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by Harvey F. Silver, R. Thomas Dewing and Matthew J. Perini
Table of Contents
This section serves as an introductory tutorial on four inference strategies: Inductive Learning, Mystery, Main Idea, and Investigation. In this section, our goal is to help you reflect on your current approach to building students' inference skills in your classroom and to explain the Strategic Teacher approach to teaching inference.
Imagine this: you're driving on the freeway in moderate traffic when, in your rearview mirror, you suddenly see a vehicle enter the freeway at high speed. It's a huge red SUV, and it's moving quickly from lane to lane, cutting off vehicles left and right. You, being the defensive driver that you are, know reckless driving when you see it and decide to move to the right lane and allow the SUV to pass. The SUV barrels past you, and you breathe a sigh of relief.
You may or may not be the kind of defensive driver described in this scenario, but we'll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you are. Part of what makes you a good driver is your ability to infer. Inference is what thinking adds to what we know, read, or learn. Speaking scientifically, we might say that inferential thinking always involves gathering information, developing hypotheses, and drawing conclusions. Applied to our driving example, inference is at work as you, the driver, take in data (there's an SUV behind me moving erratically); make an assumption or a hypothesis based on that data (that SUV is going to hit me if I stay in this lane); test your hypothesis (let's see what happens if I move into the right lane); examine the results to confirm or refute your hypothesis (the SUV didn't hit me, so it looks like I made the right choice); and learn from the process (if that happens again, I'll be sure to do the same thing).
As you can see, inference is a perfectly ordinary human capacity. But that doesn't mean it's easy for students to make inferences in school. In fact, many teachers identify inference as one of the most challenging of all academic skills to teach. They note that inference feels abstract and difficult to model, design lessons around, and assess. But teach inference we must, because inference is a "foundational skill"—a prerequisite for higher-order thinking and 21st century skills (Marzano, 2010). That's why inference and evidence gathering are both so prominent throughout the Common Core State Standards.
So what does inference look like in the classroom? What kinds of inferential thinking are required for success in school and beyond? Figure 1.1 includes some examples of typical classroom situations that require students to make inferences. Review the examples and respond to the questions that follow on page 5.
Overheard in Science Class
All right, we've been studying sound for almost a week now. Let's see if you can figure this one out: Since we obviously can't see around corners, why is it that we can hear around corners? How would you design a simple experiment to test your ideas?
Inference and Emily Dickinson
Think about the poet's attitude toward faith. Then explain the central message of this poem in one sentence.
"Faith" is a fine inventionWhen Gentlemen can see—But Microscopes are prudentIn an Emergency.—Emily Dickinson (c. 1860)
What's Iridium Got to Do with It?
Here's a strange question: What does the element iridium have to do with the extinction of the dinosaurs? Here are some clues to help you figure it out:
What tentative hypotheses can you generate? Let's look at some more clues to test your hypotheses.
What do these examples have in common?
How do students need to think to succeed in these situations?
What are some situations in your classroom that require students to think inferentially?
How do your lessons build students' inference skills?
To help students develop the thinking skills needed to succeed on tasks like these, teachers need inference strategies. All inference strategies work in the same way: they present students with a puzzling question, a discrepant event, incomplete data, or an interesting problem to solve. Students are expected to use their powers of reasoning to develop hypotheses and then test and refine them—a skill that a wide range of researchers have found to have a significant influence on student achievement. (For a full discussion of the research and theory behind generating and testing hypotheses, see Marzano, 2007.)
What makes each inference strategy different from the others is the process students use to draw their conclusions. In this guide, we examine four inference strategies:
As you learn about each strategy, ask yourself, How does this deepen students' interaction with the content? How does it develop students' inference skills? After reviewing all four strategies, discuss them with your learning club. What effects might these strategies have on student thinking and classroom discussion? Which would work best in your classroom? Record your thoughts in the space provided on page 14.
In Inductive Learning (based on the work of Hilda Taba, 1971), students group and label specific "bits" of information—often words—and then use the groups to generate hypotheses. For example, Figure 1.2 shows how an Inductive Learning lesson on Ancient Egypt might work.
How does Inductive Learning deepen student interaction with the content?
