Sunday, March 27, 2016

Why Asking "What Is the Central Idea or Theme?" Is a Bad Question

What is the worst question we can ask our students but the one we reading and English language arts teachers often use and even rely upon as evidence that we are challenging and engaging our students to think critically and deeply about the texts and topics we are reading and reviewing?
What is the central idea or theme of a story or text?
What's ironic is that this very question is considered to be a good question  -- or even the best -- that we can ask our students to stimulate their deeper thinking and deepen their knowledge, understanding, and awareness about the meaning and message presented in the texts and topics being read and reviewing in class.  When ask students what is the central idea or theme, our intent and purpose is for students to think critically about the meaning or message presented in the text either concretely or abstractly.   We also believe we are challenging students to demonstrate higher order thinking -- specifically, the ability to analyze and evaluate.  
The question what is the central idea or theme should be an open-ended inquiry that should challenge and engage students to think critically and creatively about the meaning and messages presented in texts.  It is an interpretive inquiry that should prompt and encourage students to express and share their own impressions and perceptions of the central idea and theme of a text.  However, students' responses to this question should not be based on emotion or opinion alone.  They should justify their interpretation or perception of the central idea or theme by citing specific evidence from the text or explain the logical inferences made by the author.
Unfortunately, the real problem with asking what is the central idea and theme is it's posed as a closed-ended question that students can only answer correctly or incorrectly.   What's also interesting is how we pose or present the question does not resemble or reflect how the question is asked on formative and summative assessments.  Usually, we want students to provide a short answer or write an essay that describes and explains what is the central idea and theme.  Questions about the central idea or theme of a text or passage generally looks like this:
Consider what students are expected to demonstrate and communicate here.  Its intent and purpose is to assess whether the student understands what is the central idea or theme.   While the question asks students to think deeper, in regards to depth of knowledge, asking what is the central idea or theme could be categorized as a D.O.K-1  because it is asking them to recall and reproduce what the central idea or theme is as accurately and explicitly as it was taught or told to them by the text or the teacher. Also, if you think about it, multiple choice questions such as these provide the students the correct answer.  They just have to read the text and figure out which is the correct answer from the other three distractors.  Questions such as these also give students the impression that there can only be one central idea or theme expressed in a text.
Questions such as these also control or directs their thinking.  It also forces students to accept or agree with what one source states is the theme.  It could also damper or even dissuade students from thinking critically and creatively when they are reading and reviewing text - especially if they can't or don't recognize and agree with what is presented or portrayed to be the central idea or theme.
That's why this is a bad question - or even the worst question we could ask students. 
Literary texts are highly complex and dynamic - especially literary fiction that can address and allude to numerous ideas and themes.  Just look up any text explained by supplemental references such as CliffsNotesSpark Notes, or Shmoop that are meant to help students understand the complex ideas, motifs, symbols, and themes addressed and expressed in texts.    Literary analysts and critics also have their own unique impressions and interpretations of different texts and the meaning and messages they express.  However, who is to say they are accurate or even right?
So how can we ask good questions -- or at least better ones -- that not only reflect the type of questions about central idea and theme on standardized assessments but also challenge and engage students to demonstrate and communicate the following:
  • Determine the central idea or theme of a text.
  • Analyze how the central idea or theme of a text develops.
  • Summarize how key details and ideas strengthen and support the central idea or theme of a text.
These are the performance objectives that mark and measure cognitive rigor as well as college and career readiness.  However, when we ask , we're only addressing that first performance objective.  Just look when we state these performance objectives as cognitive rigor learning goals that challenge and engage students to show and tell higher order thinking and depth of knowledge:
  • Show and tell what is the central idea or theme of a text.
  • Show and tell how does the central idea or theme of a text develop.
  • Show and tell how do the key  details and ideas strengthen and support the central idea or theme of a text.
Take away and you have these questions:
  • What is the central idea or theme of a text?
  • How does the central idea or theme of a text develop?
  • How do the key details and ideas strengthen and support the central idea or theme of a text?
When asked together, these good questions scaffold the level of thinking and extend the depth of knowledge students should demonstrate and communicate - or show and tell.  That's how we can make what is the central idea or theme of a text a good -- or better -- question.
However, these are overarching essential questions that challenge and engage students to show and tell their conceptual and procedural knowledge of the central idea and theme of texts and how can both be determined.  In English language arts, good questions must focus on the specific text being read and reviewed and the central ideas and themes they express and infer.
So what if instead of asking students what is the central idea or theme we ask students the following good question?
How does the text address the following central idea or themes?
Then, instead of having students identify the central ideas or themes, we list what the themes are and encourage students to think strategically (D.O.K.-3) how the text addresses these ideas and themes by citing specific details or making logical inferences.  Asking questions about central idea and theme would look like these:
  • How does Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss address the following ideas? Change can be scary but good.  Try new things.  Keep an open mind. Don’t judge appearances.  Don't take life too seriously.
  • How does Charlotte's Web by E.B. White address the following themes? admiration, friendship, home, perseverance, time, life and death
  • How does Charlie and the Chocolate Factory address the following themes?  family, wealth vs. poverty, greed, reward and punishment, appearances, parenting, vice, good things come in small packages, what comes around goes around
  • How does Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank address the following ideas? isolation, youth and coming-of-age, identity, religion, virtue, friendship and loyalty, adolescence, the horrors of war, generosity and greed during wartime
  • How does The Odyssey by Homer address the following themes?  heroism, hospitality, family, loyalty, perseverance, justice, vengeance, piety, pride, temptation, fate vs. free will, appearances vs. reality, spiritual growth, cunning vs. strength, suffering, rules, tradition, customs
