Content of Thinking
Focus on Student Thinking
“As a new teacher, it can be a little bit challenging to know, ‘What is rigorous? What is challenging? At what level do your fourth-graders come in? What should students be learning?’”
Mayra Tovar is a first-year teacher at Lee Means Elementary School in Harlingen, Texas, and a graduate of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV). She is describing a challenge faced by beginning teachers everywhere when it comes to the content of thinking.
As a beginning teacher, you may have strategies for breaking down standards and planning your instruction around big ideas. You may know how to analyze instructional tasks for rigor and relevance, and even how to design a high-quality task yourself. You may know the content. But until you’ve experienced how young learners interpret and make sense of material, you haven’t engaged fully with the content of thinking.
Ms. Tovar is fortunate. She graduated from UTRGV’s Student Teacher Educator Preparation – University Partnership (STEP UP) program, a yearlong experience working alongside a mentor teacher in a local school. Mentor teachers, co-selected by the university and the district and trained in a co-teaching model, help preservice teachers build relationships with students and come to observe how they interact with and respond to important content.
Mentors do this by placing teacher-candidates into practice sessions of increasing complexity, where candidates have chances to elicit and respond to student thinking. This is similar to practice opportunities in the University of Nevada, Reno’s Integrated Elementary Teaching Program, another effective program that we profiled in Building Blocks
Dr. Sandra Musanti is an associate professor of bilingual and literacy studies at UTRGV and one of the key faculty involved in STEP UP. She says that the program is set up so that aspiring teachers can “understand how learning happens” and “notice the students and the differences in how they see themselves in the classroom.” Musanti wants candidates to see “the range of capabilities that students have, as opposed to noticing what they can’t do.”
Noticing students’ capabilities requires listening closely to students, observing how they think about content, and responding to misconceptions.
One of the most common misconceptions in fourth-grade English Language Arts concerns the use of adverbs. Texas state ELA standards call for fourth-graders to both use and understand the function of adverbs in a sentence. But adverbs are especially slippery for young learners to grasp.
Consider the word “especially” in the previous sentence. On its own, it has no meaning that a fourth-grader can visualize. It acquires meaning only in relation to the adjective – “slippery” – that it describes. So in order to understand an adverb’s function in a sentence, a fourth-grader must have knowledge of other parts of speech, such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives that adverbs modify. Not only that, students must learn that some words take on meaning only in relation to other words.
To really understand how adverbs work is complex. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many students mistakenly latch onto the “-ly” ending of a word to identify it as an adverb.
This was the student thinking that Pamela Garza, an elementary candidate in the STEP UP program, was working to probe during a recent Tuesday morning at Lee Means Elementary. The previous day, Garza’s mentor teacher, Luisa Nieto, who was in her 22nd year of teaching, had introduced adverbs by explaining that they describe “how, how often, when, and where” in relation to a verb, noun, or adjective.
The fourth-graders were organized into rotating groups of four to five students. Over the course of two sections that day, Garza would repeat the same activity with more than 30 individual students.
Garza wanted to know whether students truly understood how an adverb functions, not just identify them. As a novice teacher, however, coming up with the right questions was a challenge. So prior to class, she and Nieto had written out question stems on popsicle sticks, and Garza drew on these as she asked each student to explain their sentence. Does your adverb describe how an action occurs? Does it tell us how often something happens?
The activity had many characteristics of a rigorous task: students needed to build on prior knowledge of other parts of speech, they had to connect the text to a conceptual definition of adverbs, and they had to communicate their reasoning – which involved effortful thought, particularly for students who are English-language learners.
To be sure, observers of standards-based literacy instruction might be quick to point out that students were not being asked to grapple with adverbs using a complex text, like a short story or non-fiction article. In Garza’s small group, the cognitive work was decontextualized.
But this was by design. In another small group rotation, Nieto facilitated discussion of a short story, spiraling through several important skills, including identification of adverbs. But in Garza’s group, the task was set up so that she could probe the thinking of individual students around very specific content – understanding the use and function of adverbs in a sentence. As the semester progressed, Garza would take on more rigorous and cognitively-demanding tasks with students.
With each rotation, Garza became more fluid in her questioning, especially after she and Ms. Nieto had an opportunity to debrief over lunch before the afternoon’s class section. “I noticed the mistakes [students] were making,” Garza said, particularly their use of “-ly” as a shortcut. She and Nieto discussed how Garza could refer to an anchor chart on the wall – which laid out the varied uses of adverbs – to help students think about their own sentences.
For Garza, the experience was eye-opening. She saw individual students succeed with content that they had previously shied away from. She saw students’ full range of capabilities. “Sometimes, when they have to do their writing prompts, they’re like, ‘Well, Miss, I don’t know what to do,’ or ‘I don’t know what to say,’” Garza said. “Next time they tell me that, I’m going to tell them that no, that’s a lie. I know that they can do it.”
Garza knows first-hand the negative impact of teachers who don’t engage deeply in their students’ thinking and challenge them with rigorous tasks. At age nine, she was placed into an English as a Second Language (ESL) class, where she was handed worksheet after worksheet. “The teacher wouldn’t actually go through it with us,” Garza says. “She would just say, ‘Okay, complete the activity, and if you have questions, ask your neighbor.’ The neighbors knew more English than I did, but they were like okay, just look for this word and this word, and if you find it in the book, just copy the entire sentence.”
In far too many classrooms that we visit across the country, Garza’s fourth-grade experience is typical. Students are given instructional tasks that require a level of cognitive demand far below what is envisioned by today’s academic standards, and we see teachers more intent on covering content than on fostering student thinking about content.
This pattern has many roots, but one of them lies in preservice preparation.
In our experience, far too many teacher-preparation programs treat content knowledge as a great sea of information that must be poured from program to teacher-candidate to student.
We’ve been in a social studies methods class that covered a different era of American history each week. One after another, groups of candidates gave five-minute presentations on the 1920’s: jazz, Prohibition, flappers, the stock market crash, and on and on. There was little attempt to consider the relevance of the content for students, nor how to engage them in thinking rigorously about it.
We’ve been in a methods course where each candidate had been assigned a page of an outdated textbook on literacy instruction to summarize and present. Each page was treated as being as important as the next, and no effort was made to consider recent advances in the science of reading.
At one university, we observed an elementary candidate present to her fellow aspiring teachers on a text about Harriet Tubman, recounting facts about the Underground Railroad without any reference to why Tubman or the Underground Railroad was important, or what her own students might be thinking during the presentation. Neither the teacher-educator nor the other teacher-candidates in the room asked questions, and the class quickly moved on to the next presentation, which followed a similar form.
When programs go broad, not deep, when they do not prioritize ambitious content, when they do not use rigorous tasks, when they do not require candidates to focus on student thinking, they miss critical opportunities to foster candidates’ content knowledge for teaching.
But, as the programs featured here attest, another way is possible. Working with the outstanding teacher-educators at these programs and so many others, Deans for Impact will continue our work to ensure future teachers engage deeply in the content of thinking.