How does Inductive Learning develop students' inference skills?
Mystery lessons capitalize on our affinity for the puzzling and the unknown by presenting students with just enough content that they ask, "Yes, but why?" or "Yes, but how?" Students analyze clues, statements, or excerpts from primary documents to solve the mystery. For example, students might be presented with this mystery:
We all know the old saying "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." But why 1492?
Why was the time right for Columbus's famous journey?
To solve the mystery, students would analyze a set of 20–25 clues and sort them into thematic groups. For example, Figure 1.3 depicts a set of clues about innovations in technology made during Columbus's time.
New ships called caravels were faster and easier to navigate than any ship before.
Inventions like the astrolabe and the mariner's compass made longer, more difficult trips possible.
Cartography, or mapmaking, became more sophisticated and increasingly accurate by Columbus's time.
After sorting all the clues, students would use their clue groups to develop a compelling explanation for the mystery.
How does Mystery deepen student interaction with the content?
How does Mystery develop students' inference skills?
Teachers at all grade levels recognize that many students struggle when asked to identify the main idea of a text. Teachers know why, too: main ideas are often unstated. Instead of being able to pull a ready-made main idea out of a reading, students more typically need to construct the main idea through inference. Yet despite this knowledge, teachers often fail to teach students how to assemble details in support of a main idea.
Main Idea is a strategy that teaches students a replicable process for using inference to construct and test a main idea. Specifically, the strategy teaches students
Figure 1.4 shows how one student used the Main Idea strategy and organizer to identify the main idea of a reading about the prehistoric "Super-Croc."
Source: Adapted from Reading for Academic Success, Grades 2–6: Differentiated Strategies for Struggling, Average, and Advanced Readers (p. 6), by R. W. Strong, H. F. Silver, and M. J. Perini, 2008, Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. © 2008 Corwin Press. Used with permission.
How does Main Idea deepen student interaction with content?
How does Main Idea develop students' inference skills?
Investigation lessons tend to be the most open-ended of the family of inference strategies and can be used to meet a variety of objectives or content demands. For example, you could ask students to
How does Investigation deepen student interaction with content?
How does Investigation develop students' inference skills?
Now that you've learned about the four inference strategies in this guide, discuss them with your learning club. Use the questions below to guide your discussion.
1. Which strategy or strategies caught your attention?
2. Which strategy would work best in your classroom? Why do you think so?
3. How would you use the strategy?
Teachers can use inference strategies to meet at least five important instructional goals.
Engage Student Curiosity
Curiosity is a powerful drive. Because inference strategies are typically built around missing information or confusing situations, they naturally raise curiosity. With a well-designed inference strategy like Mystery, the lesson becomes students' quest to figure out what's happening.
Find Main Ideas
By providing students with data, clues, and bits of information, inference strategies emphasize the separation of essential information from the nonessential. More specifically, the Main Idea strategy teaches students how to use the inferential process to organize relevant details and to construct and test the strength of main ideas—a crucial skill highlighted in the Common Core State Standards.
Develop and Test Hypotheses
The meta-analytic research of Robert Marzano (2007) shows that teaching students how to form and test hypotheses is one of the surest ways to raise achievement. Inference strategies like Mystery, Inductive Learning, and Investigation challenge students to sort through data and to turn their initial ideas into clear hypotheses. Then, in a process of continual refinement, students analyze the data more deeply to find relevant evidence that supports the validity of their hypotheses.
Develop Powerful Explanations and Interpretations
After students have tested their hypotheses, they must turn their findings into clear explanations or compelling interpretations that answer questions like "What's going on here? How do you know?" and "What examples, details, clues, or proofs can you offer to support your ideas?" For this reason, inference strategies are ideal for addressing the Common Core State Standards that require students to gather and use evidence.
Develop Students' Habits of Mind
In their years of research into the defining characteristics of intelligent behavior and thought, Art Costa and Bena Kallick (2008, 2009) have identified 16 "habits of mind." By nourishing these habits in our students, we give them the tools they need to use their minds well, thus increasing their chance for future success. Using inference strategies in the classroom will help students develop these habits of mind: thinking flexibly; thinking about thinking (metacognition); applying past knowledge to new situations; and thinking and communicating with clarity and precision.
