Right is Right: How to avoid rounding up answers and breaking bad habits

Me: What is an alkali?

Student: It turns a indicator purple

Me: That’s right it is a substance with a pH above 7 that turns universal indicator blue or purple.

This is an example of a teacher ‘rounding up’ a student’s answer. The student’s answer wasn’t wrong, it just wasn’t the completely right answer for the level and prior knowledge of this class. 

Rounding up answers is incredibly common, I catch myself doing it sometimes and see it in lessons I observe. In this blog I want to unpick some reasons why it happens and also why it is an issue, before discussing some of the reasons why it’s the kind of habit that can be very hard to break.

Why do teachers round up?

There are a few reasons why teachers will round up students answers:

  1. Pace. The mythical pace of learning! The go-to lesson observation feedback for decent lessons between 2005 and 2019 is back with a vengeance, or maybe, like Palpatine, it never really left, just mutated*. Teachers always feel under pressure when it comes to time, apart from maths teachers, they have way too much time (*ducks from flying calculators and protractors*). When a teacher is being observed this subconscious pressure is even greater. We don’t want the flow of the lesson to grind to a halt whilst we get to the 100% right answer, so we round up the decent attempt we have and get on with the next part of the lesson.
  2. Motivation/Morale. Very few teachers hate students, apart from maths teachers (JOKES). Most of us want to reward and encourage our students to contribute. So when a student gives a decent answer we feel really harsh raining on their parade with our demands for a perfect answer. We don’t want to be mean, so we let them off, and by doing so we inevitably let them down.
  3. Bad habits. Staff no longer realise they do it. They started doing it due to reasons 1 or 2 but now just do it out of habit. 

“More pace in lessons my young apprentice!!” NB: Rise of Skywalker was such a terrible film.

Why is it a problem?

The main issue with rounding up answers is that it runs the risk of baking in poor answers or even misconceptions. People like being right and when they hear they are right they tend to stop listening. This isn’t an issue if they are 100% right, but for students that have given an imprecise or partial answer there is a chance they hear they are correct and then never fully recognise the difference between their answer and the perfect answer. In science I guess we are quite fortunate. We often have a completely correct answer that can be said in only a few ways. However, in the humanities, arts and social sciences there are different versions of the 100% right answers and many more partially correct options. This can make it hard for students to discern the key features of a right answer. It is in the best interest of students and teachers that the 100% right answer be carefully curated in these situations, to narrow down the possibilities by using specific terminology that the teacher feels is best. This could be due to efficiency or ease of use. Whatever it is this needs to be specifically taught to students and then required of them in relevant answers.

Right is Right to the rescue!

In Teach Like A Champion 3.0 (TLAC) there is a strategy that helps prevent teachers from rounding up called Right is Right. Below is my summary of Right is Right from our CPD toolkit. Our toolkit aims to bridge the gap between teachers and the leaders of teaching and learning. I’ve written about the power of these kinds of shared languages of teaching and learning here.

Habits

Right is Right helps address the issue of rounding up answers. However, choosing the right strategy is not the hard part. This kind of problem is a problem of teacher habits. Breaking habits is really hard to do. This blog is not the place to discuss this issue in detail (see here) but needless to say we need to devote time and effort on establishing these new habits. This will need a sustained focus where teachers have their awareness of the issue raised, mainly through learning walk feedback and subsequent discussions/coaching conversations. Then they will begin to retrospectively notice when they round up answers. This increased awareness should then be followed by designing a new cue to trigger the new response. A sign on the wall to remind them for example, or flagging questions where partial answers are more likely so they remember to not round up on those answers. This new habit will need to be practised, ideally deliberately in the classroom environment. This rehearsal will allow staff to be prepared with ‘back pocket’ phrases that they can use with confidence and clarity in the lessons. Now the awareness and the cue are in place the hard work begins. Teachers will need to recognise when the opportunity is there to use Right is Right and then have the confidence to use it. This might be clunky at the start and so including the class as part of this might help. Being transparent with the students about what they are trying to achieve and why might help keep it a high priority during the lessons. 

Problem solved! right ?

If only! The biggest mistake I see when trying to improve the quality of teaching is the desire to move on to the next thing too soon. We shift focus to the next marginal gain at the point whereby the teachers have high awareness and conscious use of the new habit. This is when the habit is at its most vulnerable. The assumption the job is done causes a shift in focus and prevents the new habit from being fully established. From the teachers perspective it feels like they have worked on this area of weakness and were successful. Over time the new habit decays and the old habit reammerges. When observed, the feedback given to the teacher is “You missed some opportunities for Right is Right in the questions about acids.” The reply from the teacher is “Yeah sorry I’m normally good at that, I spent a few weeks focussing on it last term.” They have lost the awareness of this as a problem because they have spent time fixing it already. They now consider themselves to have the corrected habit because they were successful when they stopped focussing. 

Leaders of teaching and learning need to have patience and persistence to maintain a teachers development target for longer than expected. This needs to be communicated to teachers so they understand why. I understand this is challenging because to the untrained eye it appears that progress in teaching is slower, but most importantly it is progress. The faster version isn’t really creating any meaningful progress. It is creating the illusion of progress for most teachers that will trend back to their defaults over time.

If we can find the most important targets and maintain them until teachers can’t help but use them, then we can create a climate of sustained teacher development that adds value to our students for years to come. 

What do you think? Let me know in the comments or on twitter.

*Yes I am aware Palpatine was technically cloned.

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