“I like how you inferred the answer to your question.”
These are all things I’ve said to students in the interest of giving them feedback, bolstering their self-esteem, and praising their use of strategies in the classroom. But I’m currently reading What Readers Really Do: Teaching the Process of Meaning Making by Barnhouse and Vinton, and they’re making me question these types of statements to kids.
When we evaluate student’s responses as being either good or bad, we subtly assume control of the learning. We become the keeper of the knowledge, the one who determines if an answer is “right” or not.
For instance, one day during a unit on inferring I read The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bag Wolves to a group of 2nd graders, and led them in using context clues and background knowledge to infer the meaning of unfamiliar words. As I turned a page partway through the book, a picture of the wolves playing badminton in front of their concrete bunker revealed itself to the children. When I read that the characters enjoyed a game of “shuttledore and battlecock” outside their new home, one boy exclaimed, “That’s just badminton!”
Here’s where I messed up. I simply said, “You’re right!”, saw the nods from the other students, and continued to read. However, Barnhouse and Vinton argue that my simple statement positioned me as the “one who knows the answers”. In classrooms where this is the norm, students will continuously search for the “right” answer that will please the teacher. They usually end up thinking there’s only one right answer.
Instead, these authors argue, I should have simply asked, “What made you say that?” That simple statement gives control back to the student and forces him to search within himself to describe his inferring process.
If I’d said that during my read aloud he might have responded, “Well, that’s what’s in the picture.” I imagine, these being 2nd graders, that I’d have to have given some good wait time, or even said, “Tell me more” in order for him to explain that he’d played badminton in P.E. last year, he’d used rackets and the funny little cone-shaped ball, and so he was drawing from his own schema to infer the meaning of the unfamiliar words “battledore and shuttlecock”.
Those simple little words, “What made you say that?” have the potential to be so powerful. They take away the easy answer, the search for the one “right” answer, and force the student to be an active, reflective participant in their own learning. And they force us teachers to dig deeper, listen more, and be willing to accept multiple answers. If school is about teaching kids to think, we have to make room for kids to do just that.