Attending to Precision


It may sound like a mathematical practice - because it is - but I will argue that attending to precision is a critical literacy practice, too.

Take, for example, an assessment you're going to give to your students. When you take that assessment yourself, consider not just the correct answer and how students will have to think to choose it. Also consider the most common wrong answer you'll get and how students need to think to NOT choose it. What you'll find almost every time is that students need to do things like read the entire question, read all of the answer choices, think carefully about precise word meanings, read every part of the word (even the ending), pay attention to all of the punctuation, make sure the answer is fully correct. In short, they have to attend to precision.

I'll also argue that it's easy to let precision slip. There is such a sense of urgency about the work in the classroom - there is so much to complete, and so many things that need our time and attention - that it's easy to go light on precision. But pressing for precision is one of those habits of mind that's like a rising tide - it'll lift a lot of ships.

One habit you can foster that will help students attend to precision is what Doug Lemov calls "Right is Right." As he writes, 

"Right is Right is about the difference between partially right and all-the-way right - between pretty good and 100 percent. The job of the teacher is to set a high standard for correctness: 100 percent."

It sounds simple, but here's what it can look like when we let this slide. 

Let's say that I'm teaching with the book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. I ask the kids how William used design thinking in his solution to providing access to water, and one student says, "He designed a windmill." It's not wrong, but it's not all the way right, either - it's only partially correct. And a couple of things can happen here. I might say, "Yes, that's right," and then move on to another question. Or I might do what Lemov calls "Rounding Up" and say, "Yes, he did design a windmill, and he did it by first identifying the problem, doing some research, and designing and trying out some prototypes before he arrived at a final solution." Basically, I have "rounded up" the student's answer and I have done the thinking and speaking that they should have done. 

There are a few ways in which students will give you not-100%-correct answers:
  • A partial answer: As above, they started a correct answer, but it's not fully developed.
  • Answer a different question: A student may do this when they don't know the answer or don't understand the question. If Katie's confused about William's design thinking, she might say, "His windmill was really important to the people in his village, and it showed how much he cared." It's not wrong, but it's not an answer to the question you asked.
  • A non-answer: A student might also give you an example rather than an answer. For example, Katie might say, "Design thinking is when you go through the steps of the design process to arrive at a solution." That's an example of design thinking, but not how William used it.
  • Right answer, wrong time: A student might get ahead of you and answer a question a few steps down the road. Katie might have said, "William's design solved a critical problem and had a profound impact on his village, showing his empathy and commitment to community." Great answer, but you don't want to take the class there yet.
  • Imprecise vocabulary: Katie might say, "William designed that thing that spins to get water to his house." What's the thing? Can you use better vocabulary than spins? Was the water going to his house or to his village as a whole?
When students do these things - and when I pay attention, I see them do them all the time - we need to get into the practice of holding out for all-the-way right. Here are a few ways you can do that:
  • Know the ideal student response you're looking for: As you study the EL lesson, don't just study the questions - study the exemplar student responses, too. It's hard to know what all-the-way-right looks like unless you've thought about it beforehand.
  • Rephrase your questions: For hard questions, the first student answer is rarely 100% correct. So, try rephrasing some questions with stems like, "Who can get us started in talking about how frogs' behaviors help them survive in different environments?" or "Katie, would you kick this off by sharing some of the ways Jack is feeling in this part of the book?"
  • Ask for an add on: Say, "Good start; thanks for that. What can you add on to your thinking to get us closer?" or "Good start; can you get us the rest of the way?" or "Can you develop that?"
  • Press for specific details: Say, "Thanks for that answer. What specifically about William's work on the windmill shows design thinking?"
  • Press for more specific language: Say, "Thanks for that answer. Can you use a more precise word than X?" Or ask them to replace a pronoun in their answer with the noun it's replacing. For example, "Katie, you said, 'It was spinning.' What is the 'it' you're referring to?"
  • Pitch it to the group: "Katie gave us a strong start here. Who can take us another step?"
And if you want to see it in action, here's a video.

As I'm finding with most things in literacy, this isn't flashy or new or particularly innovative. It's just an old idea done very, very well.

Here's to simply teaching well,

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