  • How does Romeo and Juliet address the following themes? love, fate vs. free will, hate, youth and maturity, foolishness and folly, gender and masculinity, marriage, mortality, transience, exile, feuds and grudges, sex 
  • How does the Declaration of Independence address the following ideas? all men are created equal, all men have basic human rights given to them by God, autocracy, government must be by the consent of the governed,  unalienable rights, governments are built for the sole purpose of protecting these basic rights, the abuse of leadership and power and its consequences, sovereignty and justice, people have the right to rebel against and overthrow their government
  • Notice the difference between how these questions are posed.  Yes, the answer of what is the central idea or theme is provided in the question.  However, these good questions can be used to set the instructional focus and serve as summative assessments for the texts being read and reviewed.  They can also inform students what is the intent or purpose for reading and responding to the particular text being reviewed in class.
    Also, consider how broad and global these ideas and themes are.  These are dynamic issues and topics that not only address the meaning of life but are interpreted and perceived by different perspectives, philosophies, and points view.  Just look at the ideas and themes of love, life and deathgreed vs. generosity, wealth vs, poverty, or family.  What is the formal definition of each as defined in a dictionary?  What is the scientific explanation, the religious perspective, the social connotation, or even the students' own personal philosophy?  All of these are good universal essential questions we can ask students to deepen and extend students knowledge, understanding, and awareness.  They can also prompt deeper conversations and discussions amongst their classmates and with you.  However, be sure to facilitate the discussion rather than direct or lead it.  Remember - we want our students to think and come up with their own impressions and interpretations based upon the definitions they acquire and discussions they have.  
    Also, consider how broad and global these ideas and themes are.  These are dynamic issues and topics that not only address the meaning of life but are interpreted and perceived by different perspectives, philosophies, and points view.  Just look at the ideas and themes of love, life and deathgreed vs. generosity, wealth vs, poverty, or family.  What is the formal definition of each as defined in a dictionary?  What is the scientific explanation, the religious perspective, the social connotation, or even the students' own personal philosophy?  All of these are good universal essential questions we can ask students to deepen and extend students knowledge, understanding, and awareness.  They can also prompt deeper conversations and discussions amongst their classmates and with you.  However, be sure to facilitate the discussion rather than direct or lead it.  Remember - we want our students to think and come up with their own impressions and interpretations based upon the definitions they acquire and discussions they have.  
    Once a clear definition or explanation of these broad and grand ideas and themes are established within the classroom, we can then ask students how does the text as a whole or a part of the text address this idea or theme.  For example, we could ask students to explain how does Chapter Two of Charlotte's Web address the theme of friendship - specifically, the friendship of Wilbur and Fern or how does Act 3, Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet  address the theme of gender and masculinity.  Good questions such as these could serve as the instructional focus as well as formative assessments for individual lessons taught as part of a literary analysis or genre study.
    Asking good questions about central ideas and themes in this format also emulates how these questions are phrased on standardized assessments.  They also educate students how to recognize the specific details and realize the logical inferences made within a text that strengthen and support the central idea and theme - which is the essential skill students must develop and demonstrate.
    To develop and deliver instruction using these good questions, take the following steps:
    1. Identify what is the central idea or theme of the text being read and reviewed in class.  Look at what supplemental study guides such as CliffsNotesSpark Notes, or Shmoop identify as the central ideas and themes.  (Trust me - if you don't look at and use these resources, your students will.)  Challenge yourself to come up with your own impression or interpretation of what you think the central idea or theme is.
    2. Phrase your good question to ask How does [the text being read and reviewed in class] address the following themes? and list the themes.  You can have this question serve as the instructional focus and serve as the summative assessment for a literary analysis or genre study or a text.
    3. For each part of the text such as a passage or a chapter, choose one of the themes that part addresses one of the ideas or themes listed.  Engage the students in a whole class or small group conversation about the broad or global idea or theme.  Have them research the formal definition, investigate how the idea or theme is interpreted  in different aspects of life, and to consider their own perception or philosophy on the issue or topic.  Then, once the class has a clear and comprehensive understanding of the broad and global issue, ask the students to examine and explain how does [the part of the text] address [the idea or theme being defined and discussed]?
    4. Provide students the opportunity to develop, demonstrate, and differentiate their talent and thinking by asking them a good affective question that asks what do you think is the central idea or primary theme of [the text being read and reviewed]?  You could have them choose from one or more of the ideas and themes provided or come up with their own impression and interpretation they must defend, explain, justify, and support by citing specific evidence and making logical inferences from the text.  You could also further challenge students by prompting them to argue which central idea or theme do you believe is not addressed clearly in [the text being read and reviewed].
or theme of a text is half the battle.  Students must also be able to analyze and explain how the central idea and theme develops by citing specific details and making logical inferences.  Students must also develop deeper understanding and awareness of the broad and global issues and topics central ideas and themes of texts address.  By posing good questions about central idea and theme in this format, students will not only engaged to demonstrate and communicate deeper knowledge and thinking about the text and topics they are reading and reviewing but also develop extensive understanding and awareness about how these ideas and themes extend beyond the the text.
Erik M. Francis, M.Ed., M.S., is the lead professional education specialist and owner of Maverik Education LLC, providing professional development and consultation on teaching and learning for cognitive rigor. His book Now THAT'S a Good Question! How to Promote Cognitive Rigor Through Classroom Questioning will be published by ASCD in July 2016.  For more information, please visitwww.maverikeducation.com.

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