(This post is the third in a series based on metacognition as a way of improving classroom assessment and instruction)

Debugging concepts vs. procedures

"Outstanding teaching requires teachers to have a deep understanding of the subject matter and its structure, as well as an equally through understanding of the kinds of teaching activities that help students understand the subject matter in order to be capable of asking probing questions." (Bransford, 2000, p. 188)
When educators are focused on conceptual understanding, debugging can become an effective means of incorporating metacognition in the classroom. With a shallow level of content and pedagogical knowledge in my earlier years of teaching, I found debugging to only happen from a procedural perspective. I was more inclined to point out a step that a student missed in his/her computation and/or algebra rather then stepping back and analyzing where the misunderstanding might be that leads to the "bigger picture" causing students' misconceptions. With these thoughts in mind, I embarked several days ago on changing the way I handle students revise their formative assessments.

Debugging Opportunities
In my quest towards standards-based grading, I have been conducting formal formative assessments every few days (and without much resistance from my students either, I might add!) and reporting progress by standard:One of the many reasons I believe in standards-based grading is that it gives feedback to students on the specific standards ("learning targets") they "get" as well as the learning targets that they may still need more work on. Students took the quiz one day and the following day I paired up students according to their relative strengths and weaknesses on the learning targets and set them loose for about five minutes to ask questions of each other. I'm starting to make this a regular part of my formative assessments. Compare this with my previous practice of marking them up heavily with red ink and verbally regurgitating the preferred solution to commonly missed problems - an exercise that not only bored the students, but never seemed to produce positive results either. Several minutes into this diagnostic session, a really neat conversation was initiated. Two groups were eager to get my attention with similar inquiries:
"Mr. T...we don't understand how to do this problem - we did the same thing! Can you help us?"
This is the type of question that gets a math teacher chomping at the bit! Two typical responses come to mind...
Scenario #1: That's a great question. Let me show you how to get the right answer...
This scenario is what I call a return to the teacher-as-answer-holder system. In my previous post, I laid out several problems with this approach. It takes the responsibility of "thinking" away from the student and places it in the hands of the teacher. Hopes for metacognition and student-initiated debugging are quickly squashed.

Scenario #2: Wow. I'm so glad you asked. (Insert probing question)
This scenario is the one we should be aiming for, but as Bransford suggests this process requires a deep understanding of the subject matter in order to ask questions that will help students overcome their misconceptions - a practice I admit improves daily with practice. This is when the debugging begins on the student's part! Colleagues lament that this is ideal of behavior we wish all of our students would exhibit, but seldom do. I believe the keys to this practice of encouraging students' debugging are wrapped up in connecting collaboration with explicit opportunities for revision. We must teach and value revision through a debugging process. Not only must students be exposed to and practice debugging, the educator must also have a general idea of the common misconceptions students will face for any given standard/lesson.
"Expert teachers know the kinds of difficulties that students are likely to face, they know how to tap into students' existing knowledge in order to make new information meaningful, and the know how to assess their students' progress." (Bransford, 2000, p. 45)
Just as parents remind their children not to touch a hot oven, they must also be taught how to properly use a hot pad when navigating the same steamy temperatures. The quote above reminds me the importance of modeling to students "how not to do" something as well so that they are better able to debug their own academic work. I will never forget my fifth grade teacher who would often purposefully write sentences with mistakes on the board or solve math problems in an incorrect way and wait for a student in the class to notice. He modeled (and expected) debugging in his classroom! This was a one-of-a-kind ordeal during my K-12 years. I only hope that I can provide this same memorable (and academically stimulating) experience for my students.

A virtual colleage of mine deserves credit with a recent post in which he asked students two thought-provoking questions:
  1. What do you want to be able to do a week from today that you can't do now?
  2. What can I do to help you get there?
Kudos to Mr. G over at TAGmirror for putting metacognition into practice! Perhaps some debugging with follow as the students come back with their plans that potentially need revision.

Is "debugging" a natural part of your classroom practice? What type of debugging events are you planning for the remainder of the year?