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.