Skip to content

Academic Spotlight: How One Cleveland Teacher Upped Expectations—and Students’ Acceptance of Mistakes

This winter and spring, our Cleveland teachers have focused a lot of attention on the questioning strategies they use, with one primary goal in mind: maximizing student learning. As Molly Hanna and Chase McHugh shared with us in recent reflections, techniques they learned in professional development with our partner Teach Like a Champion have names like “Stretch It” and “No Opt Out,” and they help turn classrooms into spaces where students can’t disengage by offering an “I don’t know” or a minimum acceptable response. 

This week, Tali Collins reminds us that there is so much more at stake here than just getting more students to answer, and to answer correctly. 

Tali teaches at St. Thomas Aquinas in Cleveland, and she named for us a risk involved in strategies like No Opt Out. While useful in making high expectations of students into a classroom norm, holding firm that students answer—and returning to them until they can answer correctly—could stress students out. By making some intentional changes to her use of the strategy, though, Tali found that not letting students off the hook can actually increase the supportive Culture of Error, as TLAC calls it, in a classroom. 

We’ll let her explain:

Students’ (and teachers’) mistakes are nothing more than a pathway to deeper team understanding!

With my fourth and fifth grade language arts classes, as is the case in classrooms throughout the country, my students possess a huge variety of skills and abilities. I’ve been working to strengthen my No Opt Out implementation, because this strategy will not only hold students accountable, but cultivate their confidence as well.

But when I have attempted to integrate No Opt Out before, it’s felt like a “gotcha” by calling on students who don’t feel prepared, and putting them on the spot. I recognize now that the strategy has more intentionality and nuance baked in.

So for a week, I really focused on No Opt Out, which most frequently sounded like “it’s okay not to know everything, what did you start with?” and “that’s okay, keep thinking and I’ll come back to you.” If a student expresses they don’t know something, I can ask a related, scaffolded question that bridges them to the ideal response. Another method I might try is group answering—for example, if Aaron* says “I know what intrusive narration is, but I couldn’t find any examples in the text…” I might have Aaron explain intrusive narration, then ask for a hand to back up his explanation with evidence they found in the text. Then I can return to Aaron for confirmation and open it up to other hands as well—“based on Aaron’s explanation, how is Maria’s* evidence an example of intrusive narration?”

The promise of returning to that first unsure student was crucial—and sometimes I absolutely forgot! Giving the “I’m not sure”/”I don’t know” student a chance to process and hear their peers was absolutely helpful.

The measure of supportive accountability was awesome as well. I think our classes really turned a corner in Culture of Error this week, because they recognized that their effort and thinking is much more critical than their immediate correct response.

By not letting students opt out, and then having a few ready moves to help them arrive at a strong answer, Tali actually increases the number of times students in her room hear someone go from a wrong or incomplete answer to a right one. What more empowering, optimistic gift can a teacher give students than to train them to expect daily growth and improvement, from themselves and others?

The patron saint of education, St. John Bosco, said that “it is not enough to love children; they must know that they are loved.” Sometimes—and increasingly often in Tali Collins’ classroom—love looks like faith in students’ ability to learn challenging concepts, making and fixing mistakes along the way—one question at a time.


*Not students’ real names.