Book Review: ‘Academic Moves for College and Career Readiness’ (Corwin Literacy, 2015), by Jim Burke and Barry Gilmore

January 4, 2016 Les Lynn Argument and Literacy, Argumentative Writing, Assessment, Common Core, Resources, The Debatifier

From the Outset

Renowned educators and education writers Jim Burke and Barry Gilmore have put together an eminently useful resource binder for teaching what they identify as the most essential “academic moves” in K-12 education: Academic Moves for College and Career Readiness. This study and collection of resources on the “15 must-have skills every student needs to achieve” germinated from the authors’ day-to-day opportunity, they tell us, for reading and reflecting on the problems and prompts handed out to students by their teacher colleagues.

What are we actually asking our students to do in classrooms across disciplines? How do these directions interact with the requirements of current standards such as the Common Core or the new SAT? And how can teachers be assisted in becoming more intentional about teaching the precise academic skills their assignments and assessments demonstrate that they most value? These were the generative questions of the book. Burke and Gilmore wish to bring “consistency and clarity to the language” of school work, “the language of learning.” They quote Argument-Centered Education founding advisers Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein in saying that they intend for their resource binder to lay bare the “‘deep, underlying structure, [the] internal DNA’ common to the academic and cognitive moves” that students must learn to make, across all subject areas.

Burke and Gilmore’s Academic Moves has a lot to offer the education community, starting with the plan itself: the impetus to bring coherence and sense – what Graff, Mike Schmoker and others, have called “academic de-mystifcation” – to 6th – 12th grade curriculum and instruction. I will identify some of the highlights that make this resource binder a prudent investment (in money and time) for any high school or middle school teacher or administrator. There is also, though, an important way in which this work comes up short of its potential and doesn’t quite make good on its promise to counteract and negate the “Tower of Babel effect in which students go from class to class, within and across disciplines, hearing different words used to describe the same actions.” In the final section, I’ll elucidate the book’s limitations.


Its Many Valuable Features

Essentially this binder is organized into 15 sections, one for each “must-have skill,” followed by several appendices. These 15 “essential academic words” are:
















Each section follows the same template. First, the word is defined; its “main idea” is explicated, as are its “underlying skills.” So, for example, the “main idea” for the skill “interpret” elaborates that “all instructions to interpret . . . share in common the need for students to reach beyond the literal and to make leaps – often of intuition – to construct meaning.” So, the “underlying skills” for “interpret” include: “draw inferences,” “think metaphorically,” and “think causally” – with each underlying skill getting a few lines of further detail and clarification. There is a lucidity to the binder’s definitions and further development that itself is distinctive and can aid in teachers’ precise use and instruction of these terms.

Then each section contains a “before,” “during,” and “after” heading. “Before” helps explain how teachers should prepare to teach students to learn and better perform the skill. This section includes several useful sub-sections: “try these four things,” “mental moves,” and “obstacles to the moves.” The “four things” are often rather obvious or intuitive, but the “mental moves” are typically an insightful breaking down of the skill into its constituent sub-skills, the steps in effect that students must undertake to successfully make the full academic move. For instance, analyze is divided into these five steps: (1) look closely, (2) select details, (3) find patterns, (4) infer, and (5) draw conclusions. Along with questions that students should be asking of the text or data set provided along with each step, this five-step process quite effectively encapsulates what we expect students to do when they analyze. The “obstacles,” too, are useful. They are tips on what students might not do well, reflecting extensive classroom experience and observation, and presented in an unfussy, unadorned manner – e.g., “projection – students sometimes create an analysis based on what they want a work to say rather than on what the evidence supports.”

The “during” sub-sections focus on how students can be asked to practice or demonstrate the academic move as an in-class routine. Many of the ideas in this sub-section allow for formatively assessing students. There is also a regular “ELL Focus” heading and the inclusion of technology and multimedia application suggestions. “After” presents culminating project or assignment ideas that focus on or give special prominence to the skill. Several of these ideas are notably creative and appealing. For example, the task ideas for “evaluate” are distinctive. One, for an English language arts class, asks students to write a letter to the author of a major text read that semester that the students liked best, and to identify the strengths of the work and the effect that the work had on them. A second, for a math class, asks students in groups to evaluate each other’s solution-approach to a set of math-based puzzles, sharing out how their process of evaluation ranked the group’s approaches. For “integrate,” Burke and Gifford lay out a project for a social studies class in which students design their own DBQ, after having done several document-based questions earlier in the semester. This project seems to be both empowering for students and wonderfully attuned to the rigor of the skill, as the authors explicate it. These few thoughtful and engaging examples are fairly representative of the set of summative assessment ideas for the 15 academic moves, too.

