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A Less-Is-More Approach to Assessing Readers

By Gravity Goldberg
 | Mar 02, 2017

2017-03-02_TTx300We all know the scenarios of formal assessments stacked up on our desks, of faculty meetings that focus on spreadsheets and statistics, and of flipping through pages of reports to figure out what each one of our students need next. What if we could take a less-is-more approach to assessing and figuring out what to teach our students each day when it comes to deep thinking and reading?

In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Little, Brown), Malcolm Gladwell describes the concept of thin-slicing: “Thin-slicing refers to the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on a very narrow slice of experience.” Thin-slicing entails getting a small amount of information and being able to use it to make a sound judgment and decision. It involves not overthinking and using our conscious effort to analyze information but also using our gut instincts and our intuition about something in those first few seconds of being presented with information.

Some examples of thin-slicing according to Gladwell are art experts being able to know a forgery in the first few seconds of examination, tennis coaches being able to know whether the player will fault on a serve in the half a second before it is even struck, and a salesman reading someone’s emotions and future decisions on the basis of three seconds of observation. It is knowing something in just a few seconds—in a blink of an eye. We are all able to use thin-slicing as a decision-making tool once we have sufficient experience in that area. Gladwell explains that “when we leap to a decision or have a hunch, our unconscious is…sifting through the situation in front of us, throwing out all that is irrelevant while we zero in on what really matters.” Teachers do not have the time to focus on every data point and need to be able to quickly identify what matters most—to thin-slice.

Think about the last time a student came back from the library and you had only five seconds to observe him, and somehow you “just knew” he had trouble and was disappointed he did not get the book he really wanted. We often “just know” something about our students on the basis of thin slices of information. In Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn (Routledge), renowned authors and researchers John Hattie and Gregory Yates explain, “As a professional teacher, you have the ability to look at a classroom situation and read it quickly, within microseconds.” They go on to explain how this ability allows teachers to rely on feedback cues from students to inform what strategy they teach next.

There are many examples we likely have all experienced with thin-slicing as reading teachers. You graze a review on goodreads.com of a new young adult novel, and 24 hours later you hand the book to the student you had in mind, and 48 hours later, he comes to you, literally with tears in his eyes, it was that good. Or you are in the midst of a whole-class read-aloud and students seem quiet and their comments are way off. You know to change gears, so you say to them, “You know what? Let’s try something different,” and you start reading aloud another book, and the energy in the room comes alive. In each of these everyday teaching decisions you are thin-slicing.

Rather than collecting more and more data, let’s all trust our teacher instincts that have been developed from countless hours of talking to students about their thinking and looking at their written responses. This does not mean we ignore test and formal assessment data, but it does mean we also make the most of every moment with our students by thin-slicing what they are doing. Thin-slicing helps us plan tomorrow’s teaching on the basis of today’s learning. This is the kind of less-is-more assessment that can have a dramatic impact on student learning.

Gravity Goldberg headshot-2Gravity Goldberg is coauthor of the new book What Do I Teach Readers Tomorrow? (Corwin, 2017) with Renee Houser as well as the author of Mindsets and Moves: Strategies that Help Readers Take Charge (Corwin, 2016) and coauthor of Conferring with Readers (Heinemann, 2007). She leads a team of literacy consultants in the NY/NJ area and presents to teachers across the United States. At the heart of Gravity's teaching is the belief that everyone deserves to be admired and supported. She can be reached via e-mail and onTwitter.

1 comment

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  1. Scot Felderman | Mar 03, 2017

    There are so many concerns here for me. 

    1.  I suspect teachers and parents use "thin slicing" all too often even when the evidence suggests contrary findings.  For example, parents routinely assess their children's out of home care to be of higher quality than the data indicates.

    2.  I also suspect that there are too many early grade reading teachers who are poorly prepared for the work.  Leaving them to their own "gut feelings" will mask their own limitations.

    3.  All too often we don't effectively use data in a practical continuous learning strategy.  "Thin slicing" would likely detract from improving the effective use of quality data. 

    Finally, there is good evidence to suggest that teachers of young children are more focused on children's social-emotional needs and far less effective in instructional supports.  Both are important but instructional support is too often under developed.  

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