Inductive, Deductive, Reductive: What Kinds of Thinking Do We Ask of Students—and Why?

© Copyright 2003 by Jeanne Curran from

One of the patterns readers of this blog may have noticed cropping up in post after post is a repeated emphasis on details—on attending to details, connecting details, considering what details might mean. This emphasis stands apart from some of the talk about details found in classrooms, where details, at best, are valued as supporting evidence for ideas the reader has and, at worst, are seen as distracting our attention from the holy grail of the main idea.

I think this is unfortunate because details are, in fact, the building blocks of texts. They’re what writers use to construct and explore characters, situations, ideas and themes in both fiction and non-fiction. And they’re what readers use to construct whatever ideas or interpretations they have about what they read.

Experienced readers tend to do this work invisibly, noticing, processing and fitting details together to consider their possible meaning almost as automatically and fluently as they notice, process and fit words together to fluently make sense of a sentence. Many students, however, don’t even know that this is what readers do, or they haven’t reached the point yet where they’ve internalized the process enough to automatically do it.

Those students need practice in thinking inductively–that is, moving from the parts to the whole by first noticing the details the author provides then thinking about what those details might suggest or signify in order to build an idea or understanding from the bottom up. That’s the kind of thinking the 7th grade students in last week’s post used to build an understanding of the worlds they encountered at their dystopian novel stations. And it’s the kind of thinking I invited readers to try on two weeks ago with the opening pages of The Hunger Games and Number the Stars.

Main Idea Graphic OrganizerUnfortunately, though, too many of the tools we give our students, such as the graphic organizer here, don’t help because they require deductive thinking, which asks students to move from the whole to the parts, coming up with an idea then searching for details to prove the idea’s validity. These organizers might help students develop the habit of supporting ideas with evidence, but they don’t explicitly show students how to construct an idea in the first place, which for many is the more difficult work.

The other problem with top-down, deductive-based organizers is that they frequently encourage reductive thinking, with characters reduced to one or more single-word traits or with rich and nuanced multi-faceted texts reduced to a lone main-idea sentence. That’s not to say it’s not important to get a sense of a character in a narrative. But we do so not to pin them down with an adjective, like a butterfly in a display case, but to think about how those traits help or hinder them from dealing with whatever problems the writer has put in their path, and to be able to better see how they do or don’t change as they grapple with those problems. And we do all that, in turn, because attending to how characters change and develop as they wrestle with their problems can help us think about what aspect of the human condition the writer might be exploring—a.k.a. the theme.

Thus, thinking about a character’s so-called traits is the first step in the long process of meaning making,  not an isolated end to itself as these worksheets seem to suggest. Better, I think, are supports that push student thinking across a text, like the chart that teacher Cory Gillette designed to help her students think about characters within the context of the plot, which consultant Stephanie Parsons‘s shares and discusses on her blog. Or like this one from What Readers Really Do, which supports inductive thinking by inviting students to notice and connect patterns of recurring details in order to question or develop an idea about what they might possibly mean (filled in here with the thoughts of a fifth grade class reading Patricia Reilly Giff‘s Pictures of Hollis Woods):

© Copyright 2012 by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton from What Readers Really Do (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann)

Once again, in the end, it seems to come down to purpose. If you want to help build your students’ ability to support their ideas with details or to have a baseline read of a character as a starting point for tracking their development, then a graphic organizer based on deductive thinking could conceivably help. But it will do nothing to help those students who struggle with coming up with an idea in the first place. They need a tool that supports and makes visible the inductive process of thinking that experienced readers invisibly use. And they need lots of practice for that kind of thinking to become automatic and fluent.

The good news, though, is that the very same details they notice and use to inductively construct an idea can subsequently be used to support the idea in a deductive way. The bad news is that too often I think we ask students to complete these kinds of worksheets and graphic organizers when they don’t really need to—i.e., when they’re already doing the work automatically, which is the ultimately goal, or when they’re not ready because they need to experience the invisible inductive step before making the deductive one.

What doesn’t seem a valid enough purpose, however, is to have them fill in worksheets so that we can collect and arm ourselves with data. There are plenty of other more authentic ways to formatively assess what a reader can do, from conferences to formal accountable talk circles to genuine reading responses. The trick is to find opportunities and tools that give you a window on a child’s mind as it attempts to make meaning without dulling or destroying their engagement with reading through too much of what can seem like busywork—and to consider what thinking we’re asking them to do, along with that crucial why?

14 thoughts on “Inductive, Deductive, Reductive: What Kinds of Thinking Do We Ask of Students—and Why?

  1. I have not taught grade 9 in a very long time, and I was feeling that the students and I just were not connecting on the latest unit where they are reading independent books (non-fiction). The wide variety of titles and interests was becoming unwieldy for me as well….and I was looking for a common thread. So, (in desperation) I suddenly asked what was the purpose to coming to English? (
    Worksheets would not have worked in the brainstorming session that followed….and I think we are a little more “re calibrated” as to what we are trying to achieve together. I am finding a new understanding about how purpose is at the heart of every lesson…and that practicing “what is my purpose?” will make thinking about question (to quote you) “automatic and fluent.”
    Great post!

    • One of the joys of blogging has been connecting with other bloggers and reading what they have to say–which is to say that I loved your post on asking students about the purpose of English. It’s such a real, authentic question, without a simple answer. I wonder, though, whether the class kept brainstorming not because they wanted to give you the ‘right’ answer but because you somehow conveyed to them that what you were really looking for and valuing was honest thinking, not a right answer. I find when I make that switch–and the students truly feel that my questions are not some kind of trap–they’re much more willing to put fresh, risky thinking out there. And my hunch is that you opened that door but asking a risky question to which you had no preset answer you were fishing for. And for the record, I also loved your post on Balancing Whole Class Novels and Choice, which I think is really important in high school.

