Reflection on LA Seminar: Pressing for Reasoning and More than Echo-Probe-Toss

A couple thoughts after the LA seminar tonight:

Pressing for Students’ Reasoning vs. Pressing toward Correct Reasoning

One of the talk moves that students read about before today was “pressing for reasoning”, in which the instructor asks the student to explain their reasoning. I learned as students were analyzing their cases that some students interpreted the talk move “pressing for reasoning” as asking a question that steers the student toward the right reasoning.

For example, in a case that one group was analyzing, there is the following exchange:

Student:  I said that the acceleration is negative, because the object is slowing down.

Teacher:  Actually, that’s not quite correct.

The students could correctly identify this kind of reaction as “denying”, and they came up with, “What can you say about the direction of the acceleration?” as an alternative response to denying. They identified this as a “pressing for reasoning” talk move. I was a bit surprised, but we had a good conversation about the difference between “steering questions” which aim to guide them toward the correct reasoning versus question that get students to articulate their own reasoning. What makes sense about their initial interpretation of “pressing for reasoning” is I think their idea about what counts as “good question”. One property of a good question I think they were thinking about was that it quickly gets students back on track– and so it makes sense that a good “pressing for reasoning” questions would use reasoning to help guide students toward the right track.

I’m so glad we did these cases, because it provided an opportunity for me to learn about how they were thinking about these talk moves, and what implicit ideas about teaching/learning were framing their understanding of the talk moves. At least one other group has this interpretation of pressing for reasoning.

At the end of the cases, one student in class kept asking about other great cases: (1) What if a student has right answer and right reasoning? What else can you but confirm? [We mostly agreed that you should ask others students to weigh in before possibly confirming] (2) What if one student has wrong answer, you probe for reasoning and get wrong reasoning, and ask others who also agree with same wrong reasoning? [We talked through some specific scenarios, but I mostly emphasized that at this point, any help, hints, steering question, or guidance you give will be in the context of having actually gathered information about what trouble they were having. ]

Echo-Probe-Toss becomes..   Be Encouraging / Help Make Connections / Keep Everyone in the Game

As usual, the echo-probe-toss game was fun, but also very challenging for both me and the students. Students struggle to remember each stage and how it works, especially for the first couple of students to go. I struggled with when and how often to interrupt. One of the things I think after today is that it can really help in the future if I give very clear directions about where we are restarting from after a pause. It caused unnecessary confusion when I wanted them to restart one place, but I didn’t say it specific enough. It’s such a silly thing to waste cognitive effort on that very clear directions are just needed.

In general, when students were echoing, they often did not use tone of voice to indicate interest, nor did their probing feel super encouraging.This is totally to be expected, because it’s their first time. Also when tossing it back to the class, students often very narrowly re-voiced students’ ideas and asked very generic prompting.  But it provided a good opportunity for me to step in and model how it could be differently.

It’s hard in the blog to express how I used tone to be interested and encouraging, but I do want to about how my “toss backs” were different than students, so here are some examples:

1. Re-voicing to Emphasize Reasoning rather than the Answer:

One clicker question was, “Which of the following topics in physics is the worst?” A student said, “Static Equilibrium was the worst, because it was so boring”.

Student Facilitator Revoicing:  “Angela says Static Equilibrium is the worst, because she found it boring. Does anybody agree or disagree?”

I paused to offer an alternative re-voice: “Interesting. So, Angela is saying that one reason why a person might think a topic is the worst is because it’s boring. Who else has disliked a topic in school because it was boring?”

While I emphasized that my re-voicing drew attention the reasoning, students added that my move helped each move to build on the next.

2. Summarizing Multiple Ideas before Prompting for More Participation

When students re-voiced before tossing it back to the class, they often just summarized the idea that was just said. This made it feel like a list of ideas that were unrelated. I took a few opportunities to model how to summarize multiple ideas:

“OK, so we heard from Valerie and Jason who both think that trees gain weight through the soil, because as the roots go deep in the ground, they pull nutrients up…  We’ve also just heard from John, who added his idea about how trees have leaves that breathe in air, and in doing so pull in carbon dioxide. ”


“OK, so one thing that can make a topic the worst is it being boring. Another reason why a topic might be the worst is that we don’t really understand the topic.”

3. Re-voicing to Clarify a Complex Idea:

We had gotten a little into a debate about the role of sunlight… and one student was trying to explain their idea that sunlight provided the energy that the tree used to pump up water and nutrients from the soil. I was facilitating this conversation at the time and modeled two things, first, I asked Nathan to restate his idea for everyone.  I had actually zoned out and not quite heard what he said. Then, when he was done, I said, “OK. So I think I get Nathan’s idea. So like, If I had an electric pump that could pump water out of my flooded basement, I would probably need to first plug it in to the electrical outlet. The outlet would provide the energy to pump the water up out my basement. What Nathan seems to be saying is that in the case of the tree, sunlight provides the energy for the tree to pump up the nutrients out of the depth of the ground. Its the nutrients that cause the weight gain, not the sunlight, which just powers the whole operation of bring nutrients up out of the soil.”

