Protocol me maybe (teaching edition)

Facilitating is really hard.

We miss things. Perhaps is little misconceptions that we hear but don’t make it to our brain because we’re too busy taking roll and pointing out where to pick up missing work for the umpteenth time. We (ok, I) need to figure out a way to slow things down, so we can better listen, think, and respond appropriately. That’s incredibly challenging to do ad hoc.

Some of us, either through hard work and reps or a divine gift bestowed by R’hllor, have a knack for being able to do just that on the fly. The rest of us have a ways to go.

Also, it’s really difficult to ensure that all kids are speaking. Even in classrooms where the teacher knows better than to call on the quick hand-raisers, we do it anyway, because it keeps things moving. The use of protocols in a classroom can be a way to facilitate better and more equitably.

For one, they can give kids equal voice. Too, the give us time to process and develop a better response than an on-the-spot, seat-of-your-pants teaching moment.

Here are a four protocols I like to utilize in classrooms.

  • The Know/Need-to-Know process. This was/is my go-to means of kicking off a problem. Students identify what they know about the problem and what they need to know (either content-instruction related or additional-info-needed related). I’ve blogged at length about this one, and others have made it even better.

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(Editor’s note: if you have students with IEP, consider giving them this along with the task the day before so they can come in with pre-ideated Knows and Need-to-Knows.)

  • Notice and Wonder. Max has written about this before on his blog and in his book (no, seriously, why haven’t you bought this yet?). This is great for data explorations and interesting visuals and diagrams. See also: See/Think/Wonder. Notice and wonder allows access for all students to describe what they’re seeing and generating authentic wonders.


  • Gallery walks. Once students have solved a problem, they post them around the room and students circumnavigate to each solution for a prescribed period of time (say, 5 minutes). While observing solutions, students are asked to make comments and ask additional questions via post-it note or some other asynchronous medium. Be sure to require at least one comment and at least one question per student per gallery walk “exhibit.” We want everyone’s voices here.
  • I like / I wonder / Next Steps. Another feedback protocol, the sentence starters are exceptionally helpful for students. Five minutes of “I like…”s, another five of “I wonder…”s, and five for “Next Steps” if there are things to potentially do after the feedback.

There are also a bunch of great protocols from, say, NSRF that can be used to facilitate discourse on non-content oriented stuff. I’ve used the final word protocol such that students can demystify, clarify, and expand upon a text. The block party protocol is great to do with students and adults when you want to get them talking about a text or selected parts of a text.

Just a couple quick tips upon using protocols:

  1. Stick to the protocol. You’re going to seem like an overbearing ogre at first, but among the chief value of protocols is giving equity to student voice. The moment the protocol is abandoned you are paving the way back in an inequitable discussion.
  2. Use a protocol iteratively. The power of protocols comes with repeated use. Once students have mastered the protocol itself, it’s incredible how rich the content-oriented discussions can become. I’d say use a particular protocol no less than three times a month.

A small while back a teacher described the use of protocols as “scaffolding for adults.” The context was in staff collaboration, but I think it works well for classroom instruction too. In an ideal world, kids would be quick to voice ideas and we’d be just as quick to answer them in a way that produces sense-making. Until then, we can use protocols to help us get there.

What are some of your favorite in-class protocols?

Kicking things off: How do I start the facilitation of a problem?

So you’ve decided to undertake inquiry-based learning. That’s great. I’m really glad you see the inherent value in having students swim through a challenging problem on their own a bit before the teacher jumps in with instruction. I’m also glad you’ve been creative at creating new mathematical tasks with cool entry videos, perplexing pictures, and solid scenarios. Looks like you’ve got your curriculum mapped out, all ready to go for the 2013-2014 school year. Really, you’ve done incredible work this summer as you’ve restructured your curriculum with the help of awesome, engaging tasks from the MathTwitterBlogosphere. It’s fantastic. You’ve come a long way. You’ve shown tremendous agency.

Now what? We’ve got all these nifty tasks tied to standards, but what do we actually, you know, do with them? Sadly, even though we’re all rowing the same direction with regards to inquiry based learning and complex mathematical task driven learning, your students are (probably) not at the place where you can just say “GO!” and they’ll spring in to action. Facilitation needs to happen. And while it’s great to have a protocol like the Know/Need-to-Know process (below) handy, if you’re doing 3-5 tasks per unit, any single protocol, no matter how effective, can get pretty boring after a couple rounds of it. While I do believe in giving students the power in common language, it needn’t be that common.

Here are a few ways facilitate the transition from the entry event (the artifact or problem scenario that launches the task) to the student work time.

1. The Know/Need-to-Know Process (NTK).

I’ve blogged a bit about the NTK process before. It’s certainly my go-to protocol. It works well when deconstructing longer (or wordy) problem scenarios. It’s got its problems though. If you’re not adept at facilitating the protocol or just leave it to the students to fill in some blanks, you’ll get some pretty crappy Need-to-Knows, heavy on logistics (when is it due?) or worthless Next-Steps (teach us how to do the math in this here problem). The point of the NTK process isn’t to establish how many words are in a written task, it’s to aggregate prior knowledge and begin brainstorming solution strategies.

2. #anyqs

The good old “Do you have any questions?” “protocol”. Certainly one of the more fun ones. I’d suggest having students jot down their questions before aggregating them as a class. Dan Meyer does a nice job of this by adding “+1’s” when there’s a repeat question. Ideally you’ll have an overwhelming majority of students asking the same question.

2 1/2. Related: Jeff  de Varona (@devaron3) does a nice bit about “what do you think I’m going to ask you?” after producing the problem scenario. I’ve never done that but it seems on point to me. Here’s an entirely stolen-and-published-without-permission of one of Jeff’s worksheets that has that little nugget in there.

3. Visible Thinking Routine: See, Think, Wonder (STW)

Also similar to #anyqs, but slightly more structured, STW was developed as a way of interpreting and discussing works of art, which, if you’ll allow me to opine, ought not to be so different from math problems. It also has the added bonus of adding a layer of evidence-based things the students notice about the picture or video that #anyqs sometimes lacks. Students observe an artifact and discuss what they see, what they think about what they see, and what it makes them wonder. This protocol also works well when having students peer-evaluate each other’s work.


4. Estimations

I think many of us know the power of having students put some estimations up before launching in to the problem. See, they know how to do it over here.

5. Have students develop a concept map before they begin working on a solution.


This is a nice way of having students recall previous lessons and mathematical knowledge. It also helps to bin those logistical need-to-knows that often muck of the NTK process (above).


So there are 5 (and a half) quick ways to move from that awesome, engaging entry event of yours into actual mathematical work. What are some additional protocols or structures you have in your classroom to elicit mathematical strategery?