Do you have a favorite TV show? Downton Abby? Breaking Bad? The Wire? What all these shows have in common is the serial telling of a story over several episodes. If you miss an episode you find yourself wondering, “Who is that character?” or “What happened to so and so?”
A well-designed lesson is much like telling a story. There is a well thought-out sequence that presupposes the student understands the previous component in the sequence. Just like the TV fan watching his favorite show, if the student misses a critical component of the lesson, he may be able to continue for a while, but at some point the student will ask himself, “What? Why does that happen?”
If the student does not understand one important portion of the lesson it will be very difficult for him to follow the next component and the next component. It will be impossible for the student to continue to follow the lesson UNLESS the teacher knows exactly what the student does not know. If the teacher is able to ascertain this information in a timely manner, he will be able to provide scaffolding for the student.
When designing lessons teachers need to ask themselves, “What, specifically, do the students need to know at this point in the lesson?” “How should I phrase a question or design a task that will provide the best data for me?” “How can I provide support with a language frame to lessen the linguistic load?”
In the vernacular of the classroom we call these types of questions “checking for understanding.” It is the construction of the questions, the time at which they are asked during the lesson, and the method to best observe all students’ responses that makes the data useful to the teacher. A teacher can provide scaffolding if he knows what necessary information students do not know. Therefore, teachers must be proficient at asking the proper questions at the proper times aligned with the proper student response methods.
Do not neglect planning your checking for understanding questions during the lesson planning process. There are many things teachers can do by the seat of their pants during a lesson-- but thinking of important questions is not one of those things.