What a powerful statement: “The questions a student asks after reading a text are a better assessment than the questions a student can answer.” When I think about David Pearson's quote, I wonder what it means for our classrooms. What does it mean for our assessments? How can this change the roles of the student and the teacher?
When I was a kid in the late 80s and early 90s, Pizza Hut had a computer-based (Apple IIGS) reading incentive program—I just Googled it and it's still around—which offered free personal pizzas if you correctly answered seven out of ten comprehension questions. Well, I was incentivised! Every recess, I sat down at the Apple IIGS and started taking those tests. Well, by the end of Grade 4 and Grade 5, I ate a lot of pizza, but I didn’t read any books. I just kept taking and retaking the tests until I got the questions correct. And, voila, free pizza! No Comprehension Necessary.
Do comprehension worksheets allow for students to share the thinking they had while reading texts? Usually not. Do they celebrate student thinking? Nope. Do they actually keep students accountable? Not really. Do they actually improve student learning? “No. There has never been one study that has ever proven that a comprehension worksheet has ever improved a students’ ability to read" (Steph Harvey). If they are ineffective, what can kids do instead? Read. That’s what kids should be doing, reading! However, the common response is there’s no time. So where do we find the time? By uncovering our benches.
Previously I have posted about Debbie Miller’s analogy in her book No More Independent Reading Without Support that teachers guard benches, and they often hold onto the things they’ve done for years without thinking deeply about the purposes. She relates this to soldiers in Eduardo Galleano’s short story, Bureaucracy 3:
At a barracks in Seville, in the middle of the courtyard of that barracks was a small bench. Next to the small bench, a soldier stood guard. No one knew why the bench had to be guarded. It was guarded around the clock—every day, every night, and from one generation of officers to the next, the order was passed on and the soldiers obeyed it. No one expressed any doubts or every asked why. If that’s how it was done, there had to be a reason.
The bench was guarded for over thirty years without ever knowing the purpose! How many things do we do in schools and have no idea why we do them? When you think about teaching, can you think of some benches we have, things we’ve always done just because we’ve always done them?
Rather than spending hours figuring out different literacy centers activities where the kids produce sheets and sheets of paper that require very little cognitive demand and often ends up at the bottom of a trashcan, perhaps the kids could spend that time reading and writing down their thinking about a story. Rather than having students fill out comprehension worksheets (shut-up sheets), perhaps the kids could be taught the art of discussion and engage in a thoughtful discussion about a story while being videoed so they can reflect on the depth of their discussion and thinking.
Valuing the Thinking of Our Students
Over the past ten years, I have embraced the idea of celebrating kids’ thinking, and I have tried various ways to make their thinking and understanding visible. The ultimate goal of a teacher should be to understand a child’s thinking about a text, and how he or she developed that thinking. As inquiry-based teachers, we should teach the reader, not the reading, so that students can seamlessly transfer the skills, strategies, and concepts of reading from one text to another. So, what does that look like? I walked into a Grade 1 classroom and saw exactly what David Pearson expressed: student thinking being valued while providing authentic assessments of understanding.
The students were sitting on the floor closely clustered around Ms. T who was reading, What Do You Do With an Idea by Kobi Yamada. Teachers and students were equipped with Post-it Notes, clipboards, and pencils. Conceptually, this book is quite difficult; however, what this book does do it push kids to question. In a nutshell, it is about a boy who has an idea that follows him around and grows and grows as the boy’s confidence grows until one day when…(read the book :-))
The students’ questions were exploding out of the room. As Ms. T read, students wrote and drew pictures of their questions, teachers scribed, and everyone turned and talked about their thinking. All thoughts were valued, and the students' thinking showed us their understanding, misconceptions, and overall comprehension.
When you walk into this classroom, you immediately realise that celebrating student thinking is of paramount importance. Kids were learning, thinking, and understanding, and time was not wasted. How can we ensure that what we value are students’ questions rather than those prescribed or ones we think are important, because in reality, they’re not important to the students.
Since the beginning of school, I have been a part of many discussions across grade levels about the value and purpose of homework. Using our homework policy as a guide, teams have developed homework that helps consolidate learning, is rooted in inquiry, allows for a degree of choice, and integrates IT in transforming how homework is communicated and completed.