Answer the question below, and then discuss your response with your learning club. Are there any goals that seem to be especially important to all the members of your learning club?
Which of the five goals of inference is most important to you, and why?
How do we know when students are making good inferences? Compare the two essays in Figures 1.5 and 1.6, which were written by two middle school students after completing a lesson on the colony at Jamestown. What do you notice? Discuss your ideas with a partner, focusing on the skill of inference rather than on the quality of writing. Which inferences was Clea able to make that seem to have eluded Jacob? What specific skills were evident in Clea's essay? Why do you think some students encounter difficulties or develop bad habits that cause them to flounder when asked to think inferentially? Use the space following Figures 1.5 and 1.6 to make some notes.
We want all of our students to be able to make inferences as well as Clea—to be able to pick out important information, make logical connections between bits of information, formulate strong hypotheses, and explain their hypotheses and conclusions thoughtfully. To help us achieve these goals, let's turn our attention to the five principles of making effective inferences. Each of the inference strategies in this guide is based on these five research-based principles, which are designed to help students develop stronger habits of mind when they collect information, make claims and hypotheses, weigh evidence, and explain what they are learning. You'll notice that these five principles
are closely aligned with the five classroom phases that drive inference lessons. Leading your students through these five phases is essential for ensuring students' effective use of the strategy in the classroom. Notice that combining the first letter of each phase spells out the acronym INFER. A classroom poster highlighting the role that students play during an inference lesson is included with this guide. Figure 1.7 (p. 20) shows the five principles and corresponding phases that guide well-designed inference lessons.
Principle One: What's Missing Is What's Important
All inference strategies are built on partial or missing information, whether it's a main idea to be constructed or the solution to be discovered. It is the students' job to use their reasoning and inference skills to fill in the gaps.
Phase One:Identify What You Need to Figure Out
– What they're looking for.
– The strategy they'll be using.
– Their role in the lesson.
Principle Two: Understanding Is a Drive
The human mind hates being in the dark; we all have a drive to understand—to find the patterns, put pieces together, and make sense of our surroundings. To capitalize on this drive, inference strategies treat information sources as clues that students use to help them make discoveries. Thoughtful inference strategies also include visual organizers that help students see the patterns and relationships within the information.
Phase Two:Note Information Sources and Look for Patterns
Principle Three: Inference Is a Process
Sometimes students make inferences based on unsubstantiated assumptions or shoddy reasoning. Thoughtful inference strategies teach students the ongoing process of using evidence to test and refine their hypotheses and ideas.
Phase Three:Formulate and Refine Hypotheses
Teach students how to
Principle Four: You've Got Some Explaining to Do
Inferential thinking shouldn't be hidden in students' minds. Instead, it needs to be articulated, refined, and applied. Thoughtful inference strategies require students to turn their thinking into clear explanations.
Phase Four:Explain Your Thinking
Principle Five: Look Back to Move Forward
Deep learning requires metacognition, or thinking about thinking (Costa & Kallick, 2008, 2009). If we expect students to become thoughtful inference makers, then we need to provide them with opportunities to reflect on their learning and thinking processes.
Phase Five:Reflect on the Process
Allow students to step back and review the inference strategy they used to see how the process helped them and how they might use it again.
Now let's experience a complete inference lesson designed by a teacher. Jason Mantzoukas designed this Inductive Learning lesson on what life was like in Colonial New England for the 9th graders in his U.S. history class. Inductive Learning helps students see the connections among pieces of information and construct, on their own, the broader perspective into which these pieces fit. Jason uses Inductive Learning to help students form and test hypotheses about life in Colonial New England and to address key reading and writing standards from the Common Core State Standards, including the following:
Note to participants: As you review this lesson, keep in mind the principles of the inference strategy, the role of the students, the role of the teacher, and the goals of inference strategies. We also encourage you to be the student by completing the student activities throughout the lesson. You'll notice that we have included "You Try It" activities throughout. This is part of the process we call "Do, Look, Learn," which puts the power of metacognition, or thinking about thinking, to work. Too often, we go through the motions of learning a new strategy or technique without reflecting on our own thought process. So, as you "do" the lesson, "look" in on your own thought process and see what you can "learn" from your own experiences.
