Monday, September 7, 2009

What's Important in Determining What's Important?

Recently, at a workshop with Adrienne Gear (author of Reading Power and Nonfiction Reading Power), she discussed the strategy of "determining importance." What's important, she said, is that students find what's important to them and can justify it, not that they all have the same points. The secondary teacher in me began to protest (silently). After all, in any text, there are main ideas and supporting ideas. Our job is to make sure students know the difference. Surely it doesn't make sense that we visit the same problem on non-fiction that we often have in fiction, where students think they are free to interpret the text however they wish, that there is no "right answer" and that poetry, as Stephen Zelnick observes of his college students, is merely a Rorschach pattern rather than a carefully constructed design.

But Adrienne Gear continued to show how to develop a list with students of ways to determine importance - repeated ideas, stand alone information, information that answers the who, what, where, when, why questions - so they can make choices that help them make sense of text and, most important, are able to justify those choices. Does it matter if everyone has the same point, she asked? I remembered a workshop I attended a few years ago. The presenter was sharing the Magnet Word strategy to a group of teachers (the reader chooses the word that the rest of the paragraph "sticks" to). He had the group participate by reading a very short paragraph on the French Revolution and reporting out the "magnet word." I was astounded by the variety of words chosen and the vehemence with which each teacher justified "their" word as "the" magnet word. The presenter finally gave up trying to get the group to reach consensus. After all, did it matter? And was anyone wrong? (I admit to thinking my word was the only "right" one.)

We are more used to making sure students arrive at the right important idea (and we decide what it is) than that they learn the process by which we arrive there. Students become used to this (the "good" ones, at least) and get busy trying to read the teacher's mind instead of getting curious about the text and puzzling out meaning. Perhaps the biggest problem with Zelnick's college students isn't that they didn't understand that there is a right interpretation, but they had no curiosity about the text at all.

Arriving at answers we can justify, that makes sense to us and for us is exciting and motivating in and of itself. Arriving at "right answers" by comparison is satisfying only if you have some external motivation: marks, goals that need marks, a desire to please parents or teachers. Interestingly, the children who struggle most in school are rarely motivated by any of those things. Teachers throw up their hands and say "these kids" aren't motivated to succeed. But it strikes me that we are focussed on the wrong motivations. We should focus on the purpose of learning: to make sense of ourselves and our world. When learning becomes a means to an end determined by others, it's hardly surprising that those who don't define the end won't participate.


  1. Just found your blog and although this is an old post I was compelled to respond! I am a new teacher and during my final practicum at Cow High I really struggled with the kids that just wanted to know where to find the "right" answer so they could fill the blank. I wanted them to explore what they thought the right answer was. Some of the students embraced the idea that their ideas were the important ones- as long as they could justify and back up their ideas!- but a greater number were paralyzed. They had no idea how to find the "right" answer or how to justify it. I think for many by the time they reach the grade 10 level they are so well trained to find what the teacher is looking for that they have lost their own thoughts and dreams. I am not interested in being a teacher that thinks that there is a right or wrong answer. Who am I to suggest that I or anyone really knows what is right? Easy for me-in humanities and arts to say...much harder for colleagues in math.

  2. Oh, I can picture the classroom you are describing perfectly. I've seen it too many times. One of my favourite bloggers - a math blogger! - is Dan Meyer: His blog is subtitled "be less helpful." He argues that in math, too - and surely this just makes sense - we need to provide space and opportunity for kids to think, not just give us the "right" answers. To do that, though, we have to be "less helpful." That's SO hard.