Checking for Understanding

So over the past several months, my outstanding Vice-Principal Bret Olson and I have made a point of getting into classrooms to watch our Middle School kids in action. The best part about this experience for us has been the debrief sessions that we share together on an almost daily basis. Lately, our discussions have turned to the incredible range in the developmental level and maturity of our students, not only throughout the entire Middle school, but from class to class within a particular grade level. Bret also touched on this issue in his latest professional blog post, and our recent discussions have really got us thinking about how difficult it is for us as educators to effectively differentiate the learning in a class full of students, each with their own set of specifically personal needs.  If you think about what you’re asked to do each and every day with your kids, it’s easy to see why education is without a doubt one of the most difficult and demanding professions on the planet…if not the most!

Often times, particularly in International Schools, you have a class full of roughly 20 students, and in many cases over a quarter of them are in an ESOL program, and working hard to achieve in an academically rigorous English environment. You have students who are developmentally advanced and flying high so you need to extend for them, you have kids who are developmentally delayed so you have to provide intervention opportunities for them, you have students who need academic support to deal with their various learning issues like dyslexia, ADD/ADHD, dysgraphia, or mild cases of Asperger’s or autism, and you have students who have social-emotional needs, which impact their ability to learn effectively for extended periods of time…wow. Couple this with the issue that most teachers are asked to plan lessons for students in more than one grade level or subject area, and it’s a wonder that your heads don’t explode! So with all this in mind, and not lost on any of you I’m sure, what can we do to ensure that our kids are really and truly learning?

Obviously, schools need to properly support their teachers and students, and provide the necessary resources so that educators have the tools readily available to them to effectively reach each and every one of their kids…but let’s assume that this is happening. The only way to ensure that a student is learning what you expect them to learn is to be regularly checking for understanding throughout each and every lesson. Bret and I have witnessed first hand how the teachers who are successfully managing the individual needs of their students, are the ones who make sure to check for understanding before each student leaves their classroom at the end of a lesson. When they find that a student doesn’t understand, they arrange for extra help sessions, or they set up individual conference sessions at the end of class to make sure that the student gets the concept. They assign developmentally appropriate homework, which is purposeful and used to for feedback with the student, and they give regular and multiple opportunities for retakes and redos for kids to showcase their learning, and most importantly they don’t let any student off the hook. The teachers who have difficulty differentiating, and who struggle with their student learning results are the ones who are leaving it too much to chance. Giving a lesson and hoping/assuming that all students are understanding what is being taught. Heavy lecture based lessons with the odd “does everyone understand” comment thrown into the mix…lessons delivered at a quick pace, and at an adult language level with the onus placed on the kids to listen, learn, and keep up. The old “I taught it so it’s their fault for not paying attention”.

Anyway, I’m sure you know what I mean, and I’m sure you also know that in order to become that “Master” teacher, one who inspires and gets the desired results for all of their students, you need to put in the work. You have to be constantly checking for understanding, and constantly providing opportunities for your kids to show their learning at their developmental level. It’s demanding work, and it’s an every day battle. Bret and I will continue to be in classrooms, and we’ll continue to have these conversations with all of you…lean on us for support, advice, strategies, or coverage if you want to watch another teacher in action, and we’ll get to where we want to be together. The great news is that the majority of our debrief sessions end with smiles and pride and high fives because we know that our Middle School team is definitively putting in the work. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other…Spring is almost here!

Quote of the Week……
In each stage of development, it is important for teachers to understand the relationship between neurological development and learning. This understanding is particularly important when there is a mismatch between development and educational expectations.

  • American Psychological Association

TED Talk – The Mysterious Workings of the Adolescent Brain

Bret Olson’s Professional site –

Great Professional Articles and Websites –