Leading by Following

There are few things sadder to a teacher or parent than being faced with capable children who, as a result of previous demoralizing experiences, or even self-imposed mind-sets, have come to believe that they cannot learn when all objective indicators show that they can. Often, much time and patience are required to break the mental habits of perceived incompetence that have come to imprison young minds.
~ Frank Pajares, Schooling in America: Myths, Mixed Messages, and Good Intentions

How often do we assess the mindset and the self-efficacy of our learners? Read what my learners said at the beginning of the year:

I believe that I can do well in math, but due to my previous experiences in math I, however, am not very confident about my mathematical abilities. I need a teacher who can help me personally understand and not leave me confused. ~RU

My attitude towards math is somewhat hesitant. I don’t believe that I will ever say that I am good at math, but when I understand the concept and am aware of foolish mistakes, I enjoy doing problem after problem. My work is slow, but steadily I work upwards. ~ES

I do not love math, because I am not that good at it. This year, I hope to grow as a math student, and to learn to love it. ~AW

I think that I am good at math just sometimes I need a little bit of encouraging to reach my full potential. I often need help from peers and my teacher to show me easier ways to reach my goals.  ~CM

I dislike math because sometimes I don’t understand it very well and I get frustrated and just quit. ~AJ

I really don’t like math just because I’ve never been good at it or understood everything. It’s especially discouraging when I feel prepared for a test in math and feel I really understand and then get a grade that doesn’t reflect that. ~AR

I observed my friend and colleague @occam98 masterfully assess both mindset and self-efficacy during his class Friday afternoon.  I assess this at the beginning of the year and after every unit.  I realized that I should be checking more formally during the unit.  I check informally, but do I know what each child is thinking and feeling?  Can we minimize the demoralizing experiences to help students break the mental habits that cause frustration, lack of self-efficacy, and the willingness to just quit by simply checking their disposition and their success?  If we are the lead learners, how are we leading? 

  • Are we so far down the path that they can no longer see us? 
  • Are we moving so fast that they are having trouble keeping up? 
  • Are we just ahead dropping breadcrumbs hoping that they will follow? 
  • Are we doubling back to see if they are confident in the direction we are going?
  • Are we leading by following their paths? 

All good questions to ask as we begin the second half of our time with our learners.

Now, I have very little sense of direction.  Whichever way my nose is pointing is north.  Scary, right?  When walking, I walk out in front even when I don’t know where I am going.  (Do you know anyone who does this?)  My walking partner will quietly say “you know you should turn left here” or guide me to the correct path with a slight press in the small of my back.  Sometimes the key is to just stop and wait to see if and when I am going to check myself.  It is interesting to be led by someone following you. 

The challenge is to spend this semester leading our students by following their work and checking their understanding.  Can we quietly say “I’ve been watching; have you tried ____ or thought about _____?” To minimize or elimnate demoralizing experiences, we should not grade until they are prepared and ready to be formally assessed.  We should check for understanding along the way and know when they are ready.  They should know that we care enough to know what they need and that we are willing to coach them to success.

RU said “I need a teacher who can help me personally understand and not leave me confused.”  Doesn’t RU want us to be the guide to learning by knowing RU’s current location and starting there?

ES said “I don’t believe that I will ever say that I am good at math, but when I understand the concept and am aware of foolish mistakes, I enjoy doing problem after problem.”   Look at this child’s language.  “I don’t believe that I will ever…” and “…foolish mistakes…”.  Isn’t it sad that SE has learned to see mistakes as foolish when, in fact, they are an opportunities to learn.

CM said “…I need a little bit of encouraging to reach my full potential. I often need help…” How can we encourage and help CM reach full potential? 

How can we help AW, AJ, and AR grow as learners, keep going, and feel encouraged?  I want to make a case for formative assessment, both formal and informal.  We all use informal assessment regularly by asking questions in class and walking among our students watching them work.  But do we change what we are doing based on what we see?  Do we show our students how important their understanding is to us by changing course when we see them struggle?   If we ask one question and take one answer, do we know what the other 16-36 students are thinking, feeling, and learning? 

This is where we need to leverage technology.  In Algebra I, we have been using the TI-Nspire Navigator system to ask a question and collect an answer from every child.  What decisions are to be made when faced with the results below?


 Do we go forward?  Do we try again?  Here’s what we know:  16/24 students agree, though a couple of them need help with their notation or their technology,  6 students have made a error somewhere, and 3 students did not have enough time or the confidence to answer the question. 

