How to Know When a Math Lesson Fails – And What to Do About It

This post is inspired by an assignment for my Alternative Teacher Certification class with Texas ESC Region 4.

How can you tell a lesson isn't working? When do you know and what can you do to fix it?I’ve messed up my share of lessons in my career. And the one thing I’ve learned is that the students will always tell you when a lesson isn’t working.

They won’t use words, however. Not immediately.

Instead, they’ll show you with body language and facial expressions. But you have to “listen” for it.

The furrowed brow. The glazed and fearful look. The slow confused shaking of the head. All these are clear signifiers that something’s amiss.

Asking Out Loud

I used to ask, “Does anyone have any questions?” I would take silence as an implication of understanding.

Now I follow silence with, “Are there no questions because you totally get it, or because you’re so lost you don’t know what to ask?”

When I give students this permission to say the lesson isn’t working, they usually will.

Determining the Cause

To determine the cause of a failed lesson, you need:

  1. A safe learning environment.
  2. An open mind (like really REALLY open).
  3. A novel spirit so you can try something new.

If you’ve created a culture of trust, respect and safety in your classroom, you can get students to open up. They will tell you, or at least try to tell you, what they’re thinking. This is your first clue into the confusing or failed lesson.

As soon as the students give you information, take it. Ponder it. Ask more questions for clarification.

Avoid defending the lesson. (Even if it’s your favorite lesson ever. Don’t defend it.)

Validate their perceptions and get them to open up more. Let yourself delve into their thinking. Learn from what they’re saying.

And when you understand, or think you have an inkling of what went wrong, try something else. Experiment. Show or say something and then ask the students if it helps.

If so, keep going. If not, rinse and repeat the above steps.

Be Elsa

Yes – let it go. That’s the key to teaching. My favorite English teacher would say, “Don’t fall in love with your first draft.”

And in teaching, it’s “Don’t fall in love with your lesson.”

Because it will always find a class where it doesn’t work.

Your job is to be flexible, open and ready to shift.

Are you ready?

Share your thoughts in the comments. And share on Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook too!


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