Judgement Calls in Teaching

By Mark Dawes, January 2019

Two anecdotes to begin with:

  • When I watch a football match, whether it’s a premiership match, a league two game or my son playing for his local team you can guarantee at some point half of the supporters will be yelling “shoot” while the other half shout “pass the ball”. The footballer in the thick of the action has to make a judgement call in about the best thing to do in a split second.
  • One Christmas my grandmother sent my father two ties as a present. On Boxing Day we arrived at my grandparents’ house, my father dutifully wearing one of his new ties.  My grandmother opened the door and the first thing she said was “didn’t you like the other tie?”.

Teaching is a series of decision.   The US researcher and teacher Deborah Loewenberg Ball found that in one 88-second section of one of her lessons she had to decide how to respond on 20 occasions (1).  That’s a decision every four and a half seconds.

  • Deciding which pupil to call on to give an explanation? A judgement call.
  • Selecting the numbers to use in a particular problem? A judgement call.
  • Deciding whether to move on to a new concept or to spend more time on the current task? Judgement call.
  • Deciding how much homework to set? Judgement call.
  • Deciding how to respond to a pupil who has forgotten their book? To a comment from a pupil?  To an irrelevant question?  To the tone of voice being used?  Judgement calls, all.

When I am teaching, what happens when I can see a pupil has written an incorrect answer?  Do I talk to them about it one-to-one?  Do I check those pupils sitting nearby and see whether they also have the same error?  If not do I ask one of the other pupils to do it?  Should I listen in while they do so, or should I leave them to it?  Might this be a small mistake, or is it a bigger misconception that needs to be dealt with?  Should I talk to the group of pupils about it, or see whether it is an issue for the whole class?  If I do stop the class should I use the pupils’ work as an example (perhaps under the visualiser?), or ask the whole class a related question?  If I use an example, do I pick a standard example, or one with a particular feature?  Does the size of the numbers matter?  Calculator or non-calculator?  Do I get the pupils to write in their books or on mini-whiteboards?

With these sorts of questions there might be a clear right answer.  But in many cases there are judgement calls to be made.

When observing a maths lesson it can be easy to assume the decisions the teacher makes are either right or wrong (or perhaps very good/poor).  I want to suggest that, as per the two anecdotes, there is more going on.

Often we need to decide which example to use.  If we use one type of example an observer might wonder why we didn’t choose a particular alternative.  That’s a “Dad’s tie” scenario.

In the midst of a lesson an unexpected issue might crop up.  Do we stop and deal with it?  Or do we continue with our plan and return to the issues in a future lesson?  That’s a judgement call.   This is the “shoot or pass” scenario.  We need to make a decision and to make it quickly (otherwise we will be tackled and will lose the ball).

In both of these scenarios it seems reasonable for an observing teacher to ask why a particular decision was made and to offer alternatives.  Questions like: “Why did you phrase the question like that?”, “Why did you choose that pupil to answer the question?”, “Why did you pause (or not) after asking that question?”, “Why did you want the pupils to write in their books rather than on a whiteboard?”, etc, seem to me to be extremely reasonable and helpful questions, which might cause a teacher to reflect on and revisit what they did.  I would encourage observers to ask questions such as these, but not to suggest that the original decision taken by the teacher was wrong.

Equally, I would encourage the teacher not to be defensive.  Please don’t assume that because your way can be justified that other decisions shouldn’t be considered.  Even if they wouldn’t have been better in that particular situation they might be more appropriate in a different lesson and might give rise to more thought .

This seems to me to be an important part of the professional dialogue that can follow all sorts of lesson observations, whether a performance management observation carried out by a line-manager, a trainee observing an experienced teacher, a mentor observing a trainee or two colleagues carrying out peer-observation.  It also shows the difficulty (futility?) of trying to give a lesson a grade.

Ref (1):

https://deborahloewenbergball.com/news-archive/2018/5/8/the-hechinger-report-features-a-column-on-deborah-loewenberg-balls-aera-presidential-address