Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Importance of “Why Do You Think That?”

Last week I shared the story of the exasperated teacher who wondered why children who demonstrate such great understanding when they talk about text can’t seem to demonstrate the same understanding when faced with multiple choice test questions.  Ever since she posed this question, I have been on a quest to find answers that help explain this apparent lack of transference.

In the past week, I have led numerous close reads of text and have been informally researching what seems to be behind this problem.  Today I had one of those moments that we all covet as teacher-learners: the epiphany, the moment when what was once very confusing begins to make a lot more sense.

This is what happened:
As I worked with a group of fifth graders to look closely at the “The Great Mouse Plot” from Roald Dahl’s Boy, we zeroed in on the following paragraph:
When writing about oneself, one must strive to be truthful.  Truth is more important than modesty.  I must tell you, therefore, that it was I and I alone who had the idea for the great and daring Mouse Plot.  We all have our moments of brilliance and glory, and this was mine.

Knowing that the shift in focus here can be confusing, we puzzled through the question who is Roald Dahl addressing when he says “when writing about oneself, one must strive to be truthful”?  The students postulated different responses including “himself,” “his friends,” and “his audience.”  We took great care to eliminate incorrect choices one-by-one as we noticed evidence like “I must tell YOU…” and “we ALL have our moments…”and that there were not quotes around this part of the story as opposed to what was happening just prior when the characters were speaking to one another.  All of these examples supported that Roald Dahl was speaking to his audience.  The conversation was pointed and rich but of course the question about transference lurked in the back of my mind so after all was said and done, I gave the students the following question:

When Roald Dahl, writes, “When writing about oneself, one must strive to be truthful.  Truth is more important than modesty,” who is he concerned about lying to?
  1. Mrs. Pratchett
  2. His friends
  3. Thwaites
  4. His reader

Based on our conversation, I was certain there would be unanimity about the correct response being 4. 

However, that was not the case.

Many students answered 1.  When I asked why, they said, “Mrs. Pratchett is mean.  He knows that lying to her would get him into trouble.” 

Because I asked, “why do you think that?” I now understand that part of the problem is that they are not giving full consideration to the entire question.  They saw the word “lying” and had just finished reading about and discussing Mrs. Pratchett so that made A seem like a reasonable response.  That’s a problem I can fix.

Other students answered 2.  At first, I was stunned because these children spent no less than ten minutes discussing why he wasn’t addressing his friends in this part of the story.  But then I asked, “why do you think so?” and a boy raised his hand and explained that it seemed to make sense because “look Mrs. Yaris, it’s in quotes and didn’t you tell us that when words are in quotes, that means that people are talking?”  The skies opened up for me.  The problem here isn’t understanding the text, it’s understanding the function of quotation marks in text. In this case, these readers couldn’t distinguish dialogue from a direct quote. That too is a problem I can fix. 

So in returning to the question about why the apparent lack of transfer, I am beginning to conclude that students do achieve new understandings when they have rich discussions of text.  When they fail to demonstrate the same understanding on test questions, very often the error is not in understanding the text, it is in understanding the question being asked which leaves us wondering how to rectify the situation.   

I think the answer to that returns to the Common Core suggestion that we train students to gain and integrate new information through the close, careful analysis of text.  What we must realize is that text does not only mean passages and poems, it also means test questions as well.  I’m wondering when close reads become part of our regular classroom practice if it will naturally begin to occur that students read questions more thoroughly and subsequently begin to do better on tests?  Will one good practice beget another? 

Only time will tell…


Pattic said...

First of all, great choice! Love, love, love Boy. Close reading requires that you push thinking to consider things that go beyond comprehension. Students are accustomed to answer questions using story details. This is a question we are exploring, what does it mean to go deeper and how do we facilitate it? I saw today, kids engaging in a Graffiti activity(thank you) and initial writing was cursory, while later responses were deeper. It was not kid's first action to go deep. It is a muscle that needs exercising. The activity did lay the ground work to engage kids in a discussion about their thinking and what it takes to consider the text and go deeper. Kids need to be aware that there are levels of thinking also. It is tough work and we need to give teachers a chance to collaborate and discuss this.

Pattic said...

Also, such valuable learning is done with discussions. I agree thats much of what we are learning is done from listening. You are right on when you say that the confusions are learned when you talk to kids. I also agree that many kids are having issues deciphering questions and that this is a genre unto itself. U sweats ding what is asked is huge...however the questions we are asking kids have to be deeper too. This is tough work. Finding the right passages and aligned questions are tough too. All of this needs to be embedded into learning community work and ongoing collaboration. Love the blog thanks for making me take the time to reflect. :)

Kim Yaris said...

Hi Patti! Thanks so much for sharing! When you say that finding the right passages and aligning the questions is tough work, that is an understatement! If we are going to do this well, it is imperative that we do it within our learning communities or else what will happen are grave inconsistencies in educational practices. Some will think they have it, when indeed the bar could be raised so much higher.