October 23, 2014 14:17 Age: 3 yrs

Split-Second Decision Making in the Classroom: Tips from an AF Principal

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Injy Carpenter is the principal of AF East New York Elementary School.

It’s been said that teachers make more decisions in a day than any other professional, seconded only by air traffic controllers.

I don’t know if that’s true, but I know teaching requires great split-second decision-making. Every teacher has asked a beautifully-crafted question only to be met with some form of the following:

A)   Blank stares

B)   An enthusiastic and completely wrong answer

C)  “Crickets” a.k.a. complete silence

When this happens, that urge to fill the void with “teacher talk” and the desire to swoop in and save the day bubbles up, but that’s where key decision-making comes into play.

Our music teacher encountered each of these responses during a recent second-grade class. Antonio Dangerfield played a beautiful song and posted three musical terms on the board. He asked students to “describe the music using the terms on the board” in a turn and talk exercise.

The first student answer was completely wrong. It was decision time and Antonio decided to use a prompt of “agree or disagree?” The next student disagrees, but was somewhat unclear.

Again, it’s decision time and another prompt, “Do you agree with the first student or the second?” When the students agree with the first student who was completely wrong, it’s decision time once again. Mr. Dangerfield was losing the students and it was time to scaffold the lesson. He played the song again and students clapped along to the beat. He prompted students to use the musical terms on the board, and received another imprecise answer. Antonio made the decision to give a quick “re-teach.”  An imprecise answer was followed by another prompt, after which a student finally arrived at the precise answer.  

During this class, Antonio made a dozen split-second decisions over the course of five minutes. When asking students questions, we are constantly trying to gauge their understanding and make quick decisions to give them the most independence possible to get to the right ideas. When thinking about your questions for students, remember to think about the potential directions that students might bring you in the conversation. Practice your prompts, your scaffolds and your re-teaches to get the discussion back on track without giving it all away. Use your co-teachers and your school leaders, even grab a couple of students and test your questions out on them to help you predict what kids will say. This preparation ahead of time will go a long way in making sure your students are doing the heavy cognitive lifting and you’re not giving away answers.


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