Educator Practice

How to Build Students' Confidence and Critical Thinking Skills?

March 11, 2022
Student Engagement
Zachary Wright
Relay faculty

Early in my career as a high school English teacher in West Philadelphia, I noticed something. Students are obsessed with the ‘right’ answer. They raise their hands because they want to share what they believe to be the right answer, or they try to become invisible if they don’t know the right answer lest they are called on and then embarrassed in front of the class. I have found that this focus on the correct answer, rather than the correct process, silences many students, severely limits the amount and diversity of student contribution, and can further cement the false notion for struggling students that school is not for them.

A Powerful Literacy Strategy to Normalize Struggle and Build Student Confidence

I started to use a very simple, yet immensely powerful strategy to engage more students:  Get/Don’t Get Charts. When looking at a text, students would use the left hand margin to jot down anything about the text they “Get” and use the right hand margin to jot down anything they “Don’t Get.” They could “Get” who was speaking, what the setting was, and what was going on. They could “Don’t Get” what specific words meant, why a particular character said something, or why the author used a particular type of figurative language. 

The power of the Get/Don’t Get chart is that it flips the script on what a successful student looks like. Instead of applauding and reinforcing students with the most Gets, I routinely circulated the classroom applauding all the Don’t Gets because I wanted students to develop their critical reading skills and I want students who struggle to feel success with perseverance. 

When students question the Get/Don’t Get chart, I would present them with a hypothetical.  Imagine two people reading a text. The first person said, “I get it.” The second one said, “I think I get it, but why is the author saying this, why is that character saying that, etc.” Which person actually understood the text more?  The person with all the questions!

Implementing the “Get/Don’t Get” Strategy in the Classroom

I’m currently a faculty member at Relay Graduate School of Education, teaching first year teachers enrolled in our master’s degree program. I recently shared my Get/Don’t Get Chart strategy with my graduate students and saw their jaws drop. They too had noticed that their students were obsessed with finding the right answer and that their threshold for risk taking was correspondingly low.

But even graduate students like to be correct, so instead of just telling them about Gets/Don’t Gets, I gave them a short but intensely challenging piece of Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. My students suddenly found themselves learners struggling with a confusing text. I encouraged them to focus not just on what they Get, but on what they Don’t Get. Suddenly, their confidence soared as they were able to list question after question, and thus start down the path towards their own understanding of the text. It was also a worthwhile experience for them to sit with the discomfort that comes with struggling academically, a struggle many of their students likely feel on a daily basis. 

When using this strategy either in person or virtually, it's important to model the Get/ Don't Get strategy on a sample text. In person, teachers can use a doc-cam (i.e. a “document camera”, or any other device that lets you show your copy of documents to students), to keep the text at the center of the conversation and show your thinking. Online, teachers can model their thinking via a shared Google Doc or Padlet.

I've seen time and again how the Get/Don’t Get charts effectively normalize struggle and build student confidence. Perhaps most importantly of all, it is irrefutable evidence of the power of asking questions, rather than simply always having the right answer. 

Zachary Wright

Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden. Wright was a national finalist for the 2018 U.S. Department of Education’s School Ambassador Fellowship, and he was named Philadelphia’s Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 2013. He is the author of Dismantling a Broken System; Actions to Bridge the Equity, Justice, and Opportunity Gap in American Education.