Carlton Jordan, guest blogger, is an independent consultant who is working on our forthcoming revised Assignments Analysis framework. He was also previously a senior associate for Ed Trust during our early Standards in Practice work.

Students can do no better than the assignments and instruction they’re given. That’s why Ed Trust has always called for rigorous assignments that incorporate extended writing (rather than brief, one-line answers). That was the focus of my Standards in Practice work a number of years ago. However, we rarely saw this type of critical thinking in the classrooms we visited.

Fast-forward to classrooms today, and unfortunately little has changed. True, fewer coloring tasks and dioramas are assigned as a measure of learning in secondary urban classrooms, but excessive highlighting, annotating, and journaling have replaced them — as we noted in our most recent Checking In analysis. That leaves little room for extended writing and even less for discussion.

Discussion is important because it elevates skill-based reading assignments. With discussion, for example, students do more than simply find the main idea or annotate a text. Discussion turns these skill-based tasks into ones that promote critical thinking.

For example, in one eighth-grade English language arts classroom included in our Checking In analysis, students annotated a text and distilled the main idea down to that of power and exploitation — but they didn’t stop there. Based on previous classroom discussions, students identified the type of power the character used and determined whether or not it was legitimate and effective. They further tested their findings in small groups, where they completed an organizer before writing. So while the organizer helped students develop their writing skills, the discussion prompted students to think critically — thus providing students with a more effective pre-writing strategy than an organizer alone.

In contrast, a number of middle school writing activities that didn’t include a discussion aimed no higher than crafting a claim statement (or hypothesis) or adding valid evidence to create a paragraph for the claim statement. Overall, the few tasks accompanied by discussion aligned better to the spirit of the Common Core State Standards; those absent discussion remained chained to a discrete reading or writing skill.

Our analysis also showed how some educators employ discussion as a pre-writing strategy, in order to assign and expect students to complete extended writing tasks (those that require a coherent set of multiple paragraphs). For example, one Socratic seminar in eighth grade situated #BlackLivesMatter within ideas espoused by Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Dubois, and Marcus Garvey. Continual small group conversation provided support for a research paper on one of the historical figures before the seminar took place. Then the Socratic seminar served as a starting point for an essay musing over the debate: black lives or all lives. Discussion used throughout the unit paved the way for all students to participate in the extended writing.

In the coming weeks, we will update our Assignment Analysis framework (part of Checking In) to include discussion along with assignments — because the assignments we reviewed that required discussion confirmed for us the power of literacy to support higher-level thinking. These assignments were rare, but they prove that challenging classrooms can exist for black and brown and low-income kids. In these classrooms students experience a spiraling complexity of assignments as a true measure of what they know and can do, and the use of ongoing discussion makes these experiences possible.

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