December 18, 2014

Shift Four: Text-Based Answers or Text-Based Responses? Part 1

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Shift four of the Common Core State Standards emphasizes “text-based answers,” impressing that students need to cite specific evidence to support their points and opinions about a text.  In response to this shift, teachers have begun to closely evaluate questions about text as they recognize that successful “answering” requires skilled “asking.”

It is relatively easy to ask questions that students can answer using a particular text.  In looking at Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” one could ask, “When does this poem take place?” Conceivably a student might say, “December 21st” or “the winter solstice,” supporting this answer by citing the line that reads, “The darkest evening of the year.” as evidence.  However, the wording of this question suggests a fixed answer and invites students to regard text thinking as a to-do list.  Question? Check. Answer? Check. Next question. I’ll be done with this soon, check. Etc.

However, the habit of working to “be done” does not seem to embody the potential learning within this shift toward text-based answers.  New York State, addressing its constituency, describes the fourth shift as follows:

Students have rich and rigorous conversations which are dependent on a common
text. Teachers insist that classroom experiences stay deeply connected to the text
on the page and that students develop habits for making evidentiary arguments
both in conversation, as well as in writing to assess comprehension of a text.

In thinking about the text-based answer in the aforementioned example from Robert Frost’s poem, one can see that the student conversation surrounding this question, “When did does this poem take place?”, need be neither rich nor rigorous.  In fact, such a question requires little to no conversation or thought at all, leading us to wonder if it is text-based answers that we seek, or rather, text-based responses.

“Answer” and “response” are defined as follows:
Answer: a spoken or written reply to a question, request, or letter
Response: an answer or reply, as in words or some action

Clearly, there is a family resemblance between these two words, however, we are struck by the phrase “as in words or some action” added to the definition of “response.” The extra layer of clarification implies a more active level of engagement than that in the more simplistic definition associated with “answer.” This subtle difference offers substance to the shift calling for text-based answers. Will this call prompt us to answer, with letter interpretations that dot i’s and cross t’s, or to respond, deep conversions and substantive action?

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