Quick Tip Tuesday: Counterfeit beliefs about conferring

October 27th, 2009

In this week’s Quick Tip, Patrick Allen tackles some of the myths about conferring. In his new book, Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop, Patrick maintains that the benefits of conferring with readers are worth the effort of learning to do it well. He sets out to reveal how teachers can overcome their perceived obstacles and make the somewhat intangible aspect of conferring with readers tangible.

I remember when my friend and colleague Lori Conrad and I met to plan a presentation on conferring with readers. Scones and lattes in hand, we set to work (we always do our best thinking over coffee, it seems). We had our conferring notebooks, anecdotal records, professional texts, and favorite conferring quotes spread out on the table. We were hoping to synthesize years of conferring work into a two-hour presentation.

When we spent time in others’ classrooms, Lori and I noticed that many teachers were conferring with writers, but fewer were having similar interactions with readers. Teachers were talking to children about their writing, but not always taking the time to have the short, meaningful types of reading conferences we were having with the children in our classrooms.

Why were we seeing so few regularly occurring reading conferences?

As we started to outline our presentation, Lori said to me, “There are a lot of misconceptions out there about conferring with readers. I hear them pop up when I talk to teachers about the power of conferring.”

I nodded in agreement and added, “I don’t have time; I don’t know what questions to ask; It’s too hard; I don’t know what to write in my notes; I don’t even take notes; I don’t know how to go deep . . . These excuses are myths that have developed about such an important instructional construct. Teachers have internalized lists of reasons about why conferring can’t or won’t work.

There has been such a focus on small groups of late. Reading conferences are less tangible, but not less important. I think people just think they’re too hard. The lists of ‘can’ts’ or ‘won’ts’ are the things people need help sorting and understanding. We know conferring is effective, but there’s so much to learn.”

“You’re right,” Lori said. “There’s a difference between legitimate wanting to learn and making excuses.”

“Learning to confer is an art; we know that. It’s not easy; it takes practice,” I said. “But it’s one of the most important and beneficial instructional moves I use with my students.” Then a lightbulb went off . “That’s how we should start,” we said together.

Lori said, “Let’s start out by sharing some of the conferring myths we’ve uncovered in our work with students and adults.”

“Should we call them myths? A myth is more like a legend or a tall tale,” I said.

We both laughed. We’d heard plenty of reasons why conferring takes a backseat to other instructional practices. “What about counterfeit beliefs?” Lori suggested.

“Counterfeit beliefs. I like that.”

We started talking about the film A Private Universe. You remember it, don’t you? Many of us saw the fi lm in one of our college methods courses. If you didn’t, it is an interesting commentary on what happens when learners develop and maintain long-held beliefs that lead to misconceptions in their understandings of a concept. In the fi lm, graduating Ivy League seniors were asked to explain what causes the seasons. The graduates thought that “eccentricity in Earth’s orbit” made it warmer when it was closest to the sun and that the moon’s phases were caused by Earth’s shadow. And when ninth graders at a nearby school were asked the same questions, they had similar misconceptions.

Then students had an opportunity to test their ideas and justify their reasoning. The results? If students saw their ideas proven wrong they would do one of three things: (1) immediately let go of their old ideas and accept the new ones, (2) try to blend the old and new, or (3) revert to their previous learning.

In college, before we became classroom teachers, we may have found the film a bit humorous, but our humorous reaction changed to a state of being flabbergasted. We started asking, “Why don’t students grasp these concepts?” Even the brightest students have long-standing misconceptions that endure despite what they were taught by their teachers. And, in our methods classes we had conversations about instruction and assessment, trying to identify the causes of having students leave our classrooms with mistaken thoughts, ideas, or notions about their learning.

In our experiences, Lori and I saw the misconceptions about the power of conferring running rampant. The very definition of conferring—discourse, consultation, discussion, comparison, viewpoints, deliberation, talk—was somehow getting lost in translation.

If confer means to bestow a gift, we hoped that participants would better understand conferring as a result of our workshop.  Jeff Wilhelm says that many teachers still rely on an “information-transmission” approach, focusing mainly on the what, which he believes is insufficient for powerful understanding (2007, 9). Wilhelm contends that if we focus on only the what of learning, it leads to “shallow learning and even misconceptions” (2007, 9). Educational psychologists know that “if misconceptions exist, meaningful classroom learning requires experiences that help to restructure existing knowledge” (Murphy and Mason 2006, 307).

Perhaps teachers were doing the same thing with the notion of conferring with readers. The misguided concepts Lori and I noticed about reading conferences needed to be restructured.

Murphy and Mason point out that “Conceptual change refers to revisions in personal mental representations; revisions that are often precipitated by purposeful educational experiences” (2006, 307). Lori and I felt that nudging teachers to revise their misconceptions was our best option. So what did we come up with? Here is our list of counterfeit beliefs. Which ones do you believe? Which ones have you actually said, or thought, at one point or another?

Counterfeit Beliefs About Conferring

1. If I meet with small groups, I don’t have to meet with individuals. It’s easier to meet with small groups.

2. If I don’t meet with every student every day, I’m not doing a good job.

3. If I don’t do a running record during each and every reading conference, I’m not really assessing my students’ reading ability.

4. If I don’t talk about all the errors a student is making while he or she is with me, I’m not being diligent.

5. I have to take an expert stance in each conference.

6. I need to focus on skills and fluency; comprehension comes later.

7. When I’m talking to a child about his or her learning, I’m conferencing.

8. I need to confer with every student the same number of times for the same amount of time each week.

9. I need to give the rest of the class something “to do” so they’ll stay busy and leave me alone so I can confer.

10. I’ve tried _____’s conferring suggestions and recommendations and they just didn’t work out.

Now before you close the book and say, “Wait a minute, I agree with number nine or number two,” let the statement weigh on your mind a bit. Think about each statement carefully. Spend some time pondering. Can you see why these ideas might be considered misguided?

Read the rest of Chapter 1 and the entire book online now!

Entry Filed under: Quick Tip Tuesday,Reading

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Conferring is the Beating&hellip  |  March 26th, 2010 at 1:06 am

    […] Beliefs about Conferring really has me thinking.  I’d love to hear your reaction to the whole post, or at least to this […]

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