Thursday, November 30, 2023

7 Things We Say Instead Of "What Were You Thinking?" #EdChat

One of the things I find myself asking middle school students is "What were you thinking?" That phrase seems innocuous, but it really about the context and the tone. For example, a student is designing a project for class and added and interesting aspect to the design. I sit next to them and ask "What were you thinking when you designed this?" and the student explains their thought process. The other end of the spectrum is a student who blurts out an off topic question and I respond, "What were you thinking?" and they stare blankly back without an explanation. In one instance, I am asking for more information on a thoughtful piece of student work and the other is an exasperated response to a student behavior. I have been teaching for over 20 years and I still expect the 2nd student to provide an answer even though I know they do not have one. Asking that question in that situation is a bad habit I have improved on, but will still continue to work on until it is eliminated from my frustrated teacher vocabulary. 

Instead of asking that question, in any situation because of how students might have interacted with it in the past, there are some other ones that I use in place that allow for more conversation with the student. 

1. "Can you tell me more about your decision?"
This open-ended question invites explanation without judgment. It allows students to articulate their thought process, offering insights into their reasoning. For neurodiverse students, who might process information or approach problems differently, this question acknowledges and respects their unique perspectives. This question works on a few levels. The behavior levels allows the teacher to engage the student in an non threatening way. Asking them to think about what they did and why they did it. Putting their decision in context of the classroom can help them see why their actions might not work for that moment. On the classwork level, it asks students to explain how they got to their choice and that can help them understand and explain their own thought process.

2. "How did you arrive at this conclusion?"
Focusing on the process rather than the outcome encourages students to reflect on their methods. It promotes critical thinking and self-analysis, which are crucial skills in both academic and personal growth. Reviewing the steps of a solution can help students catch any errors along the way and, ultimately, have a better understanding of how they worked out the problem.

3. "What were your goals in this situation?"
Understanding a student's objectives can provide clarity on their actions. This question also implicitly supports the idea that making mistakes while pursuing a goal is a natural and valuable part of learning. I have found this to be very helpful with students who can sometimes get lost in the process of finding a solution. Refocusing on the goal can sometimes help move a student forward that has been stuck.

4. "Is there another way you might approach this problem?"
Encouraging students to consider alternative methods fosters creativity and adaptability. Sometimes I have to let students approach a problem in a way that I know will lead to failure because they need to experience that failure to fully learn why it didn't work. Asking them this question helps point them in another direction without feeling bad about their first idea.

5. "How can I support you in this learning process?"
This question shifts the focus from what the student did wrong to how they can be assisted in their learning journey. It is important to remind students that teachers can be the ultimate learning resource and that we are learning partners in class. It emphasizes the teacher's role as a guide and ally, rather than a critic.

6. "What have you learned from this experience?"
Emphasizing learning over failure, this question helps students recognize the value in making mistakes. It's a powerful way to build resilience and a growth mindset. The act of reflecting on tasks is so important when we are emphasizing growth over time. Making this a normal part of the conversation is important if we want to normalize reflection for students.

7. "What resources or strategies might help you next time?"
This approach encourages students to think constructively about future challenges. It's particularly beneficial for neurodiverse students who might need different resources or strategies to succeed. This can be tougher for younger students because they don't know what they don't know. If they are not sure how to answer this question, this is a good chance to showcase some of those resources and/or strategies so they are better prepared to use them when needed.

Not all of these work in every situation, but they can be helpful for a teacher that really wants the student to stop and think about their choices in a way that doesn't bring them shame when they do not have an answer to "What were you thinking?"

Do you have phrases you use to help students that would be better? Share them in the comments and/or social media.

Hugs and High Fives,

The Nerdy Teacher

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