Wednesday, February 3, 2016

One Question, Captain Obvious

Some things in life are obvious. Here are my obvious observations for today.
(Um, duh?)

(Well, yes. Usually, anyway)

I’m sure that all of you who have midterm data have dug into your data by now. And if your students are anything like everyone else’s students, you have noticed something that is kind of an obvious observation.  

Kids don’t do as well on challenging (high complexity) questions.

Um, duh? Thanks, Captain Obvious! It’s in the NAME!! They’re called “challenging” for a reason.

Everyone’s kids struggled with the challenging questions! What are we going to do about that?

So, other than knowing the exact questions ahead of time (that’s called cheating) or getting “smarter” or “better” students (good luck with that) there are only two real options.
  1. Allow students to continue to do poorly on those questions and simultaneously complain about it.
  2. Teach them how to read, think, and answer those types of questions -- BY USING those types of questions to teach!

So what is a “high-complexity” question (as it’s called on the FL EOCs)? It’s also called “challenging” or “c” on Performance Matters?

Well, the state says it like this
High Complexity High-complexity items make heavy demands on student thinking. Students must engage in more abstract reasoning, planning, analysis, judgment, and creative thought. The items often involve multiple steps and require the student to think in an abstract, sophisticated way.

Skills required to respond to high-complexity items may include, but are not limited to, the following:
  • solving or predicting the outcome of a problem
  • generalizing or drawing conclusions when presented with historical or contemporary information
  • providing justification for events, actions, or issues in the past or current timeframe
  • predicting a long-term result, outcome, or change within society
  • analyzing how changes have influenced people or social institutions
  • recognizing and explaining historical or contemporary misconceptions
  • analyzing similarities and differences between historical or contemporary events

High-complexity items are supposed to be 15%-25% of the 7th grade Civics and HS US History state EOCS -- and they’re supposed to have similar proportions on the district exams, too.

So here’s the strategy. I call it: One Question, One Week.

Here’s what you do. 

Step 1: Find (or create) a higher level question with a STIMULUS (a quote, a map, a chart, a graph, a political cartoon, a work of art, etc.)

*not sure if it’s higher level? Use this guide from the FLDOE
*Note -- the stimulus often trips up our students. Make sure to use a question with a stimulus!

Step 2: Use the same question for bellwork every day that week. Be sure not to take more than 3-5 minutes on this a day! 

Monday - post the question on the board or screen and ask the students
What is the question really asking? (rewrite it in your own words)
Tuesday -- post the SAME question 
Have the kids summarize the stimulus (what does that graph or excerpt or map really say and mean?)
Wednesday -- post the SAME question
Have the kids finally, actually answer the question(use plickers to speed this part up!)
Thursday --  post the SAME question
Ask the kids why might another student be “fooled” into choosing one of the answer choices? (pick one and tell me why it looks tempting, but is actually incorrect)
Friday -- post the SAME question AND post the benchmark
Have the kids explain how does this question relate to the benchmark? (what do the two things have to do with each other?)

The only way to get good at playing piano is to -- practice playing the piano. The only way to get good at basketball is to -- practice basketball. The only way to get good at dancing is to -- practice dancing. The only way to get good at speaking Portuguese is to -- practice speaking Portuguese!

The only way to get good at high-complexity questions is to -- PRACTICE high-complexity questions.

  • Use only high complexity, stimulus-based questions. (Don’t waste this much time on low-level questions)
  • Team up with your same-course peers to write questions if necessary (if there are three of you, you only need to write one high-complexity question every three weeks)
  • Use for revisiting previous benchmarks where students scored poorly (teaching reading, question-answering, stimulus-breakdown AND remediating content!)
  • Make the KIDS do the work. Don’t tell them the answers – let them tell YOU the answers!
  • If you teach block schedule, adapt as necessary based on how often you see your kids.
  • This should take UNDER 5 MINUTES a day :)

How do/will you do this? What kinds of remediation do you do? How do you teach high-complexity questions and high-level thinking? As always, I love to hear from you! email me at

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