  2. Thanks for always bringing us back to purpose! 🙂

    As I was reading your post, I was making connections to writing instruction as well, having just finished Hillock’s book Teaching Argument Writing (…I think we often ask deductive things of writers (i.e. formulate a thesis, then research) when writers need the opposite support – ask questions, examine data, read, explore, inquire and THEN formulate a thesis :). At any rate, I think we can’t go wrong if our assignments are purposeful and if we’re constantly supporting the thinking (and the process) – in reading and writing through our assignments – vs. the “thing” or “product,” (graphic organizer, main idea, etc.)

    I look forward to your posts!

  3. Vicki,
    Inductive thinking – what some would call synthesizing, right – moving from parts to whole. I find this so hard to teach readers except when thinking aloud about a read aloud we are in together, but the moments when it does work seem like magic. You see it in the eyes of the students – teaching reading is about striking the balance between the art and the science – because when you lean too much on the science then the magic disappears.
    I have thought of the analogy of puzzle pieces for synthesizing (inductive reasoning), but I don’t know if that is appropriate, in that, there is already a preconceived image that students are ‘putting together’ – and while it does call on them to visualize the image in their minds, organize the pieces so that they fit together, and recreate the image they have in their mind, it doesn’t ask them to create a new image. What it basically comes down to is: is there a theme or intention that the author has (I would say yes) – and it is a difficult for a developing reader to construct a theme absent of the author’s intention (and still keep that theme grounded in the text.
    What could be interesting is to study themes that our readers have come up with in relation to each other.
    I find that the word ‘could’ is helpful in this respect – Instead of what is this book really about? We probably should be teaching readers to say – Based on what I have read so far the author could be saying . . . When we say the word really – it gives the impression that there is a finite and definitive answer versus a realm of possibility.
    How do we get readers to come up with themes that do not sound like fortune cookies or platitudes – good can triumph over evil, one person can make a difference, don’t be afraid to be different and at the same time or not so specific that you can carry them into other texts – (Tiger Rising) Rob realizes that silence can be destructive and eat away at you and so it is only when he opens himself up and shares his feelings with others that he is able to overcome his sadness and cope with the loss of his Mom.
    I am so glad that I stumbled on your blog – I am currently in a unit on interpretation text sets – and struggling with the larger work of this unit. I teach 4th grade and our touchstone text for this reading unit is Baby by Patricia MacLachlan and so I am developing our mini-lessons around this text. I am at a loss on how to help students see a theme as a ‘living idea’ that grows and changes across the text and then show them how to carry it to other texts we have read (because of some of the challenges I mentioned above). I want to make sure that I am giving students the opportunity to invent – so I do not want to say to them: What ties these texts together is that friendship or love conquers all. How would you approach a unit like this Vicki with my goal being the following: The CCLS call for students to: Compare and contrast the treatment of similar themes and topics (e.g., opposition of good and evil) and patterns of events (e.g., the quest) in stories, myths, and traditional literature from different cultures. I would love to hear your thoughts on this . . . I am trying to keep it authentic, which becomes more and more challenging in an academic climate that doesn’t allow kids (teachers) the time and space to do this kind of thinking without the pressures exerted on them to conform and sacrifice authenticity and creativity for consistency and standardization.

    • You’ve raised so many great and critical questions here that I’m not quite sure where to begin. But here’s a few thoughts and ideas. I think you’re right on about the helpfulness of words like ‘could’ and ‘might be,’ which Peter Johnston in his new book Opening Minds calls ‘uncertainty markers.’ They help kids keep an open, inquisitive and receptive mind, rather than one that seeks to stamp a text with those fortune cookie style platitudes or to fit pieces into a preconceived notion of a final image. It also keeps them grounded in the text, which for most of us is how we access the theme, not by thinking thematically right away. Dorothy and I talk about this in What Readers Really Do by drawing on James Joyce who said that “In the particular is contained the universal.” Thus, readers could move from what they’ve come to deeply and insightfully understand about Rob in Tiger Rising (i.e, the particulars) to what Kate DiCamillo might be trying to say more universally about how denying or compartmentalizing our feelings frequently backfires and it’s only by opening up and sharing those feelings that we can ever hope to heal (all the while remembering that in a book as rich as Tiger Rising there is not only one theme.) We also piggyback on Janet Burroway’s idea that a theme is not just a one-word abstraction, like friendship or in the case of Tiger Rising, grief, and that instead of asking the question what is this text about, we ask what about what it’s about–i.e., what is Tiger Rising more precisely exploring about grief or friendship and how is that different or similar than, say, how Miracle’s Boys deals with those same issues. I think that’s a way of both meeting the CCLS and keeping it authentic, which is, indeed, hard in these standardized times.

      I hope, though, this gives you something to chew on. It definitely made me think about doing a string of posts about theme. So thanks!

  4. I’ve only been following your blog for a couple months now, and I’ve never replied before. I don’t blog myself, but I’m feeling like I should start…
    It’s posts like these that inspire me, push my thinking to new levels, and…dare I say it??…make me want to go back to the classroom. I’ve been coaching and/or teaching Title I reading for the last 5 years and it is truly my dream job. However, before I feel like I can coach through this new line of thinking that comes with the Common Core, I maybe, just maybe, want to go back and try it myself. It’s all so scary and challenging, but I think that makes me want it even more. Thanks for helping me grow!

    • In these new and challenging times, we all need someone to help us grow. And I don’t think that when I started this blog I fully understood how much mine own thinking would be pushed and supported and challenged and affirmed by readers. More than anything, though, I love knowing how many of us are out there trying to figure all this out in thoughtful, meaningful ways. So thanks for chiming in. Now about that blog . . .

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