Wednesday, December 3, 2014

When Not To Revise (Post 6 of 10)

Elixir or Water?

"Come, gather 'round! Everybody could use a drop of Gray's Fantastick Elixir! Drains the spleen, straightens your spine, furnishes beards and even improves digestion."

"Sir? Will your potion cure me of my ills?"

"Surely, son. The Fantastick Elixir is for all occasions. The more the better, the sooner the better!"


Nothing we do -- provided we do it with purpose and intent -- is always helpful. Medicine that heals everything really heals nothing. It's an elixir, a phony, or else it's a universal necessity of life, like water or air.

(Not that there's anything wrong with water, or air. But nobody needs to tell you to breathe.)

So too with learning. If some action always helps a student learn, in any situation, then it can hardly be said to help learning at all. It's a phony. Or it's something so basic to teaching or learning that it barely helps to mention it at all, like "listening." 

I'm not sure that I can tell you when "giving effective feedback" does and does not help learning. I'm sure that it's because giving feedback always works, which means that it's a basic staple of teaching and learning. It's up there on the shelf with "listening well" and "explaining appropriately." 

(Make sure you're drinking! Make sure you're giving feedback! Not everything that's crucial is important.)

On the other hand, I believe that I can say with some specificity when it does and doesn't help students to ask them to revise an assignment. If I can make this case -- and in this post I'll try -- then this should count in favor of "revising" as a concept that is important for teachers. Not because it's fundamental, but because it's not.

The Short, Simplified Answer

Stop here if you'd like. All that follows is evidence and argument.

Would Revision Help Here?

Rachel has been struggling with addition. She's a 4th Grader who -- until a week or two ago -- regularly got things like 6+4 wrong. The rest of the class is far more comfortable with addition/subtraction than she is, and one of the toughest challenges I face is making sure Rachel gets explicit practice with addition while still pushing the rest of my students.

(A recent compromise was to rejigger my units so that we began a unit on addition with larger numbers before diving back into multiplication. I reasoned that Rachel would have a better shot of hitting her trouble spots if I could focus on addition with the whole-class than if we flew on to a unit where addition wasn't at the forefront.)

When it came to adding two- or three-digit numbers, I noticed a few interesting facets of Rachel's work:
  • When given a choice, she always prefers the standard algorithm
  • When Rachel used the standard algorithm, she nearly always messed it up
  • When Rachel was asked to use another strategy -- like breaking numbers apart by place value -- her work was very accurate 

One day, while watching Rachel work, I noticed a mistake with her standard algorithm addition. No shock. So I asked her to use a different strategy, and there she goes, accurately breaking the numbers apart by place and adding. Huzzah. There's a discrepancy between her answers. I ask her which result she believes more. She points to her second, correct sum. Yay.

Rachel: "Yeah, but I really like stacking it."

(Teaching in a nutshell, right?)
So, what do I do? How can I help Rachel improve her adding?

A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Revision

Here's an option: I could pick a problem from Rachel's work, one she used the standard algorithm on. I could give her feedback -- written, oral, whatever makes sense. I can explain where she went wrong. Then, I could ask her to revise it, correct it and improve it.

Would that have been the right call?

I don't think so. Much better, I think, to give Rachel feedback and then a new problem to work on.

Why? There are risks -- in the scheme of things, relatively minor risks -- associated with asking Rachel to continue to work on a problem that she already completed.
  • Engagement Risk - If I ask Rachel to continue working on a question that she already answered -- even one she answered incorrectly -- I run the risk of boring her. After all, she's already seen it before, and it's new things that tend to excite our students. And maybe she won't give the feedback credence at first because she thinks that she already got it right...
  • Social Risk - ...or she'll see that it's wrong and resist engaging because she doesn't really want to feel dumb. Kids like improving, but there's always a risk that feedback will go wrong, or that the personal attention of a one-on-one meeting will be embarrassing.
  • Learning Risk - Another way that this whole thing could go wrong is if Rachel makes the (relatively simple) local correction without actually improving her addition skills. There's not exactly a whole lot to correct or revise in a single addition problem. She's going to need a few examples to improve.
In many situations, these risks are worth taking. Why? Because it would be incredibly costly to assign a new problem to students. We don't want students to spend class time making sense of an entirely new context just so they can tweak one small (but crucial!) detail. And making new problems that target specific areas is time-consuming for teachers. And maybe something about the new task will be more complex than intended, and the conversation won't focus on the area of need.

When revision works, it works because we can get to the point. Yes, we know the context. We understand what the problem's asking, and we even know a lot about how to find the answer. There's just this one area we can improve. This one thing. Let's make this better, I'll help you.

But addition problems? Shoot, I can make 'em up on the spot, and Rachel won't need help understanding what I'm asking her to do. There's little to gain from asking Rachel to revise these sorts of problems.

Revision Is A Sometimes Thing

So revision -- even done well -- isn't an always thing. It's not a staple. It's not a panacea or an elixir either. (And that has got to be at least part of the reason why we don't talk very much about it.) 

Revision is a thing that sometimes helps. We constantly have to weigh the benefit (skipping to the point) with the risks (engagement, social, and learning). It won't always help, and that's a very good thing indeed.

Appendix: What I Ended Up Doing For Rachel

I wrote up this task. I told the class that there was a kid named Joe and that Joe's method for adding was to just add the digits in each place together and then write them down one after the other. (Rachel: "I use Joe's Method a lot.")

You shouldn't take my word for it, but it went well and her work has improved.

This is the sixth post in a series on feedback. To read the rest of the posts click here.

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