At the end of last school year, I posted about Dan Meyer’s work on how to engage students in inquiry-based mathematics through open-ended problem solving. This past week, the Grade 2 team put this into practice while inquiring into how they can organise numbers by using a big bag of Gummi Bears packets. Following this lesson, they created a video of the lesson and posted it on their blogs to support parents in understanding what is going on in the classroom; allow students to articulate their learning; and create engaging ways to extend learning beyond the classroom.
This led one student bringing in several boxes of Hubba Bubba for the class to explore just as they had with Gummi Bears. Below shows the progression of the lesson they developed using Dan Meyer’s Three Acts of a Mathematical Story:
Act 1: Engage All and Lower Barriers to Entry
They presented the students with a visual that pushed students to question, wonder, and had very few words. It was something that connected to the students and would engage them in mathematical thinking that they might not have thought of before.
Students in Grade 2 were asked to pose questions about this box of Hubba Bubba. Rather than just posing the question yourself, students are able to formulate their own thinking, which also greatly increases engagement.
The teachers then asked students to share their questions and then focused on the question that will help support the standards they are focusing on as a class. “Great. Love these questions. I hope we get to all of them. Here’s one I’ll need your help with first: How many pieces are in the box? Now estimate and give an answer that is too low and an answer that is too high." This allows all students to focus on developing their estimation skills and gives access to all students.
ACT 2: Determine and Overcome Obstacles
Students began to figure out what they need to know and solve the problem. “What information would be useful to know here?" After students have listed all the information they need in order to solve the problem, they document their exploration to answer them.
"How big is a piece of gum?"
"How many pieces are in a pack?"
"How many packs are in the box?"
"How can we easily organize these to count?"
"How else can we group these?"
Students then took time to organise their mathematical thinking on paper.
ACT 3: Resolve Conflict and Extend
The students then were shown the original box, again and discussed and reflected on how they solved the problem. Whose estimates were the closest? How did they figure out their estimation? How did students solve the problem? Are there any other questions that weren't answered?
"Yes, you can each have a pack of gum." :-)
YouCubed: Mathematical Fluency Without Fear
Over the past several years, Jo Boaler, Professor at Stanford University, has developed YouCubed, a website dedicated to promoting inquiry- and concept-based mathematics instruction. In her most recent publication, Fluency Without Fear, she posits that a focus on fluency in mathematics is important; however, fluency is often misinterpreted as rote memorization of math facts without any number sense.
Hear Jo speak about the importance of conceptual-based mathematics teaching and learning for all our students, particularly with our students who struggle the most.
How can we create a bubble of wonder in our classrooms? Thanks, Kath!
Nell Duke, professor of language, literacy, and culture at the University of Michigan, helps articulate how informational texts can and should be used in elementary schools. In her Educational Leadership article, The Case for Informational Texts, she states that the seven things that are seen in primary classrooms that are effectively using informational texts to help students learn to read and write.
70 years later, Dewey’s final quote still rings true, “The world is moving at a tremendous rate. No one knows where. We must prepare our children not for the world of the past, not for our world, but for their world. The world of the future.”
How are we preparing our students for their world? The world of the future.
Other Resources from Cristobal Cabo
I was fortunate to attend the IB Regional Conference during which time I learned a great deal. One presenter, Cristobal Cabo, shared many innovative strategies to implement in the classroom, which I will share throughout the year. One of the most thought-provoking videos he shared was from the 1940s in the United States. While watching, ask yourself, how has the world changed? Where are we right now? How far have we come? Where do we want to be? Education in the 1940s
Creativity Takes Time brings to life the impact time has on one’s creativity. It posits creativity is the result of freedom, playfulness, and fun. This video although only two minutes long implores us to find ways to increase the amount of time students are engaged in creative activities. This allows allows students to explore what Sir Ken Robinson defines as the essence of creativity, “The process of having original ideas that have value.” However, in many schools, time constraints and pressure are constantly put onto student activities. In study upon study, increasing time pressure greatly inhibits the ability students have to be creative and only allows for a narrow range of output often resulting in children producing the same work.
The video brings up some important questions about the learning activities we create for our students.