Jason begins the lesson by asking students, "Have you ever had a hunch? Did your hunch turn out to be right?" After a brief discussion, Jason continues: "Historians make hunches all the time. They call their hunches hypotheses. Along the way, they gather evidence that helps them support their hypotheses, refine them, or discard them and form new hypotheses altogether. Today we're going to use a strategy called Inductive Learning to help us develop hypotheses about Colonial New England." Jason explains that students will be examining words closely, dividing the words into labeled groups, and using those groups to develop hypotheses about Colonial New England. To set the scene, Jason says, "Imagine that you stepped into a time machine and wound up in Colonial New England. What do you suppose ordinary people might be talking about? What are some words or phrases you might expect to hear?"
Work with your learning club to generate some words and phrases that you might hear in Colonial New England.
Jason surveys his students' ideas and then presents them with a word list that he has put together (see Figure 1.8).
Jason reviews any words on the list that students are not familiar with and then explains that these words are all clues about what life was like in Colonial New England. Jason notes about the lesson, "After I showed students the words, I told them that we needed to find a way to organize the words if we were going to develop some good, reliable hypotheses. So I showed them how to use circles and labels to group terms that went together."
According to Jason, "The next part was a little harder. After students discussed their groups, I reminded them that historians call their hunches 'hypotheses.' I told them that a hypothesis was a sentence that might be true. Then, after some quick modeling, we worked together to use one or more groups to create a hypothesis. Students then worked in pairs to develop and record three hypotheses in a three-column organizer."
Working with your learning club partner, use your word groups to generate three hypotheses in the first column of the organizer below.
Next, Jason gives students a reading to help them test out their ideas (see Figure 1.9, p. 26). Students collect evidence from the reading that either confirms or challenges their hypotheses and record the evidence in the "Support" or the "Refute" column of their organizers.
Read the passage in Figure 1.9. Work with your learning club to collect evidence that supports or refutes each hypothesis you listed in your organizer. Record your evidence in the appropriate column of the organizer.
When people first began colonizing New England, they retained the customs of the Old World and tried to replicate it in their everyday lives. Colonists thought, spoke, dressed, and generally acted as though they were an extension of England. Their society was structured like European society, with several classes of people. At the top of the social structure were the "gentry," made up of wealthy merchants, planters, lawyers, and doctors. Below the gentry were those who owned property but were not wealthy, including farmers, shopkeepers, and craftsmen. The bottom level consisted of poor, unskilled laborers who were generally slaves or contracted servants. The biggest difference between the social structure in the colonies and the structure in England was mobility. In the colonies, unless you were a slave, it was possible to rise to a higher class.
England controlled the government of the colonies. Each colony had a governor appointed by the king. Local governments were in charge of law enforcement, collecting taxes, and repairing roads. The death penalty was customary for crimes of armed robbery, counterfeiting, murder, and treason. Drunkenness, slander, swearing, theft, and breaking the Sabbath were considered minor offenses. The punishment for these crimes might be public whipping or public humiliation, such as being placed in the pillory, the stocks, or the ducking stool.
Domestic life in the New England colonies also developed from old European ways. The households were large and generally included resident in-laws. All members of the family were the responsibility of the father, who made all important decisions. The first houses were modeled after those in Europe, but later houses were built to adapt to local weather conditions and available materials. The life of the house centered on the fireplace, which provided the heat and light needed for everyday living. Much of the detail and design of a home, as well as lifestyle in general, depended on individual wealth. The wealthy imported fine furniture from Europe, but most colonists supplemented the few things they were able to bring from Europe with homemade items. The homemade furniture was plain and sturdy and made from available wood like pine and oak. Blocks of wood, barrels, or benches served as chairs. Colonists used oil lamps and candles for additional lighting. Tinderboxes, bed warmers, iron pots, and spinning wheels were generally considered necessities.
Clothing varied according to wealth and occupation. The wealthy imported clothes or had them tailored to resemble current European styles. On farms, workingmen wore breeches and long shirts made from linen woven by the women of the household. Male servants who worked in the field likely wore only breeches. In cold weather, the men wore loose-fitting overcoats, leather leggings, mittens, and wool caps. Women wore dresses, petticoats, and a single undergarment called a shift.
