Teachers across the country are now working to implement the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts, which require that all students learn to make interpretations of texts. The standards insist that students be able to comprehend what is stated explicitly in a text, infer what follows logically from explicit statement, and make arguments based upon textual evidence to support those inferences—i.e., interpret a text for themselves.
In addition, students are expected to be able to engage in conversation about the meaning of texts with others whose perspectives and backgrounds may differ from their own. The exchanges are to be “collaborative,” meaning that students will work together to develop ideas—"building on one another’s"—and state their views clearly.
But how are these goals to be realized when in many school settings they have proved elusive? In High-Expectation Curricula: Helping All Students Succeed with Powerful Learning, Curt Dudley-Marling and Sarah Michaels, citing research from 1980 to the present, argue that “low achievers” encounter few opportunities to develop the skills of discussion and text interpretation since they are confronted primarily with word-recognition tasks.
The so-called “low achievers” are not alone. Numerous researchers have found that “IRE” pedagogy remains the dominant mode of classroom discourse. In this mode of instruction, the teacher initiates conversation by posing a question to which he or she has an answer in mind. The student then responds by giving (or not giving) the answer sought, and the teacher evaluates the correctness of the response. Where is the opportunity for students to raise questions about the meaning of the text? For the teacher to help the students clarify their queries and come to a shared question that they wish to resolve? For students to help one another form and address the question by discussing the meaning of the text?
Now, consider a different approach—one which I call interpretive discussion. Interpretive discussion is discussion about the meaning of some text. The “text” is an item with enough ambiguity to permit questioning of its meaning. In the case that follows, the text is a work of art.
Up for Discussion
Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon facilitates a group discussion of Nicole Eisenman’s painting “The Drawing Class.”
It is November 1, 2013. I enter a 10th grade classroom at Abington Friends School, a Quaker school outside of Philadelphia where I have been invited to lead a discussion with a class of English students. In order to give each one of the 19 students a chance to speak frequently, I divide them into two groups. The discussion occurs “fish bowl” style, with each group watching the other talk for about 25 minutes. Those engaged in discussion sit with me in a circle, and our goal is to interpret a painting entitled “The Drawing Class,” by contemporary artist Nicole Eisenman (2011). It is a colorful work abounding in ambiguities. For example, it is not clear why the nude model is depicted with a black blob of paint on her chest.
As it turns out, the first group addresses that issue repeatedly. One speaker asserts that the black blob represents imperfection. Another person agrees, arguing that the grotesque features of several figures pictured in the foreground mean that, according to the text, imperfection is part of the human condition—everyone has imperfections. Another speaker observes the teardrop over the right eye in a drawing of the model that is shown in the foreground. Accordingly, she concludes that imperfection brings sadness. Yet another maintains that the same drawing, which depicts the model’s red eye, shows that human beings see “external” imperfections in others, not that they are imperfect.
Discussants in the second group pursue the topic of perspective-taking in art as they identify additional details in the painting. One notices that there is a mirror in the room, as revealed by the position of a light bulb in two places, and argues that the presence of the mirror permits the art students in the painting to take additional perspectives. She reasons that because the viewer sees different depictions of the model on the students’ sketch pads, art is represented as perspective taking. Another observes that the perspectives given frequently dwell upon the grotesque.
The group then comes to a shared point of doubt—a question they want to resolve: According to the text, are human beings imperfect—"grotesque"—or does human perspective, as revealed by the drawings on the sketchpads, focus upon the grotesque?
My role as leader was to help the discussants form and address a question about the meaning of the painting. In preparing for this role, I took a number of steps before the discussion began. First, I determined whether the work is ambiguous enough to sustain discussion by writing a cluster of questions about its meaning. That is, I identified a question I wanted to resolve and then wrote eight more that, looking at different aspects of the work, suggest ideas about the resolution of my basic question. Having written the cluster, I knew that there was at least one point of ambiguity that we could try to resolve through discussion.
At the start of my conversation with the students, I learned their names. Then I projected an image of “The Drawing Class” onto a large screen. During a few minutes of silence, the students observed the image and wrote questions about it—questions about why certain things are present, why they appear as they do, and what the painting is saying, for example. I asked the students in the first group whether they wanted to begin with questions they had written or one that I prepared. They opted for the latter, so I said: “Why is the model in ‘The Drawing Class’ shown with a black blob of paint on her chest?”
Here, then, is no case of IRE. Although I posed the opening question, I might not have done so. Furthermore, the question was one about the meaning of the text to which I did not have the answer. As students responded to me and to one another, I tried to help them listen to what they had said, clarify their intended meaning, and relate it to things others had said so as to form and address questions of concern. I did not judge their comments and questions right or wrong.
Building Textual Understanding
And as the students responded to me and to one another, they were interpreting the painting for themselves: observing things in it, drawing inferences about their meaning, defending (or challenging) inferences with textual evidence, and discussing their ideas with others who at some moments, held conflicting views. The arbiter of the discussion was the text, not me, the leader.
My research, teaching, and work preparing teacher candidates indicate that students in a variety of subjects in grades K-12 and beyond—and from a wide range of academic and socio-economic backgrounds—can successfully engage in interpretive discussions. Given opportunities to do so, they learn to comprehend what is stated explicitly in a text, infer what follows logically from explicit statement, and develop arguments, based on textual evidence, to support those inferences, much as the common standards mandate.
With regular practice and encouragement, students can carry their skills in interpretive discussion over to other assignments and projects, instilling them with deeper thinking and more considered observations.
Furthermore, I’ve found that this practice can be effective in a range of academic settings and with students of varying socio-economic backgrounds and levels of academic achievement. Ethnic, cultural, economic, and linguistic diversity among participants enriches the discussions. Indeed, interpretive discussion builds communities of learners who come to care about understanding the texts and one another.