Why CER Scares Me a Little

Educators sometimes find the newest classroom strategy touted in our field laughable, because we know that what is “in” today, will eventually be replaced by new language, a new strategy, or an innovation that we will be told to incorporate into our teaching. Some people think of it as a pendulum - what’s “in” today is not in a year, or three, or five, as the pendulum swings in the other direction. The analogy does not always hold up, but all long-time educators have experienced that coming-and-going. Remember when we were required to write an anticipatory set in every lesson plan—and to call it by that name? Remember when KWL was the answer to learning—across disciplines? Remember when the school committed to Sustained Silent Reading, and then remember, at some point, when “the thing” ceased being the thing it once was?

Each of these is undergirded by research. Each has merit. However, far too easily any strategy can become a fill-in-the-blank, do-it-because-it’s-required exercise that loses its focus thus its punch. It is exciting when something new resonates that is not simply required of us. We hear or read the research, but on another level, something just makes sense. It grabs us, and we are sold. Moreover, our students reap the benefit.

That is what the Claim-Evidence-Reasoning (CER) framework has been for many teachers. Its earliest incarnation was a way to solve one teacher’s problem: Her students were not developing in-depth, thoughtful responses to questions she asked in science class. She wondered how to help them think more deeply and become stronger writers. The CER model was born to get us closer to the goal: We wanted to find a way to support students in explaining the how and why of scientific phenomena they experience in class, and in their everyday lives. Explain how. Explain why—in their talk and in their writing.

We aimed for responses that are more thoughtful and helping 11-year-old students represent their thinking. CER requires students to circle back to the question they were aiming to answer in an inquiry activity and think about what they can conclude. They see that once they state a conclusion—or make a claim—no one is convinced that their idea has merit unless they provide evidence. Certain kinds of data count as evidence in science, so they must marshal appropriate and sufficient data as evidence for the claim they make. They must decide which data count as evidence and which do not belong in their explanation, and why. They must think about what is already known in science—what they have already figured out in prior activities—and how new conclusions connect with other scientific ideas. Students need support in learning to think in scientific ways. CER is a tool that helps them. However, it is only a tool.

CER scares me a little because like any strategy, it can be overused, used where it does not work well, or required of students (or teachers) where its real purpose is trumped by just getting another CER done. If it becomes a less-thoughtful, fill-in-the-blank exercise, it loses power. It is just another worksheet. Another school-based task like a KWL or a reading log to prove students read during SSR. Let us commit to judicious use of CER where it supports students’ thinking (and the representation of their thinking) so that it does not become just one more way students must “do school.”

- Dr. LeeAnn Sutherland Adams, Chief Academic Officer

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