April 7, 2021

Exploring the Puzzles of Teaching

Teaching is a set of puzzles. An obvious one, for example, is the hook puzzle: How do you get students to want to learn the stuff you’re teaching? A less obvious puzzle is what I call the deal puzzle. Dan Hudder and I just published an article about this one (see the October 2014 Kappan issue on classroom management). It’s about showing kids that you’re sure you can deliver something of value in exchange for good behavior. Both of these puzzles require that teachers draw on individual resources – their own knowledge of “the stuff” for the first puzzle, and their capacity to project confidence for the second.

But there is another even less obvious puzzle – one that I think requires some collegial resources to manage. I call it the black box puzzle. This is a puzzle about what kids know. This is less obvious because so many people believe there is no puzzle when it comes to knowing what kids know. What they know shows up on the tests they take, doesn’t it? Or in the homework they did or didn’t do last night. And isn’t it codified in their grades and their standardized test scores? Most parents, for example, think there’s no puzzle. And virtually all policy makers agree. Sadly, many kids come to think that their intellects are defined by performance metrics: “I’m a level 4, but he’s a level 2.”

Of course, quite apart from giving grades and interpreting test scores, teachers must pretend that they know more about what their kids know than they actually do. This is because they have to make judgments continually based on what comes out of the black box  – judgments about what to try next. Yet the best teachers accept that there is a puzzle here – that these judgments are based on mere inference, often on the slightest evidence – for example, silence in response to a question, an answer that is different than the one the teacher expects, a sub-score on an exam.

Luckily, there are some teachers who don’t spend all their questions trawling for right answers. They explore wrong answers, too: “That’s not what I was thinking, Jorge, but tell us more about why you think differently.” They accept their responsibility to uncover and displace misunderstanding, and to build on novel understanding. They accept the puzzle of not knowing, of needing to puzzle. Still, even they occasionally need help. The black box puzzle is tough to live with day after day, and there really is no solving it. There is only learning to live with it – respectfully, but also hopefully.

I think that the best tools for learning to live respectfully with the puzzle of not knowing what your students know, and at the same time to boost your sometimes flagging hope in the efficacy of your teaching, is collegial inquiry. Getting together with your peers to ask by various means, “What do we think our students actually know?” And there are tools that can help:

However, no tool alone can open up the black box. Only persistent, patient inquiry among colleagues can do this. Provided, that is, that the colleagues are determined to admit what is hard to admit: that what their students actually know is at once exceedingly hard to determine and also crucial to understand.

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