How Many Times Do I Have To Tell You?

By Peggy Wuenstel — How many times do I have to tell you? This is a question usually spoken with exasperation and impatience. Somehow it always reminds me of Bill Cosby, an accomplished entertainer who also has an earned Doctorate in Education. His musings on the relationships between children and adults always rang true. Another comic, from a slightly earlier era, Sid Caesar, explained that all comedy must have a seed of truth to be effective. The same is true for teaching. That pursuit of learning, the quest for what is true and universal, is both what we do and what we seek. But the process is often complicated and the route unclear.

Perhaps more important than asking “How many times do I have to tell you?” is asking “How many ways to I have to ask you?” One of our most pressing and consuming tasks is the need to differentiate our instruction to meet the needs of diverse learners.  We consider ability, interests, motivation, learning style and background knowledge. We offer multi-modal presentations, alternative means of assessment, and a range of ways to demonstrate mastery.

It is not enough for today’s teacher to present material in the ways we personally learn best, or in the way that we were taught. We have to find multiple ways to both ask and answer the questions that our students bring to the classroom.

What makes our American Education system unique is its fundamental belief that all learners are capable of mastery, if we are effective in the way we teach. University of San Diego professor Anne Donnellan (1984) reminded us that “in the absence of conclusive data, educational decisions ought to be based on assumptions which, if incorrect, will have the least dangerous effect on the likelihood that students will be able to function independently as adults.” This is the educational equivalent of the physician’s oath, “First, Do No Harm”.

Dr. Donnellan goes on to hold us accountable as educators by saying “we should assume that poor performance is due to instructional inadequacy rather than to student deficits.” The need to change how we teach is a much less dangerous assumption than not teaching material that a student is capable of learning with alternative approaches. Differentiation needs to happen in process and product as well as content, which is more typically the way that it is been approached in the past. Where we teach, how we teach, how quickly we teach, and in what way we teach should have a much more wide-ranging scope than what we choose to teach or choose to leave behind.

There has been a lot of attention paid to the role of questioning in the learning process. When students can formulate good questions about the material they are learning they are more likely to understand and retain it. Our brains can often tune out statements, but the rising intonation and obligatory nature of questioning invites and compels us to answer, even if it is at an unconscious level. An instructor’s commands and directions often meet with resistance or apathy, while our invitations and requests for self-examination of both motives and methods lead to engagement and success. Teacher education programs are built upon the idea of reflective practice.

What did I want to accomplish?
How well did I meet those objectives?
What can I change next time to improve outcomes?

The focus shifts from what I did wrong, to what I can do better next time. The most important question is not what do I know? but, how do I know it? Even Oprah closes each issue of her monthly magazine with the things that she knows to be true.  This metacognitive looping, or thinking about our thinking is key to our success as teachers and our students’ progress as learners.

Happily, technology makes this task significantly easier. It provides us with both tools and toys that engage learners. It provides us with options for visual, experiential, and participatory learning that are unprecedented. It gives us a myriad of ways to both ask and answer questions at speeds that can become dizzying. One of my favorite aspects of technology is how it keeps track of the data associated with student practice and skill advancement. In contrast, one of the most troubling aspects of the reliance or overreliance on technology is that it usually does not tell us what that data means, despite those that would like us to believe that it does. We are becoming a world in which we teach kids how to measure, but not often enough what to measure. We use technology to produce impressive products, to search for multiple sources, to polish our spelling, grammar and words choice. We must always pair that with instruction that does what technology does not, plants the original seeds, inspires the search, waters the desert areas of the educational landscape, and keeps asking the key questions.

What did you learn in school today?

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