X: Understanding Gone Wrong

"What do plants eat?"

Some students raise their hands, most just look at their teacher. The teacher then asks one of the boys frantically waving his hand in the front of the room. "Charles, you look like you know the answer."

"They eat dirt!"

"Well, that is not precisely the right answer. Does anyone else have another idea of what plants eat?"

"Plants eat people!" one boy answers," I saw it in a movie!"

After getting the class to stop laughing, teacher X persists. "Yes there are carnivorous plants, but none large enough to eat people."

"But if people are buried, and plants grow on top of them, don't they eat people then?" one student conjectures. Now the teacher is sorry that he compared animals eating to plants eating!

"Yes, you have a point there. But who can tell me how plants get their energy?"

"No one else? What about you Joe, what do you think?"

" I don't know, sir."

"How about you Sally? Where do plants get their food?"

"Oh, I get it! They get it from fertilizer! That is why we have plant food!"

"Well, yes we do buy fertilizer for plants and some times we call that 'plant food.'" X tries another tact, "But do any of you have plants inside your house?"

A few hands are raised tentatively.

"Ok, what happens to the plants when you leave on vacation?

"They dry up and wilt. That's it isn't it! They get their food from the water!"

"No, the water is not their food. All right, let me just tell you. Plants get their food from the sun," the teacher tells the students resignedly.

Now some of the students looking strangely at their teacher. A hand goes up, "What does the sun have to do with feeding plants?

"Because plants are green, plants can use a process called photosynthesis to convert energy from the sun's light to sugar! Do you want to know how that works?"

"Plants eat light?"

"Oh let's move on. Here is the worksheet."

Classroom Y: A Better Questioning Model

"What do plants eat?"

Some students raise their hands, most just look at their teacher. Teacher Y asks one of the boys frantically waving his hand in the front of the room. "Charles, you look like you know the answer."

"They eat dirt!"

"Well, that is not precisely the right answer. But how could we find out what plants eat if they eat at all?"

"We could perform an experiment," a girl conjectures.

"Great idea! Let's all go outside to do an experiment, but first I have to prepare you for the experiment. You are all going to pretend to be plants. Your faces will be the leaves of your plant. No, we will not paint your faces green, but you have to imagine that they are full of chloroplasts -- the organelles within plant cells that make the leaves look green. Next you will need to bring your field notebook and a pencil. Ready? Ok, let's go to the field."

Teacher Y gives instructions, "Everyone sit on the grass please. Ok, close your eyes. Your faces are the leaves of the plants. What do you all feel on your face? Just say it out loud, all at once."

"The wind," say some, others say, "Coldness."

"Yes, there is a slight wind. What else do you feel?"

The students do not respond for a moment.

"OK, here comes the experiment. Raise your field notebooks above your head to shade your face. Now what do you feel?"

All the students respond in general, "It feels cooler."

"Everyone tell your neighbor why you think it feels cooler?"

The general consensus with the students was the notebook blocked the sun.

Teacher Y notes that he needs to correct some thinking, "The notebook would burn up if it blocked the sun. Everyone, what was it really that notebook blocks?"

"Ahhhh! Light from the sun."

"Now lower the notebooks. Ask your partners, 'Now, what do all of you feel?"

In general the students agree, "I feel heat from the sun."

"Describe to your partner what heat is."

Teacher Y then asks the students to make a judgment, "If you think that heat is a form of energy, raise your notebooks in the air."

All notebooks rise.

"If you think dirt is a form of energy, raise your notebooks in the air."

No notebooks are lifted.

"Class, how do animals get their energy to survive?"

In chorus, the students respond, "They eat living things."

"Wonderful! You remember the food cycle. If eating is the way animals get their energy, how do plants get their energy?

"The sun."

Teacher Y feels he needs to get the students to be precise, "Remember, the sun would burn them up. How do plants get their energy from the sun?"

"They soak up light from the sun."

"Back to my first question. Class, what do plants eat?"

All the students respond, "They eat light from the sun."

"Do plants eat?"

"No, they soak up light from the sun!"

"What do plants eat?"

"They don't eat. They soak up light from the sun."

"That is correct. Take a minute to write down in your field notebook how we learned that plants get energy from the sun's light. When we go inside again, we will learn how the green chloroplasts in plant leaves turn the sun's light energy into food using adenosine triphosphate, or ATP."

Conclusion

Both teachers asked good questions. One teacher made them effective using a strategy that aligned them with getting the student's attention, engaged more than one student at a time, and was scientifically sound. Teacher X's failure was class discussion, one student at a time. Teacher Y's success was engaging all students. How do you engage all of your students by checking for deeper understanding?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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