Each section closes with three one-pages, ready for copying (or downloading from the binder’s on-line resource page at the Corwin Literacy website, access to which comes with the purchase). One is a set of bullet points aligning the summative project with Norman Webb’s well-regarded Depth of Knowledge taxonomy. Another is an assessment rubric that is built from a standardized template, tailored for the specific skill. And a third is a planning page for teachers, designed to help them reflect on how they can build or refine the teaching of the particular skill into their instructional practice.

The binder itself concludes with seven appendices and a single glossary of terms. The appendices include anchor charts; additional “academic moves” not included in the 15; discipline-specific applications of the 15 terms; and several additional reorganizations of the binder’s base content.


Where It Is Limited

There are a couple of minor criticisms that one might lodge against Academic Moves. The planning page graphic organizer is little more than a “my notes on this section” sheet and thus is unlikely to be used much. The rubrics seem like they are in a nether-world somewhere between what John C. Bean, argumentation specialist and English professor at Seattle University, calls in his Engaging Ideas (2nd Ed., Wiley & Sons, 2011) “generic rubrics” (usable across skills and assignments) and “task-specific rubrics” (applicable to a specific skill or assignment). There are common features that appear in numerous rubrics, grafted on to skill-specific assessment items. The logic to the assessment system proposed in the work across the skills isn’t explained, and it seems like an expedience may have guided their structure. The individual rubrics have usable elements, but would need to be adapted and modified.

There is one larger limitation, however. Academic Moves stops short of bringing true coherence, “consistency[,] and clarity” to academic language by obscuring the synthesizing role that argumentation plays in academic work. Putting argument on a flat plane with another 14 academic skills contributes to an obfuscation that for no reason (or no student-centered reason) makes schooling and learning seem diffuse, more difficult than it actually is; it adds distracting and unnecessary complexification, and we believe at Argument-Centered Education that it may contribute to a consistent historical pattern of reform disappointments and sluggish or static student performance over time.

A closer look at the other 14 skills reveals that many of them are either prefatory to, or a kind of related form of, academic argument. “Analyzing” is often, according to Burke and Gifford, identifying the “components of [an] argument.” In the students’ work samples in the binder’s “argument” section, students are shown to “summarize” the positions of other students, or the findings of the sources they are using for evidence, before making their argumentative claims. In the “compare/contrast” section, the authors explicitly state that “the ability to compare and contrast works effectively has always been a staple of academic argument,” while later they write, “compare-and-contrast assignments lend themselves to debate.” To teach students to “determine” (synonyms: “establish,” “identify,” “define”) teachers should have students come up with their argument in response to a precise prompt, and engage the arguments they have “determined” against what other students come up with. When students “develop,” according to the binder, they elaborate and build and connect what amounts to their argument (if it’s not their argument, what is it?), with “evidence” and reasoning and analysis.

I could go on here, but you get the idea. Most of the 15 academic move are either a constituent of, or another way to describe, argument. Appendix III helps to make this point clear by using the language of argument to demonstrate these skills’ application across disciplines: analyze, argue, determine, develop, evaluate, integrate, interpret, organize, summarize, support.

There is certainly an important place in college and career readying education for academic skills such as “describe,” “imagine,” “transform” – and even (left out of Burke and Gifford’s taxonomy) “inform” and “narrate.” These are skills in a relationship with argumentation, but they don’t find their main purpose or reason to be in argument. And we don’t mean to imply that there are not useful distinctions to be drawn among the 15 main academic moves in Burke and Gifford’s work. But to leave out or obscure the ways in which most of the moves in this work – and in education standards more generally – either culminate in, or provide another way to describe, or are a variation of, academic argumentation means that the work falls short of its apparent aims to provide a newfound and innovative clarity, organization, and order to the work of high-performing 6th – 12th grade educators working to prepare their students for the rigors of college and career. Even though Burke and Gifford’s Academic Moves has many virtues, we’ll need a taxonomy, and an accompanying resource binder, that is clearer about argument’s role in the underlying blueprint of academic work to fully realize those goals.