Starting where our students are….. with THEIR thoughts

A common trend in education is to give students a diagnostic in order for us to know where to start. While I agree we should be starting where our students are, I think this can look very different in each classroom.  Does starting where our students are mean we give a test to determine ability levels, then program based on these differences?  Personally, I don’t think so.

Giving out a test or quiz at the beginning of instruction isn’t the ideal way of learning about our students.  Seeing the product of someone’s thinking often isn’t helpful in seeing HOW that child thinks (Read, What does “assessment drive instruction mean to you” for more on this). Instead, I offer an alternative- starting with a diagnostic task!  Here is an example of a diagnostic task given this week:

Taken from Van de Walle’s Teaching Student Centered Mathematics

This lesson is broken down into 4 parts.  Below are summaries of each:

Part 1 – Tell 1 or 2 interesting things about your shape

Start off in groups of 4.  One student picks up a shape and says something (or 2) interesting about that shape.

Here you will notice how students think about shapes. Will they describe the shape as “looking like a mountain” or “it’s an hourglass” (visualization is level 1 on Van Hiele’s levels of Geometric thought)… or will they describe attributes of that shape (this is level 2 according to Van Hiele)?

As the teacher, we listen to the things our students talk about so we will know how to organize the conversation later.

Part 2 – Pick 2 shapes.  Tell something similar or different about the 2 shapes.

Students randomly pick 2 shapes and either tell the group one thing similar or different about the two shapes. Each person offers their thoughts before 2 new shapes are picked.

Students who might have offered level 1 comments a minute ago will now need to consider thinking about attributes. Again, as the teacher, we listen for the attributes our students understand (i.e., number of sides, right angles, symmetry, number of vertices, number of pairs of parallel sides, angles….), and which attributes our students might be informally describing (i.e., using phrases like “corners”, or using gestures when attempting to describe something they haven’t learned yet).  See chart below for a better description of Van Hiele’s levels:

Van Hiele’s chart shared by NCTM

At this time, it is ideal to hold conversations with the whole group about any disagreements that might exist.  For example, the pairs of shapes above created disagreements about number of sides and number of vertices.  When we have disagreements, we need to bring these forward to the group so we can learn together.

Part 3 – Sorting using a “Target Shape”

Pick a “Target Shape”. Think about one of its attributes.  Sort the rest of the shapes based on the target shape.

The 2 groups above sorted their shapes based on different attributes. Can you figure out what their thinking is?  Were there any shapes that they might have disagreed upon?

Part 4 – Secret sort

Here, we want students to be able to think about shapes that share similar attributes (this can potentially lead our students into level 2 type thinking depending on our sort).  I suggest we provide shapes already sorted for our students, but sorted in a way that no group had just sorted the shapes. Ideally, this sort is something both in your standards and something you believe your students are ready to think about (based on the observations so far in this lesson).

In this lesson, we have noticed how our students think.  We could assess the level of Geometric thought they are currently using, or the attributes they are comfortable describing, or misconceptions that need to be addressed.  But, this lesson isn’t just about us gathering information, it is also about our students being actively engaged in the learning process!  We are intentionally helping our students make connections, reason and prove, learn/ revisit vocabulary, think deeper about specific attributes…

I’ve shared my thoughts about what I think day 1 should look like before for any given topic, and how we can use assessment to drive instruction, however, I wanted to write this blog about the specific topic of diagnostics.

In the above example, we listened to our students and used our understanding of our standards and developmental research to know where to start our conversations. As Van de Walle explains the purpose of formative assessment, we need to make our formative more like a streaming video, not just a test at the beginning!van-de-walle-streaming-video

If its formative, it needs to be ongoing… part of instruction… based on our observations, conversations, and the things students create…  This requires us to start with rich tasks that are open enough to allow everyone an entry point and for us to have a plan to move forward!

I’m reminded of Phil Daro’s quote:


For us to make these shifts, we need to consider our mindsets that also need to shift.  Statements like the following stand in the way of allowing our students to be actively engaged in the learning process starting with where they currently are:

  • My students aren’t ready for…
  • I need to start with the basics…
  • My students have gaps in their…
  • They don’t know the vocabulary yet…

These thoughts are counterproductive and lead to the Pygmalion effect (teacher beliefs about ability become students’ self-fulfilling prophecies).  When WE decide which students are ready for what tasks, I worry that we might be holding many of our students back!

If we want to know where to start our instruction, start where your students are in their understanding…with their own thoughts!!!!!  When we listen and observe our students first, we will know how to push their thinking!


3 thoughts on “Starting where our students are….. with THEIR thoughts

    1. Yes, it is about students taking more of an active role in their learning. However, it isn’t as simple as just giving them a task and seeing how well they do. We need to know how to push their understanding in-the-moment because of our understanding of our curriculum Standards, the progression of how the mathematics develops, and our observations of our students’ thinking.
      We take on a very important role here… but it all stems from us listening first!


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