Outside the classroom, the word “intervention” has pretty clear associations. Think of the literal meaning of the word—a coming between—and how it manifests itself in our culture. We all know of instances where people have had to place themselves in someone else’s pathway and make them travel in a different direction, usually because their current pathway is leading to danger or illness (we’re here because we love you, and we need to talk). Sometimes it’s simply behavioral; sometimes it’s medical, requiring the identification of a problem and the prescription of a treatment (you have an addiction; we’re sending you to 28 days of rehab). These associations are so much a part of our culture that movies and TV shows can make quick, easy reference to the word, confident that we’ll all understand what it means. The sitcom, How I Met Your Mother, even made the concept of intervention into a running joke, as the friends intervened with each other to stop a whole range of annoying behaviors (to the point where they had to stage an intervention to stop each other from having interventions).

In our world of education, the word is used pretty frequently. But when we implement an academic intervention, it’s often just a repetition of what was already taught. We send kids to summer school to learn the same content they learned from September to June, often taught by the same teachers using the same materials. Or we send them to a separate room during the school day in a pullout program, to learn the same material with a different teacher. What we don’t do—nearly enough—is stand in a child’s pathway and help him take a different direction. Instead, we walk him back to the beginning of the journey and ask him to retrace the steps he’s already taken. It’s not a new show; it’s just a re-run.

I’m not saying repetition is a bad thing. Some students definitely benefit from repeated exposure to material. For some students, that second time through is when things finally stick. But what about the students who need more than a re-play? What about the most challenged students, for whom the material or the instructional approach simply doesn’t click—doesn’t make sense—doesn’t help? These students don’t need to have the material served up again, faster and louder. They need a real intervention; they need someone to stop them from going along the road of error, and re-direct them on the pathway of learning so that they can reach success. Stop doing it this way; try doing it that way instead. Stop thinking about it this way; think about it that way instead.

Being Diagnostic: Stop Doing That

There’s an old joke: A guy walks into a doctor’s office, swings his arm around, and says, “Hey Doc, it hurts when I do this.” The doctor says, “Well, stop doing that.”

This is the job of the doctor: to figure out what ails you and then make it better. The first part can be very tricky (as fans of the old TV show, “House,” may recall). When you walk into a check-up feeling healthy, a good doctor will poke and prod to make sure you really are healthy. When you walk into an appointment because something is wrong (perhaps with your arm), the doctor will poke and prod to figure out what the problem is. You may think you know (“It’s carpal tunnel, Doc. I know it!”), or you may just be in pain. The good doctor takes nothing at face value—he assesses the situation to figure out what the problem is. Sometimes that means running tests; sometimes that means asking a lot of questions beyond the test.

In academic intervention programs, we often talk about being “diagnostic and prescriptive,” but our diagnostic process is often woefully inadequate. We certainly have our tests. We have instruments designed to find out what our students know and can do. If students miss a question or two, we can identify areas of weakness or concern. But our test instruments, whether standardized or teacher-made, rarely go deeper than that. They barely tell us what; they almost never tell us why.

Imagine a doctor who can establish that a patient’s arm hurts, but has no tools or skills to tell him why. What use is he to the patient? “Well, sir, it looks like your arm hurts.” “Thanks, Doc. That much, I already knew.” Imagine the doctor who reads the results of a blood test but doesn’t bother to talk to the patient about her family history, her diet, her lifestyle, to find out what lies behind the data. We would all probably agree this was not a great doctor.

I mentioned during a recent presentation that teacher questioning shouldn’t be aimed solely at the correct answer, but should also drive students towards revealing mistakes and misconceptions. When I said that, I got some horrified looks in response. But it’s true; the correct answer is the least interesting piece of information in the room. We already know what the correct answer is. Figuring out who else knows it is lovely, and important, but it’s simply a confirmation that everything’s great. What if everything isn’t great? What if someone is sitting there, hopelessly confused—the patient who is in pain but refuses to acknowledge it? What we need to do is poke and prod until somebody says, “Ouch!” Until that happens, we can’t find out where it hurts—and if we don’t know where it hurts, we can’t help.

This is especially tricky in the classroom, because in many cases, students can identify a correct answer or solve a problem without having any idea why that answer is correct or why they did whatever they did to solve the problem. They follow a process that they don’t really understand, and it seems to work. Or they repeat something their neighbor said. These tactics leave them extremely vulnerable and open to future error—and lead to bewildered teachers saying, “But he knew it when I taught it.”

If we don’t take time to ask, “Why?” or “How?” or “How did you know?” we miss our chance to peek inside the child’s head and see what’s going on in there. And if we don’t take time to structure our questions and examples correctly, we miss our chance to diagnose the problems we find there.

Elizabeth Green, in her book, Building a Better Teacher, provides fascinating examples of teachers who know how to ask probing, diagnostic questions that reveal misconceptions and mistakes. It’s a time-consuming practice, to be sure. It means resisting the easy path of Xeroxing worksheets from a textbook or downloading activities from the Internet. It means really thinking through the thought process behind the skill or concept we’ve taught—how it works, why it works, and how it can go wrong. And that’s tricky, because we’re experts at what we teach, and we may never really think about what we’re doing. The skills are automatic and the concepts are deeply engrained. We take them for granted, and that makes it easy to teach them as if they’re self-evident. If they’re obvious, all you need are some confirming questions to make sure everyone “got it.”

We need to slow our brains down and think about what those brains are really doing when we find a lowest common denominator, or interpret a poetic image. We need to see the material the way the child sees it, so that we can catch and make sense of the errors they’re making. Maybe not all the time—maybe the way we teach and test and question works perfectly well for 60% of our kids—maybe even 75%. But for those students who get lost in the weeds or the woods—the students who get left behind and end up wandering down a dark and confusing pathway—we need to be ready to intervene.