Unpacking One Instructional Activities–

Facilitating a classroom discussion around a conceptual question that targets a specific learning goal (e.g., interpreting kinematics graphs) and addresses specific student difficulties (e.g., distinguishing position and velocity)

 Teacher Skills/Practices Hoping to Foster and Embed:


  • Articulating how a question relates to specific learning goal
  • Articulating how a question relates to specific student difficulties with a topic
  • Anticipating student thinking–what they will say in response to question to support different answers, both correct and incorrect.


  • Question posing (poise, clarity, pacing, and checking for understanding)
  • Setting tone and expectations for how students should engage in the task–talking to each other, listening to each other, voting, etc.
  • Monitoring and fostering engagement (as students talk in pairs and during whole-class discussion)
  • Circulating and attending to student ideas


  • Eliciting student ideas and explanations in whole-class discussion
  • Re-voicing or representing student ideas
  • Positioning students as competent learners and authors of ideas
  • Orienting students to peer ideas (to agree, disagree, compare)–reflective tosses
  • Deciding if and when to have students re-vote, talk again with neighbors, etc.


  • Summarizing arguments heard and positions taken
  • Explaining correct answer by relating students’ ideas /arguments to canonical concepts
  • Explaining away incorrect answers by explicitly addressing alternative conceptions.
  • Checking for understanding of learning goal (e.g., a follow up question), or fostering consolidation (asking students to summarize, generalize, etc.)


  • What students’ ideas came up that were and were not anticipated? What did you learn about student thinking about the learning target /question/ concept?
  • What opportunities to elicit, probe, or re-voice students ideas were taken up? Were there any that were missed? How might you have done things differently?
  • In what ways were student arguments leveraged in explaining the physics concepts? How might you have used those ideas differently?
  • What challenges if any were faced in getting participation and engagement? What actions were taken? How successful were they? What other choices could have been made?


In practicing and rehearsing, I’m imagining building in organized “trouble” that teachers will may have to “repair”. Things that I can think of that actually happen in class, include

* No students spontaneously volunteering to share their answer or ideas

* When students are asked to talk with neighbors, a significant fraction of the class remains quiet with blank stares.

* When students are told to talk to their neighbors, they immediately share answers with each other (e.g, “I picked B”, “Oh yeah, me too”), but they don’t go on to explain their reasoning to each other.

* A student starts to explain their reasoning to the class, but stops midway, and dismissively says, “I don’t know.”

* Student gives reasoning that is very brief or too vague to understand.

* Student gives an answer, but does not share their reasoning spontaneously.

* Student says his reasoning and answer really quietly so no one else can hear

* Students voices his reasoning quite aggressively or authoritatively, causing the other students to shut down (“Well obviously the right answer is C, because we all know that in textbook it says that…”

* A really difficult to understand (or perhaps even bizarre) idea is voiced

* One student voices an idea, and another student laughs or rolls eyes, seeming to mock it.

* A student gives reasoning like,”It’s probably less than, because I would have picked greater than, and I’m always wrong.”

* You try to get the class’ attention after they have been talking with their neighbors, but many students keep talking in small groups.

* When one student is addressing the class with her reasoning, several groups keep talking, making it difficult to hear what was said.

* A significant fraction of class responds in ways that suggest they have misunderstand the question… or seems to be answering a different question.

* With a sequence of question, only same three of four students participate in whole-class discussion.

* One student is completely disengaged-head down, on cell phone, etc.

* Students voices a jumble of science vocabulary jargon as an explanation

* Two students talk back and forth for a while, perhaps in a heated argument, and other students start to disengage.

Obviously, in practicing, we carefully “role” out different kinds of trouble, as to not overwhelm anyone. But in writing this out, I’m realizing even more so how immensely challenging real teaching is, having to respond to all of these kinds of situations (and more), on the fly. But it also makes me realize how beneficial it will be engage in this kind of work with pre-service teachers.

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