Teachers for Teachers | Slice of Life: Feedback is the Key to Greater Learning
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Slice of Life: Feedback is the Key to Greater Learning


“What’s the difference between thinking and understanding?”

All of a sudden his question was far more interesting than the teaching point I had in mind. I had to stop and consider this question.

“That’s an interesting question.  Say more.”

“Well you asked us to turn and tell our partner what we were thinking about the story.  I am not sure what I should say.” 

I nod and give myself a moment.

“What would you have said if I asked you to turn and tell your partner what you understood about the story?”

“I would have told her about the characters, the setting, the problem – the events that happened so far.”

“And the word thinking makes you believe you should talk about something else.” 

“Yeah. Thinking is like me – what I think.  It is not the story and what I understand.  What would we talk about if we were thinking?”

“That’s a great question – let’s talk about that!”


I never walk away empty handed after a turn and talk.  When I take the time to listen to students’ thoughts, ideas and questions, I get the information I need to teach them — not teach the lesson, but teach them.  This is a distinction I am thinking a lot about lately.  I believe we need to spend time planning our units of study – using data to identify instructional goals and thinking about how to teach those goals as a grade level team.  While this type of planning is essential, it does not remove the need to adjust to the formative data that we are collecting all day every day.

There are many moments of teaching and learning that happen on the way to meeting an instructional goal.  We find that each lesson slowly chips away at an instructional goal.  Students need time to truly learn a new instructional skill or strategy.  They need time to experience a new skill or strategy in many different situations and in many different types of texts.  We navigate this journey by listening to and observing our students.

I have never considered the difference between the words understanding and thinking.  I realize now I choose to use one word or the other depending on my purpose.  I do tend to prefer to hear a student’s thinking rather than check for understanding.  For me, I am always interested in what catches their attention, confuses them or interests them.  Once I hear their thinking, it helps me connect where they are to where I go next instructionally.  Either way, I get the feedback I need to teach effectively.

Grant Wiggins’ research demonstrated, “…feedback is information about how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal. Effective feedback requires that a person has a goal, takes action to achieve the goal, and receives goal-related information about his or her actions. Information becomes feedback if, and only if, I am trying to cause something and the information tells me whether I am on track or need to change course.” (2012)

When we give our students opportunities to turn and talk during our instruction, we are creating a feedback loop that is timely, ongoing, goal-referenced, actionable, and user-friendly (Wiggins, 2012).  If we take the time to listen in and use the information to adjust our instruction, we are bringing the research to life  less teaching plus more feedback is the key to achieving greater learning. (Hattie, 2008)

As for the difference between thinking and understanding… I will certainly be thinking more about that in my instruction.


  • Avatar
    Posted at 19:43h, 14 February Reply

    Loved reading this slice and thinking along. Great question from the student. Wonderful that he asked it. This is such a great example of how words, how they are used and explained, matter. We as adults may thin the kids know what we mean, but do they? This year I have spent time showing my fourth graders different types of thinking. We have reflected on discussions and written comments to see what kind of thinking are they demonstrating.

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    Posted at 19:53h, 14 February Reply

    This is a post that I’ve re-read several times because this is such a powerful message. You’ve encouraged me to reflect not only on the difference between thinking and understanding, but also how I approach both in my instruction and the feedback that I provide my students. I’ve actually printed this post to put in my plan book as a reminder:)

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    Linda Baie
    Posted at 20:06h, 14 February Reply

    I like the idea from Hattie of “bringing the research to life” through conversation and listening, as you’ve so aptly illustrated. And I was grateful for questions like your young student asked. Sometimes that student helps his classmates who were unsure about something, yet didn’t know how to ask what they didn’t know. Love “listening” in on your lesson!

  • Avatar
    Rose Cappelli
    Posted at 20:49h, 14 February Reply

    “When I take the time to listen to students’ thoughts, ideas and questions, I get the information I need to teach them — not teach the lesson, but teach them.”

    Love this thinking! We learn so much from listening to our students.

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    Jennifer Laffin
    Posted at 20:49h, 14 February Reply

    I have never thought of the difference between thinking and understanding but now that I do, I see the difference and how I can apply this to my classroom. So insightful! Thank you!

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    Posted at 22:38h, 14 February Reply

    Love this. Words matter. And… students always have valuable and insightful things to teach us if we will stop long enough to listen.

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    Posted at 01:37h, 15 February Reply

    Such an interesting conversation to eavesdrop on. Our kids let us into their thinking quandaries, don’t they? Their understanding of what a word means is often not quite what our’s is…but that’s a learning opportunity for us, too.

  • Avatar
    Melanie Meehan
    Posted at 01:58h, 15 February Reply

    I’m definitely keeping this concept is my mind as I work with students. There IS a difference between thinking and understanding and I LOVE that a student brought this up. Thanks for sharing a great conversation.

  • Avatar
    Mandy Robek
    Posted at 04:00h, 16 February Reply

    This is my favorite line –
    There are many moments of teaching and learning that happen on the way to meeting an instructional goal.

    On the way can provide moments that matter.

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