Teaching to the (New) Tests: The Benefits of Discussion
It's no secret that many teachers are wondering how to ensure all students "read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently" by the end of high school. Similarly they are unsure of how to help all "read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text." Ditto to "integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words." And they have similar concerns for how to promote acceptance of diverse viewpoints, broadly useful oral communication skills, or the ability to listen and interact with others productively. At this point, many teachers cope with students unable to solve rote math problems and articulate how they did it, let alone find more than one solution. Yet all of these abilities (and more) are required to achieve Common Core anchor standards.
Teachers are looking for ways and means to accomplish learning that teaching methods of the past (especially the recent past) haven't addressed. As they do so, they must continue to work with overfull classrooms of students of very different states of preparedness. Regardless, the goal is that each student, no matter how challenged at the start, ends up with skills appropriate to undertake higher education and/or the work of tomorrow. This is of course a worthy goal but it's unsurprising that it feels overwhelming. To be successful means making significant changes in how we teach. How do we do it?
The abilities teachers need to nurture fall into three categories. One is thinking: behaviors such as comprehending, inferring meaning, citing evidence, integrating knowledge, and evaluating are aspects of cognition. Another category is language related: reading, writing, broadly useful oral communication skills relate to verbal literacy sought across disciplines. A third describes social behaviors: listening, interacting with others productively, and working collaboratively to good effect. These categories can be viewed as distinct from one another but they are interrelated and interdependent: growing ability to infer meaning from observations, for example, feeds the need for broad vocabulary and full sentences to express thoughts.
None of these skills can be taught on its own or out of a context: to learn to think deeply, you need material to think about and experience with many subjects. To learn to listen, you regularly need to hear and process worthwhile comments, ones of value to you. The world is full of subjects worthy of thoughtful examination, but what teachers need are new strategies to employ alongside direct instruction to nurture the desired behaviors.
My insight into an effective strategy derives from more than twenty years of studying the effects of a particular type of facilitated discussion. Our data has shown that the right three or four questions repeated in different lessons can become a habitual meaning-making strategy easily put into operation when students encounter unfamiliar subjects or tasks. If one of the questions is "What do you see (or read) that makes you say that?" students build the practice of routinely supplying evidence. If the subject under discussion is familiar enough to provide entry point for all students yet complex and puzzling enough to merit extended examination deep thinking proves possible and enjoyable. If the teacher facilitates the discussion in a way that supports each comment evenly, encourages probing beyond first impressions and "right answers," allows for different ideas to be expressed broadening the scope of the possible meanings, and extends the process to allow for reflection over time, productive interaction among students leads to the ability to consider multiple points of view as reasonable.
Discussions are thus essential for learning to think, connecting the related processes of thought and language. During discussions we often put words to ideas for the first time, frequently needing to stretch to find appropriate vocabulary. We sort out and give form to our thoughts. We learn to apply what we know. We scaffold on the ideas and language of our peers as well as debate possibilities. We work to communicate clearly, finding out how to make ideas transparent to others. We gain confidence and find our voice.
Discussion is also required for students to learn language. We understand this in early childhood: we get very excited about baby's first words and sentences, as we should, and we use many means to encourage them to talk. Schooling has focused so heavily on writing the last number of years, we've collectively forgotten that speaking comes first and opportunity to speak is key to learning language. If you can say it, you can probably write it. The reverse is also likely: if you can't articulate your thoughts, it's unreasonable to expect you write or read them.
Language development is very likely a lifelong matter, but it certainly goes on throughout elementary and secondary schooling. It seems appropriate to think of all students as "developing language," not just those labeled as language challenged. This includes acquiring vocabulary as well as a way with words that makes it easy for others not simply to understand us but to accept what we say: a tone of voice in which difficult things can be said without provoking offense. The more complex the subject, the more this is true, and I'm not just talking about the jargon of specific disciplines but also the language to convey emotion, differing opinions, and challenging ideas. If discussion of ever-increasingly complex topics is built into the process through the grades, language ability continues to evolve to keep pace with widening experience, new discoveries, and cognitive growth.
Paraphrasing is tool a teacher can apply to encourage participation in discussions as well as nurture language itself. Rephrasing a comment acknowledges its value and proves a student has make herself clear. It also demonstrates the honing of language and even allows for the correction of such things as grammar or the supplying of desired vocabulary with the student feeling supported not corrected.
In the experimental research colleagues and I have conducted, we have used art as a perfect first subject to teach discussion and we've seen teachers build on initial experience in several ways and many subjects. The first is to ask students to write about images discussed after they've had a chance to explore them with classmates for fifteen or so minutes. Language propelled by multiple observations, inferences, and opinions grounded in evidence leads to richer written commentaries. Another application is to use the same simple pattern we call "Visual Thinking Strategies" to texts like poems or historical documents, to many subjects in science, and even to math word problems. Once confident that as a group they can noodle their way to understanding complex imagery, students are ready, even eager to take on other subjects. Teachers find their own ways to build on interest and curiosity stimulated by initial discussions, often involving small groups pursuing projects based questions they have come up with.
Teachers talking to each other about such classroom experiences achieve another goal of the Common Core initiative: school-based solutions to helping students achieve broadly and deeply, instead of adopting ready made, one-size-fits-all curricula.
Philip Yenawine is the co-creator, with Abigail Housen, of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). VTS is the subject of his forthcoming book, Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Thinking Across School Disciplines (Harvard Education Press; Publication date: October 30, 2013).