I ask my students what to do next.  Do we go forward with the next level of question or application?  Do we try this level again to improve our class score because right now we are at 67%.  Before we go forward, what action needs to be taken?   In our community, to quote the kids, “we leave no man behind, Ms. Gough!”  There is a 2:1 ratio of teachers to learners at this point.  The search-and-find teams go into action.  There are 2 students actively working to decode the error and explain a different method for every one child that had an error.  Talk about formative assessment.  “Oh look, Ms. Gough, she just dropped a negative.”  “Wow, I should have been able to do that myself.”  “Dude, you need to go to Office Hours; you need major help!” 

Lead the learning by following their work; watch them go down the path; provide them with feedback and coaching. 

In Synergy 8, we use TodaysMeet to see what learners are thinking and questioning.  We want to hear every voice.

Can we use this method of backchanneling to check for understanding?  We asked our learners to summarize the big idea from the Steve Johnson’s TED talk Where Good Ideas Come From

Here’s a string from the backchannel:

innovative ideas happen when you collaborate with other people
BM at 13:49 PM, 27 Sep 2010 via web
Ummm I think the main idea was that through long periods of time ideas can be born and then perfected through collaboration with others.
RU at 13:49 PM, 27 Sep 2010 via web
Main idea was that peoples ideas make other people start to think about it in their own way, when they are in the same room.
AW at 13:49 PM, 27 Sep 2010 via web
the main idea of the talk was how people’s ideas will SPARK other’s ideas to add on to your idea, making our universe more innovative
CP at 13:49 PM, 27 Sep 2010 via web
The main idea from the TED talk was how do ideas and theories grow and where do they come from, and what do they do when they are not quite
QB at 13:49 PM, 27 Sep 2010 via web
It’s better to synergize because, then you add on to each other’s thoughts to have something better than any of them could have had alone.
AS at 13:50 PM, 27 Sep 2010 via web
Hacking allows us to launch ballistic missiles. Progress comes from people building off others ideas, and when there is collaboration
JG at 13:50 PM, 27 Sep 2010 via web
A network that shares ideas will create and improve those ideas, giving a greater chance of success.
CS at 13:50 PM, 27 Sep 2010 via web
when you collaborate with others and share your ideas, you can create a great new idea “chance favors the connected mind”
SZ at 13:50 PM, 27 Sep 2010 via web 

We share our understanding with each other and record these thoughts to review later.  Do we have a better idea whether our learners found the main message?  Do we know who may need intervention or additional support?  We know more than we did before.

Can we lead by following?  Will we lead by following?

Embrace Dr. Pajares’s thought:    

The human brain is far too complex an organ to determine that x can’t be taught.
~ Frank Pajares during a discussion in EDS 771

Lead by following.


  1. I love this quote: “we leave no man behind, Ms. Gough!”

    My challenge in my class is getting kids to realize that it is ok to say that they are being left behind. So much effort seems to be put into appearing to understand. Clickers and “do you get it polls” help a little, but what I really want is an environment where a kid can say, “I’m totally perplexed by X,” in a hopeful and positive way, followed by another kid, also unsure of his understanding, saying “let’s figure this out together.”


    • So one day, on a whim, I asked my class what the cut-off number should be? At what point should I decide to teach something new? In period 1, the first response was 12. If 12 of the 20 if us understand, Ms. Gough, you should teach us something new. Really? I said. I am taking that as my grade. Would you be happy with a 12/20? Isn’t that 60%? No. You are right. And, we settled on 16/20. They decided that the other 4 should come to Office Hours. It was a GREAT discussion. My 2nd period rolls in; same conversation. But, when I asked my question about the cut-off number, very quickly, a child said “we leave no man behind, Ms. Gough! Booyah!” With the appropriate chest thump and everything. So, it is the norm now, if I have the right answer I stand and coach. If I need help, I look for someone standing to have instant, on the spot tutoring.

      It was an amazing day. TI-Nspire Navigator allows me and my students to see everyone’s answer to a question. The answers are anonymous (to the class); everyone gets instant feedback. My learners and I know that they are or are not the only person in the room that does or does not know how to answer the question. It is very empowering. If I’m the only one that does not know how to answer the questions, I’d better be coming to Office Hours. If I’m in a class where half of the students are not getting the answer, I know that it is safe to ask a question. And, the safer it becomes to ask a question, the more questions are being asked.

      The key, I think, is that every student knows how everyone in the class is performing and, collectively, we have a goal to “leave no man behind.”



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