We were running late on time, so the day didn’t end as smoothly as it could, but we started a list of things I was doing that seemed different than just “echo-probe-toss”… Here’s the list we made

  • Being Encouraging and Acting Interested
  • Helping Make Connections Among Ideas
  • Reframing the Conversation
  • Steering away from Unproductive Tangents
  • Keeping Everyone in the Game

All and all it was a good LA day. I still wish I was doing a better job with time management so that we could end days closure rather than a rush.

Day 1: Learning Assistant Seminar (First Day)

In the first day of our LA seminar, we did a fairly “standard” learning assistant activity from the original UC-Boulder LA Pedagogy Course handbook.

Students are presented with an interesting object (in my case a horse skull), and are told to work in pairs to come up with as many questions they can ask about the object. They have five minutes.

Afterwards, questions are collected the board. Once we have a varied collection, students are prompted to go back and look for any patterns or categories–questions that seem to go together. Here are some of the categories:

  • Present (Is the skull fragile?) vs Past (How did it die?)
  • Quantitative (How much mass?) vs. Curious (Was species is it)
  • Utility (Could it be turned into fossil fuel?) vs. Existential (Why is it in the room?)
  • Physical (what is the density) vs Historical (Who found it?) vs Fantasy (could it shoot lasers from its eyes?)

After talking about their categories, I introduce a new way of looking at the questions list in terms of convergent questions with (one right answer / closes possibilities) vs divergent questions (no right answer/ many right answers / opens up possibiltiies) We return to this list and find that only one questions was divergent (“What could we learn by studying this skull?)

Students are tasked with trying to take the convergent (or closed) questions and make them more open. The group came up with examples like

  • “How could we measure its mass?”
  • “What are different ways we could test its fragility”
  • “What evidence would confirm that it could shoot lasers from its eyes?”
  • “What physical properties could we measure?”
  • “What species can we rule out?”

We formalized the following strategies for making questions more open:

  • Focus on ‘How do we know?”,  rather than “What is”
  • Use conditional verbs such as “would” or “could” to emphasize possibilities
  • Ask at one category level higher

For HW, they are reading a paper about questioning, which will reinforce the open/closed, but also introduce others issues related to questioning such as “Wait Time”, “Bloom’s Taxonomy”, etc.

The rest of the day went to introductions, logistics, and “questions and concerns” discussion.

Revoicing and Retrospective Recontexualisation

Lemke writes in “Analyzing Verbal Data” about the concept of retrospective recontextualisation

“Discourse forms do not, in and of themselves, “have” meanings; rather they have a range of potential meanings. Words, phrases, sentences are tools that we deploy in complex contexts to make more specific meanings, to narrow the potential range of possible meanings down to those reasonably or typically consistent with the rest of the context. Even in context, at a moment, an utterance or phrase may not have a completely definite meaning. It may still express a range of possible meanings, differently interpretable by different participants or readers. This is very often the case at the point where it occurs. The context needed to specify its meaning very often at least partly follows its occurrence. So it may seem to have a more definite meaning retrospectively than it has instantaneously. In fact, depending on what follows, its meaning, as participants react to it, can be changed radically by what follows (retrospective recontextualisation).”

I thought about Lemke recently while reading Alex Barr’s post* about productive prior knowledge. In that post, he describes a discussion he had concerning the common misconception about the moon’s phases (i.e., the earth’s shadow is cast on the moon), and how you can think about that misconception in terms of kernels of productive knowledge (e.g., the moon itself blocks light from getting to the back half).

Lemke argues in the above passage that the meaning given to any student utterance happens in interaction, in part based on what proceeds the utterance itself. I’m imagining this in the context of teacher re-voicing. Specifically, I was imagining three different revoicings that might occur after a student makes a statement like, “The phases are casued by the earth’s shadow falling over the moon,” and how they might, retrospectively, change the meaning of the student utterance. Here’s the gist of several possible re-voicing.

“It sounds like you are trying to draw our attention to an important idea we should consider in explaining the moon’s phases–light from the sun can be blocked by objects that get in the way. “

“It sounds like you are saying that there must be something blocking sunlight from getting to certain parts of moon. And you’re proposing that one thing that could be doing that blocking is the earth.”

“So your idea is that if the earth were to block some of the light from getting to the moon, then we’d see changes to how much of the moon is lit.”

“It sounds like you are saying the

Its interesting to me how these different voicings may (or may not) change the meaning of the student idea. The first one (in my mind) attempts to re-voice the idea by focusing on what the teachers know to be a kernel of truth, downplaying subtly what is not true. The second one attempts to re-voice the idea as a particular case of a more general principle, perhaps opening up the idea, giving it room to breath and be connected to other ideas. The third one re-voices the idea as a conditional proposition–one that the teacher knows to be true about lunar eclipses. A more straight forward re-voicing such as, “It sounds like you are saying that the phases of the moon happen when the earth blocks light from getting to the moon,” seems to narrowly frame the idea, sort of pinning it down, giving it no where to go. The re-voicing doesn’t help to put the idea in a broader context or to highlight any parts of it as being more or less significant.

One reason I’ve been thinking about this so much is because next semester, one of the goals for teaching of physics is to develop skills at facilitating classroom discussion. One of the discourse “practices” we will focus on is “re-voice and toss“. There are of course, lots of reasons for re-voicing, but I feel like I’m circling around something here… hopefully more to write on this later.

* Alex is a burgeoning physics education researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, who you should say hello to, get to know, and keep your eye on. *

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