Most New Englanders had small farms located near villages or small towns. They raised cattle, hogs, sheep, and chickens, and they grew fruits and vegetables. From the local woods, they hunted deer and other game and trapped smaller animals like squirrels. They also fished the rivers and oceans and even collected clams and lobsters. Corn became a basic food in most households. Cornmeal was made into ashcakes, hoecakes, and breads. Storing food for the winter was a problem because colonists had no means to can or refrigerate food. Meats were smoked, salted, and dried. Colonists dug cellars to keep roots, fruits, and vegetables, but the usual winter diet consisted of bread and meat.
Religion and faith strongly influenced social and political life in the New England colonies. Many people came to the colonies seeking religious freedom. Church officials did the work that local governments take care of today, including education, care of the poor, and recordkeeping of marriages, baptisms, and deaths. The churches were not just sites of worship but also places for community gatherings and town meetings. The rules of the church generally became the laws of the colony.
These rules were based on a strict interpretation of the Bible and were generally designed to keep people from sinning. Many everyday tasks like cooking, shaving, and other domestic activities were forbidden on Sunday. A life of piety and prayer was considered ideal.
In time, the New England colonies developed their own way of life as they adapted to conditions in the New World. The men and women who had at one time viewed their colony as an extension of England began to consider themselves Americans.
After students collect their evidence, Jason leads a discussion on how they did it and what they found, making sure to ask probing questions and positively reinforce students' use of specific evidence from the text.
With your entire learning club, take a few minutes to talk about the process of gathering evidence to support hypotheses. Were your hypotheses correct? Did you need to refine them? What evidence did you find for each of your hypotheses?
Says Jason, "One thing I try to do with my synthesis tasks is align them with the Common Core State Standards and the kinds of writing tasks that students face on state tests. For this lesson, I decided to bring the lesson home by having students write an argument, or thesis essay. I asked students to take a position by arguing either for or against the statement 'Life in Colonial New England was very different from life in England.' Then I reviewed the RESPONSE process [see Figure 1.10], which I use to help students internalize the steps in writing an effective thesis essay."
Read the question or writing prompt slowly and carefully.
Establish the purpose for writing. (Explain a concept? Describe a procedure? Argue a point?)
Start by introducing your topic or thesis. Be as clear and concise as possible.
Provide evidence, reasons, or examples to support your opening statement. (Address conflicting evidence or arguments if appropriate.)
Organize your supporting information (group related ideas, link ideas using transitions, etc.).
Nail your ending. Write a conclusion that follows from, sums up, or reiterates your main point(s).
Skim your draft for errors (spelling, grammar, logic), unclear terms/ideas, and "rough" writing.
Edit and polish your original response.
Source: Adapted from Tools for Thoughtful Assessment, by A. L. Boutz, H. F. Silver, J. W. Jackson, and M. J. Perini, 2012, Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ: Thoughtful Education Press. © 2012 Silver Strong & Associates/Thoughtful Education Press. Used with permission.
Jason notes about one student's work, "Take a close look at Geoffrey's essay [see Figure 1.11]. You can see he's got the RESPONSE process down: his thesis is clear, he's got three big ideas and evidence to support each one, and his conclusion is strong. The one thing we still need to work on as a class is responding to counterarguments. Once Geoffrey gets in the habit of responding to counterarguments, he'll be ready to handle an argument-based item on our state test."
After Jason's class completes the lesson, he brings the whole thing to a close by hanging up his new inference poster (included with this PLC Guide) and asking students to think of other situations in which they could apply the INFER process.
Take a moment to reflect on what you have learned so far by answering the questions below.
1. How did Jason's lesson support his students' abilities to think inferentially?
2. Looking over the lesson, how might you adapt or refine it to make it stronger?
3. Inductive Learning is one of four strategies that support and develop students' skills in inference. How might you use Inductive Learning in your own classroom?
In the next section, you will be planning your own inference lesson. To prepare, you should do the following things before you move on:
Copyright © 2012 by Silver Strong & Associates. All rights reserved.
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