Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Finding the Main Idea (Nuts and Bolts)

Lillipads and Lowerarchies

    ​Taking bullet point notes from text is often the kind of assignment from which we backtrack to explore main idea. Some students can naturally read a paragraph and intuit a nice approximation of the main idea but many will grab one idea and run with it...and hope. They may have been told that the first sentence is always the main idea, or maybe the "first or last."

    As soon as I can see that the student is basically taking pot-shots without a notion that there is a possibility of puzzling out an accurate answer, we do it this way. For many, this scaffolds a future ability to "intuit" (actually just reason out) a main idea without all these steps. It's really neat to see the progress, especially when that progress undoes self-defeating shortcuts like "first sentence every time." I tell students the main idea is "the thing the paragraph keeps talking about the most, and what it says about it."

    Here's a random textbook paragraph:

  1. First we look at each sentence and identify the simple subject (noun that is "doing" the verb), and we paraphrase the predicate in a few words. (Obviously, if the student doesn't know subject/predicate structure, we start there)

Cell Cyclebegins-->formed ...ends-->divides
Itcopies DNA
DNAcontrols what cell does
DNA made of chromosomes
Copying chromosomesmakes cells alike
Cellsmake cells?
Cellsare prokaryotic or eukaryotic

Then we get rid of all the repetition:

Cell Cyclebegins-->formed ...ends-->divides

copies DNA

controls what cell does

made of chromosomes
Copying Chromosomesmakes cells alike

3. If we see something at the beginning or end that doesn't seem to go with the rest at all, it is probably a transition. We can check the previous and following paragraphs to see if they share subjects with these mystery sentences. If so, we remove them. If not, we may decide to leave them in. At this point, it is actually helpful to note that this isn't rocket surgery.

4. Then we take what's left and put it in a sentence. This can require complex language, but it gets easier for most students with practice.

This paragraph's bullet point might say: 

  • Cells contain DNA(chromosomes) which direct what they do and allow them to make exact copies of themselves.

​If the student wanted to include the "beginning and ending" part from the first sentence, we might do that. Hopefully we have already discussed general —> specific structure for organizing ideas, and they can understand that this is a very general transition statement and may not be necessary. As with Subject/Predicate structure, if they lack this background, we simply backtrack to that foundational piece. Backtracking to lay foundation is a constant and it happens very quickly, so the student doesn't really have any time to sit there feeling inadequate. I just say, "Hey, let's do this for a second...!" and we're off.

It will be difficult for many students to paraphrase the predicates, but even using a longer version of the note, the process still works. I let them know they need to translate it enough to prove to themselves that they understand the sentence and what they've written--if they copy language they don't understand, it's useless. It is also important to realize that even if generating the "bullet point" as a grammatically correct sentence is too much of a challenge initially, again, the process of noting all the subjects and identifying all the repetition (especially in texts that talk about the same thing in every sentence, but using synonyms or different levels within the same semantic group, such that kids don't see they are the same thing until we put them in a little pile by themselves) really clarifies the surprising, hidden concreteness of main idea identification.

One of the primary coping strategies for a wide variety of learning challenges is to find the "thing" that can be used as an answer, and cling to it. It only takes a few crushingly embarrassing moments of a teacher asking a question, the student having no answer, and the teacher suggesting they "pay attention," for them to learn to find a thing at all costs. As long as it is in some vague way related to the subject matter at hand, they can turn that "pay attention" into a far less humiliating "nice try, but not quite."

Some students perceive a meaningless on-rush of information all day, and their instincts prioritize the bits that maximize pleasure and minimize pain (we all do this latter part to some extent). Whether attention challenges reduce the choice one has regarding which elements make it into consciousness and are retained, or processing speed makes only the initial information retainable as working memory chugs along sorting facts into longer term memory while additional information continues to sail past, or the social demands on mental bandwidth simply push out any cognitive space for comprehension and retention of academic material, kids will find ways to cope without further humiliation, and often ingenious ones.

By the time they are entering middle school, students who do not differentiate between levels of specificity, or levels of importance, are at a serious disadvantage. But I think it is very important to perceive how hard won the act of grasping and retaining any material is for many students. And developmentally, the next step is not to start to categorize things remembered, but simply to remember more and more! I think it is key to note where on this path a student is, and to be willing to backtrack to where they really are, not with an implicit "you are behind!" message (they get this elsewhere), but with a startling, attention-getting acknowledgement of the progress on display when they show you where they actually are.

Furthermore, you can get amazingly far if you are smart and can learn to retain information, even if you don't see relationships between bits of information yet. For these students, explicit exercises to practice noting categories and subcategories are a vital precursor to all kinds of critical thinking, not to mention organized writing...and retrieving key ideas from text!

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