Breaking It Down

Resources, ideas and prompts for discussion related to Questioning.

What is it and how does it work?

Breaking It Down is about providing just enough help to allow a student to ‘recover’ from an error in a response to a question and to ‘solve’ as much of the original question as possible on their own.

The biggest challenge with this approach, compared to the majority of others in the section, is that it is highly reactive in nature so you have to ‘think on your feet’ for the most part and it cannot be as easily planned for. There have been some ideas covered already for what to do when a student adamantly digs their heals in and says “I don’t know” (on another page), but this is more about them being willing to contribute but you want to help them get to a better response than the one they provided. The aim is to provide the smallest viable hint.

Doug Lemov illustrates the technique with an example in ‘Teach Like A Champion 2.0’:

  • You are reading the novel, White Fang and ask the question “where is this story set?”.
  • A student responds with “In the North”. Not incorrect entirely, but not sufficient to be correct.

The desired answer is something akin to “In the northern part of Alaska, near the Arctic Circle”. To help the student bridge the gap you are aiming to provide the smallest viable hint. Imagine the following different teacher response scenarios then play out:

a) Rolling it back: “You said, ‘In the North’….[pause]…”

b) Narrowing/eliminating false choices: “You said, ‘In the North’. Where in the North? Are they speaking Russian?”

c) Give the first step: “Well they are on a journey in this story, OK? To take an ‘oblong box’ from one place to another. Where are they travelling from and to?”

d) Not Breaking It Down: “The setting is the norther part of Alaska”, “Can someone else tell us?”

If you treat a) to d) as a continuum here, then a) is providing the most rigour in this classroom and prompting the student to fill in the gap his or herself. It is about the tone and pause that helps here as you have acknowledged the answer but it makes the student realise there is something not quite right or missing. b) is not bad in engaging thought, while c) is lowering the challenge a little further, though (b) or (c) may be necessary to avoid slowing the pace of any discussion down. d) on the other hand isn’t helpful in this case at all.

When rigour collapses

When you ask a challenging question that a student simply cannot answer, and you then start to Break it Down progressively, the initial big, challenging question can become a small and quite shallow one. Is there a way of avoiding this too often so that our well thought out and probing questions don’t get stripped down to over simplistic trivia? If at times this does happen, you can then elevate the challenge again by asking the class or student to connect that simpler answer back to the broader question, or ask how that simple answer fits in with the topic being studied, or how it links to something else. Essentially you have walked them off the mountain but once they have reached base camp, try to send them back toward the summit with that information!

Send them back to the summit after giving them support to maintain the rigour

Associated further reading and references:

  • Lemov, D., 2015. Teach Like A Champion 2.0. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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