Challenging or Pushing? Finding the Right Balance

IMG_1963How much challenge is part of a healthy, “balanced diet” for learning?

Children are capable of wonderful things; we should never underestimate what they can achieve. Moreover, children need academic challenges in elementary school to prepare them for the future, and they need to develop dispositions, such as perseverance and resilience that lead to success in school and in life.

Yet, when parents encourage their elementary and middle-school children to take on academic challenges such as enrichment and accelerated classes, a question that can sometimes arise is: “Am I pushing my child too much in school?”

The answer is an individual one. The following questions may help parents when considering whether they are “pushing too hard” about school work:

  • Is my child healthy — physically/emotionally (sleep, diet, exercise, happy, energy level)?
  • Is my child excited and enthusiastic about schoolwork and learning?
  • Does my child have time to pursue interests and friendships that are positive?
  • Is the “homework load” generally manageable for my child (not a “flashpoint” for arguments or a consistent cause of stress)?

If the answers to any of the above questions are “no,” (in addition to addressing any health concerns with your child’s doctor), it may be time to ask your child’s teacher about possible options to support your child in school and/or to re-evaluate his or her academic placement.

Achieving the “perfect” balance of challenge and fun every day during the school year is an elusive goal.  Yet, parents can do a great deal to help their children keep healthy attitudes about academic challenge. Here are a few ideas:

  • Celebrate/validate incremental success and all kinds of achievement.
  • Talk to your child; keep tabs on his or her feelings.
  • Be self aware when modeling learning/responsibility/failure.
  • Think in terms of making choices that support your child’s individual personal and academic needs rather than “pushing.”
  • Play your “own game.” Do what’s right for your child – not someone else’s!
  • Reevaluate extracurricular commitments and priorities. What are your child’s interests? Does your child have sufficient time to pursue these interests?

As we fill our children’s lives with delicious, meaningful challenges, we need to continue to nourish our children by showing that we love them for who they are—not what they achieve.

“Question Me An Answer”

Question me an answer bright and clear.
I will answer with a question clear and bright.
Even though your answer may be wrong 
my question will be right…

The Right Question

From Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s song, “Answer Me a Question” performed by Bobby Van in the 1973 movie, “Lost Horizons.”

Teachers fuel meaningful, deep, classroom discussions with questions that deepen student knowledge and encourage critical thinking.

Although asking questions may sound simple, teaching resources for questioning abound. We have Webb’s “Depth of Knowledge” that designates four levels of activities of increasing cognitive complexity.We have the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy with six levels of knowledge including Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating and Creating.

In fact, for teachers who wish to help students develop questions at a “higher” level there is a dizzying array of Bloom’s Taxonomy “question stems” out there for students to write questions from a template of “high level” starters such as “”What would happen if…”, “How would you improve…” “Would it be better if….”, and “What evidence can you find?”

As a teacher of high ability students whose mission is to encourage critical thinking and deep exploration, I have piles of print-outs filled with question stems. Yet, I seldomly reach for them.

Questions are personal creations; they grow from the raw, grasping desire to know. Answers are out there—but questions come from inside of us—from the heart. For me, reaching for “question stems” for students feels like I’m reaching for a defibrillator.

 So yesterday when we discussed Laurence Yep’s memoir, The Lost Garden, in our Sixth Grade classroom, this is what we did:

  • The students took a few minutes to think of the most interesting questions that they could ask about the memoir.
  • In small groups, they generated four questions that they felt would make an interesting class discussion about the book.
  • After reflecting on these questions as a group, they wrote a brief reflection explaining why these questions were likely to spark an interesting conversation.
  • After the students wrote their questions and discussed their answers, I compiled the questions to create a list.

Today, I introduced a table that provided the four levels of Webb’s “Depth of Knowledge” (Level I: Recall and Reproduction, Level II: Basic Application of Skills and Concepts, Level III: Strategic Thinking, and Level IV: Extended Thinking).  We talked about kinds of questions that would fall into each group. Then, I showed the students a chart that sorted their questions about The Lost Garden according to the Depth of Knowledge level each question reflected.

The students immediately recognized that their most interesting discussion questions fell under higher depth of knowledge levels.   However, they found that none of their questions reached the highest level, “Extended Thinking.” So, we discussed how we could ask even more thought-provoking questions about society and culture that related to the novel.  To find answers, we recognized that we would need to extend our thinking  by exploring a broad variety of sources and authors.

As the class ended, the students were soon revising and enriching their queries to probe for deeper meaning in the text. They were searching for better, more intriguing questions!

I’m not sure what answers my students will discover.  However, I hope that if one day these students reach for my pile of “question stem defibrillators,” it will be when they recognize the warm, lively heartbeat of discussion – authentic, high level questioning.

…And their questions will be right.

Find more information on Webb’s Depth of Knowledge levels at NYC Department of Education Website
Find more information on Bloom’s Taxonomy at Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching Website