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What makes you say that?

In 1986 Matthew Broderick starred in the now-iconic American comedy film – anyone, anyone – ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’, in which actor Ben Stein delivers his infamous lecture about the – anyone, anyone – the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act, and – anyone – bored or excited . . . ? – bored students rigid in his attempt to teach them economics.

Take a look at this clip and remind yourself of Ben Stein’s inspired parody of ineffective teaching.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this clip is that it remains one of the best known moments in a film which is packed with great moments. It really seems to strike a chord with people.

Which leads me to wonder . . . why? Why this moment? What is it about this short scene that remains so memorable?

Yes, it’s funny – and yes, it’s grossly exaggerated for comedic effect, but I wonder whether there is a little moment of recollection for many of us as we watch this clip. Perhaps it reminds us of a similar experience we’ve had at school ourselves. Perhaps it was our own Economics teacher . . . or Maths teacher . . . or English teacher.

Or perhaps, for some of us teachers, it calls to mind moments when we have inadvertently found ourselves encroaching on similar territory . . .

I know that I’ve been guilty of something like this at times. I’ve certainly been guilty of playing the game, ‘Guess what’s inside the teacher’s head.’ It’s a classic game, played by teachers in classrooms across the world . . .

This is how that particular game plays out. Perhaps you have a question you’d like to ask the class. Perhaps the question is something like this:

“Why do you think Iago hates Othello so much?”

And perhaps you already have an answer in your own head. But you plough on, nonetheless.

“What do you think, class?” you find yourself saying.

Hands shoot up.

You pick a child.

“Bob, what do you think?” you ask.

“Blah-de-blah-de-blah,” says Bob.

You pause. “Interesting,” you reply, “but not quite what I’m after. What do you think, Rosie?”

Rosie answers. “Blah-blah-blah-de-blah-blah,” she says.

You pause. Longer this time. “Yes, thanks for that, Rosie. Someone else . . . What about you, Georgia?”

“Blah-de-blah-blah-blah-blah,” says Georgia.

“Excellent,” you catch yourself saying. “That was exactly what I was thinking.”

What messages do we send our learners in interactions such as these? Simple. In this class, there is only one correct answer, and it’s mine.

It is in our interactions with learners where one of the greatest opportunities lies to construct a rich culture of thinking in our classrooms.

What’s the antidote to playing the game of ‘Guess what’s inside the teacher’s head?’ Well, in his book ‘Creating Cultures of Thinking’, Dr. Ron Ritchhart recommends this: ‘Practice the reflective toss. Make sure you have caught the student’s meaning. If you are unclear or think you are making assumptions, ask for more information or a restatement. After a student responds and you are confident that you have caught the meaning, pause briefly and then ask, “What makes you say that?”’

The simple question “What makes you say that?” holds such power when it comes to building a culture of thinking in our schools. When teachers ask this question frequently, and authentically, it creates a culture where learners’ thinking is truly valued, and classrooms becomes places where it is the students who are doing the thinking, not just their teachers.

So – how might the infamous lesson in ‘Ferris Bueller’ have played out differently if Ben Stein’s Economics teacher had leveraged the power of “What makes you say that?” In the film, he is simply credited as ‘Economics teacher’. Let’s call him Mr. Jones.

Well – to start with – Mr. Jones gives up on the playing the game of ‘Guess what’s inside my head’. If he has facts he needs to tell his learners, well – why not just tell them . . . ? Why make them guess?

Instead, Mr. Jones decides to craft his questions as opportunities to get his students thinking. Having shared some key information with students in a variety of ways (not just through lecturing), he poses a couple of thought provoking questions. Questions that require some thinking moves to be made. Questions like, “How effective was the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act at alleviating the effects of the Great Depression?”, or “Why do you think Vice President Bush used the term ‘voodoo economics’ to describe this phenomenon?”

And then, having posed these questions, Mr. Jones decides that if he wants well-considered answers then he’d better give his students an appropriate amount of time to think about them. Repeating the words ‘anyone, anyone’ doesn’t seem to cut the mustard here. Time allocated for thinking is time very well invested. And if we don’t allow think time . . . ? Well – we’re sending a pretty clear message to our learners about what we really value in this place.

And finally, after Mr. Jones asks authentic questions, and provides a substantial amount of think time, and elicits some well-considered answers, well – that’s where “What makes you say that kicks in?” It’s a question that builds a culture of justification, where learners are expected to explain their thinking and rationalise their position.

And this is where other facilitative questions might also find a place. Questions such as “Tell me more about that . . .”, “Why does that seem so important to you?”, “How does that connect with what we’ve been talking about today?”, and “How does that fit in with the big ideas of this unit as a whole?”

In a culture of thinking, we’re not about telling teachers that everything they’ve done is wrong, that it must be replaced by this ‘new thing’. Rather, we ask the question, “How might we bump up the good stuff that is already happening in classrooms.”

Dare I say it, I think there is great potential in Mr. Jones’ class. And many opportunities for enriching bump-ups.

Why not start with a focus on questioning?

With a little less “Anyone, anyone”, and a little more “What makes you say that?” . . . well, perhaps we might build a culture where there is a lot more learning, and a lot less desk-dribbling.

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