Differentiated Instruction

Teachers and Students: We’re Not That Different

April 25, 2016 Updated April 19, 2016

At a recent professional development opportunity, I was with a group of high school teachers being taught a mathematics lesson that we were expected to bring back to our staff to teach.

Since my background is literacy, the content of the mathematics lesson was lost on me.  I was thinking more about how I could help students read mathematics instead of actually doing the mathematics. 

When the lesson was over, one of the presenters asked us if we understood the content.  She asked us a couple of clarifying questions, asking for the proverbial ‘thumbs up,’ ‘thumbs down,’ or ‘thumbs sideways’ to determine what, if any, we understood.

Instead one of the participants raised her hand and said, “I felt disengaged.  I didn’t understand what you were teaching.  It didn’t make sense to me.”

The presenter nodded her head and told her not to feel “frustrated” and thanked her for her honesty.  The clock told us the lesson was over.

How often does this scenario happen to our own students?  We teach a lesson that we understand explicitly.  Then, to see if students “understand” it, we ask for a conformation of some kind . . . a physical gesture or a simple “uh huh” makes us believe that everybody “gets it.”  We also ask students if they “get it” and wait for the usual nod of the head. 

Imagine if we had a student in our class who actually had the courage to say, “I felt disengaged.  I didn’t understand what you were teaching.  It didn’t make sense to me.”  What would we do?  Would we cringe, thinking that our lesson was a failure and feel exasperated that we would probably have to teach parts of it, or all of it, again? 

Or would we feel a joy in knowing that, while the lesson might not have been deemed successful, at least one of our students actually articulated what many students were thinking?  Would we feel a silent pride in knowing that someone was acutely listening; essentially trying to process the lesson and wanted to share with us, with the entire class, that it didn’t make sense and something was missing?

While acknowledging the frustration of the participant in the workshop demonstrated empathy and being thanked for bravery is a good thing; the participant walked out of “class” without a skill; without a strategy; without a success. 

Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen to our students.  Don’t assume you will have the courageous risk-taker in your class who will be the class spokesperson and explain the missing parts of her, of their, learning.  Don’t assume that just asking for comprehension means high school students understand your lesson.  Perhaps, and here’s the sad truth, they’re telling you they understand it because they simply cannot sit through it again. 

Pause throughout the lesson to allow for discussion, implementation and reflection.  Do not assume a thumb gesture or a head nod guarantees understanding.  Can students demonstrate the content terminology in discussion?  Are students able to implement the lesson to an audience?  Finally, can students metacognitively reflect on their own comprehension through speaking or writing? 

As I walked out of our professional development that day, I went over to the woman who spoke up.  I thanked her and said, “I felt the same way you did.  Thank you for saying something.”  She responded, “We all need to say something if it doesn’t make sense, right?”


This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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