I’ve been working on a reading assessment project and I’m in the midst of trying to figure out ways to get students to explain what they understand about the “main idea” of the text. More about how this assessment is shaping up will follow in future posts, but something struck me as I was doing some brainstorming and found myself repeatedly using the word “identify.”
As a teacher I have asked students to identify all kinds of things. I’ve asked them to identify the headings (as opposed to the sub-headings) in a text. I’ve asked them to identify the main character. I’ve asked them to identify the counter-argument in their own writing. I’ve asked them to identify the main idea of a text. Often these directions to “identify” something are followed up with instructions to “explain.” When I started teaching I was given one of those nifty charts that showed the levels of Bloom’s taxonomy as well as verbs that went with each level. “Identify” was always mentioned in at least one of the two lower-levels, “Knowledge” and “Comprehension” thereby implying (in my mind, at least) that asking student’s to “identify” something was only a first step on the climb to deeper and more complex critical thinking. Asking students to “identify” was a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but we should them ask them to do more with that thing they “identified” lest all our teaching (and their learning) be stuck at the lower-levels of the taxonomy.
Using tools like this to craft tasks for students was helpful in some ways because it pushed me to move students beyond basic recall about what happened in a story, or what three things were supposed to be in an introduction to a five-paragraph essay. However, very quickly I realized that this list of verbs was hardly a fool-proof way to make sure I was pushing students to deeper understanding and critical thinking. In fact, there were easy ways to “cheat” the verb system. Sure, the verb “describe” might be in the “Evaluation” box, but asking students to “describe” what Atticus Finch looked like in To Kill a Mockingbird was hardly an evaluative task. Similarly, asking students to identify the main idea of a complex text (think of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”) is not a simple task. To do this well (and to have evidence to back up one’s assertion about the main idea) requires close reading, careful analysis and lots of problem-solving around parts of the text that the reader finds confusing.
Now, obviously, I’m not saying that these verbs or lists like this are meaningless. Instead, I’m simply pointing out that these types of tools always, always, require thinking through the task we are asking students to do. This is why I really think that teachers should always do the assignments that we ask students to do, and really, really consider the thinking process we are using to fulfill the assignment. We have to think as critically as we hope our students will when it comes to designing assignments and assessments. We can’t just slap some terms around (be they “identify,” “create” or “describe”) and think we’ve covered our bases. On a similar note, administrators can’t just count the “higher-level” terms we used to see if we are good teachers. Teaching just isn’t that simple because learning just isn’t that simple.
As I continue with this assessment design I will not only be working on crafting the language of the assessment, but also considering the tasks I am actually asking students to do. My goal is to use wording that is most understandable to students and most likely to illuminate the thinking that drives their comprehension of the text. In the process I will need to think deeply about what I am asking them to do and how best to push them to show deep comprehension of the text, even when I ask them to “identify.”
I’ve been on the hunt for a healthier (i.e. lower sugar and fat) muffin recipe that I could use to make snacks for me and the kiddos. Dreena Burton to the rescue! I found her “as-you-like-it” muffin recipe and tweaked it a bit to make some delicious Coconut-Mango muffins. They come out pretty moist, but they are delicious, and certainly healthier that my usual banana-chocolate-chip fare!