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Beyond “Identify”

October 31, 2012

Teacher Musings:

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.”

Yummy Stuff:

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 kiddosDreena 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!

Coconut-Mango Muffins

  • Servings: 12 muffins
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup ground oats (I just ground rolled oats in a coffee grinder.  You could probably also use a blender or food processor)
1/4 cup coconut (this led to a subtle coconut flavor.  Bring it up to 1/3 or even 1/2 cup if you really like coconut!)
1 1⁄2 tsp baking powder
1⁄2 tsp baking soda
1⁄4 cup sugar
1 cup unsweetened applesauce
1⁄2 cup soymilk
2 TB pure maple syrup
1 TB pure vanilla extract
1 tbsp canola oil
1 cup chopped mango (I used frozen mango from Trader Joe’s)
1) Preheat oven to 375ºF.  Prepare the muffin tin (12 muffins) with liners or greasing the tin.
2) In a large bowl, combine flour, ground oats, baking powder, baking soda and sugar.
3) In a separate bowl, mix the applesauce, soymilk, maple syrup, vanilla and oil.
4) Add the wet mixture to the dry mixture and stir gently just until the dry ingredients are moistened.  Fold in the mango.
5) Spoon into the muffin tin.  I like to use an ice cream scooper to do this – it makes scooping a breeze!  Bake for 20-25 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  1. I LOVE your post format!! A little bit of ed and little bit of yum!!… A warm welcome to my Google Reader RSS feed!!
    I am also a vegan and an English teacher in Australia. We looked at expository essay writing last term and our students wrote an essay on justice and inequality using ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ as well. Obviously there is a line between professionalism and personal values, but I managed to get students thinking about human rights and animal rights in the discussion of slavery and in the scene where Atticus kills the dog.
    I can not wait to read more of your musings on education… and discover more yummy vegan recipes!

    • Thank you so much for the kind comment. I have also taught To Kill a Mockingbird before and I thought your way of making that connection about social justice is interesting!. Thanks so much for sharing!
      Also, you have a fantastic blog – I look forward to reading and exploring more of it!

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