Critical Exploration in the Classroom

How teachers' "critical exploration" of students' behavior can reveal the nature of their understanding

May 29, 2008
Professor Eleanor Duckworth

An educator can gain insight into students' understanding by observing and talking with students as they work through complex problems and projects. Professor Eleanor Duckworth describes a dialogue between a teacher/researcher, Lisa Schneier, and six high school students, four of whom spoke English as a second language, as they read a poem together.1 Among the students' initial reactions to the poem were:

"I don't get this."
"It don't rhyme."
"It's silly."
"It doesn't make sense."

These responses provide no evidence of what students understand about it. But the responses are revealing. They highlight the fact that the students bring their prior expectations about poetry to the learning experience. To reach an understanding of the poem, a student makes a connection from the poem to what he or she already understands.

Over the course of several sessions, Schneier asks questions based on students' comments and has the class look at the poem in different ways, such as by identifying phrases that "go together" in meaning. In the midst of an animated class discussion, a student conveys, in his own words, that the language of the poem is figurative; there are many things that the word "you" could refer to in the poem, even things other than people. This statement demonstrates a new understanding about poetry — that nonliteral meanings are possible. The teacher could observe this learning in action, and with this understanding, the student is making an enormous leap, toward understanding the nature not only of this poem but of all poems.

Teachers critically explore student learning through projects in poetry, science, mathematics, history, spelling, or any other part of the curriculum. As students struggle through a problem, the teacher puts them at ease, invites them to talk about and keep thinking about their ideas, and reacts to the substance of their answers without judging them. In this researcher mind-set, the teacher refrains from signaling to the students what she wants them to say; doing so would sacrifice the opportunity to know what the students actually think. Rather than being expected to provide a certain answer, the students reveal their own understanding through their responses. This does not mean that the teacher's own curricular goals are pushed aside. On the contrary, a teacher's knowledge in the subject matter and skill as an educator are simultaneously put to work as she deepens the students' understanding and helps them to take their own thoughts further.

1Schneier, L. (2001). Apprehending poetry. In E. Duckworth (Ed.) "Tell Me More: Listening to Learners Explain." (pp. 42-78). New York: Teachers College Press.

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