Check for Understanding Like A Ninja Warrior

This morning I was explaining very loudly to my three-year-old son why it was not okay to use his little brother, barely walking, as a component of his Ninja Warrior obstacle course.

“Do you understand?” I asked him when I finished explaining, “Do you understand what I am saying to you?”

The slow grin spread across his face in sync with the tentative nod of his head and I knew, the educator in me knew, that he might have understood, but he might not have understood either. My son was definitely nodding because he knew that was what I expected him to do in that moment, but neither of us could be sure that he did understand. The educator in me also knew that I was approaching it entirely the wrong way—asking the wrong questions, using the wrong tone, not giving him opportunities to think through why using his little brother as a plank was not okay. I was not really checking for understanding even though the words, “do you understand?” were coming out of my mouth. 

Hours afterward, I could not get those same words that had come out of my mouth out of my head.

I spent the car ride to school thinking about how I could have approached the situation differently. When I sat down to write this article, I pulled out the list of indicators of effective practice from Indistar, recalling a particular indicator that spoke directly to the practice of checking for understanding.

I quickly realized there was not ONE indicator related to this, there were several (depending on the lesson segment: direct whole-class or small group instruction—summary and confirmation of learning; teacher-student interaction; student-directed small-group and independent work). There are more if you include computer-based instruction and homework, but these few ought to illustrate the point:

  • All teachers review with questioning
  • All teachers encourage students to paraphrase, summarize, and relate
  • All teachers encourage students to check their own comprehension
  • All teachers interact instructionally with students (explaining, checking, giving feedback)

Which makes sense, because checking for understanding is what great teachers do throughout lessons and well after they’ve finished. Great teachers never stop assessing. Checking for understanding is our instinctual way of doing that. Later on, we may think of better ways to do it (depending on the circumstances, the lesson, or the child) and we may want do-overs once in a while (I’d like one now myself), but there is something to be discovered in that: we are all learners and we never stop working to be better at what we do. What a great quality (and skill) to model for our students.

Since this entry is posted in the Content You Can Use section, I want to share this list of 53 Ways to Check for Understanding (download below). It’s already sparked a couple ideas of what I will do differently next time my son creatively (though unsafely) tries to solve a problem. Actually, I'll be better prepared to check for that understanding long before and well after a problem arises in the first place. 

Download the list here.

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