The Open University UK’s website responds to the question:
Why talk for learning is important?
“Talk is a part of human development that helps us to think, learn and make sense of the world. People use language as a tool for developing reasoning, knowledge and understanding. Therefore, encouraging students to talk as part of their learning experiences will mean that their educational progress is enhanced.”
Talking about the ideas being learnt means that:
- Those ideas are explored.
- Reasoning is developed and organized.
- As such, students learn more.
Here is a strategy you can use when planning for a discussion to generate talk for engagement and learning.
- The Spark – What will grab attention and generate interest? Engaging curiosity has been shown to stimulate activities in the brain’s reward regions. In other words, curiosity can trigger a reaction similar to the presence of a reward. (Min Jeong et al., 2009) Watch the students’ faces as this teacher sets a spark.
- The Wonder – The spark should lead to wondering. What questions are emerging? You can have participants share their questions with a partner and then collect as a whole group. You might “prime the pump” with a question or two. This is the start of an inquiry process.
- The Collection – At this stage participants begin gathering information to build responses to the wondering questions. In some cases, this is collecting the information (previous knowledge) that exists from the members’ past experiences. This might be a time that the group breaks for doing individual or small group research, interviewing, or exploring. Additional wonder questions often emerge during this process leading to more collection. Perception, Induction, Analysis, Same/Different questions usually guide the collection stage. (See Questions for Learning.)
- The Interpretation – As the information is gathered new questions arise to make meaning from the information that is being gathered. Deeper thinking occurs and insights emerge. Appraisal, Summary and Evaluation questions (Questions for Learning) can lead to a decision.
- The Decision – The decision creates a possible response to the wondering questions. Often this thinking leads to an idea or an action. Sometimes the action is a way of documenting that a hypothesis that has emerged is accurate. Other times a decision emerges to take an action in response to that was learned or uncovered.
- The Action – Action can often produce a new spark that generates a new learning experience, setting off the elements of wonder, collection, interpretation, and new decisions. Other times the action might identify an incorrect hypothesis that takes one back to new collection and interpretation questions.
Talk throughout this process increases learning. Talk that is peer to peer, individual to group, self-talk (asking myself questions) all promote the learning process. As participants develop their listening skills and questioning skills, they will encourage talk from their colleagues.
Example A Using the Above Process
A school district has set a systemwide goal of increasing student agency. A teacher might structure a learning discussion with the following:
- Spark – The teacher shares: Student agency refers to the level of autonomy and power that a student experiences in the learning environment. Student voice and agency are intrinsically linked. Agency gives students the power to direct and take responsibility for their learning, creating independent and self-regulating learners. Why do you think the district would decide to have the staff work to increase student agency?
- Wonder – The teacher asks, “What are you wondering? I am wondering how much power I give you in learning?” Students might wonder if more agency would make school more fun. What is student voice? Do you tend to get more or less agency as grade levels go up? Could we get more choice in school lunch? Could we decide no homework?
- Collection – Students might generate a list of questions they want to explore and in small groups take responsibility for exploring and collecting information. One group might create a student survey about where students have agency and where they’d like more. Another group might interview the principal and central office administrators as to how the district decided to have this goal? Another group might seek definitions for words in the initial statement the teacher shared, for example, self-regulating learners, student voice, and autonomy.
- Interpreting – As the groups share their learning with each other new questions arise. Where is the most important place for more student agency? How would we rate the amount of agency in this class? Do we think that more student agency would cause us to learn more? Why? Might more learner agency cause us to miss important learning? Why?
- Deciding – What changes would we suggest in our classroom? Is there an experiment we want to conduct to help document our thinking?
- Action – What agreements do we as students and teacher need to make before we begin? What data will we collect during the experiment to further explore our thinking?
Example B Using the Above Process
A school district has set a systemwide goal of increasing student agency. An instructional coach might facilitate a discussion for learning with the staff:
- Spark – (Harvard Ed Magazine)
- A Gallup poll of 500,000 students in grades five through 12 found that nearly eight in 10 elementary students were “engaged” with school, that is, attentive, inquisitive, and generally optimistic. By high school, the number dropped to 4 in 10.
- Todd Rose, Director of the Mind, Brain, and Education Program says, “If you see human potential as a bell curve and there are only some kids who are going to be great and most kids are mediocre, then engagement really wouldn’t matter. But if you really believe that all kids are capable, then you would build environments that really worked hard to sustain engagement and nurture potential.”
- Wonder – I wonder what students in our district would report? I’m wondering what my students would report. Does our elementary program have a responsibility to change how students view high school? Is there research that shows increasing student agency increases student engagement and increases learning outcomes?
- Collection – Individual teachers or grade level or department groups might want to collect student input on when they sense they are most engaged and least engaged in learning? Groups might form to gather research and articles on connected topics (motivation, autonomy, agency, efficacy). Another set of groups might research instructional strategies that increase student engagement. Perhaps each teacher is asked to bring an example of learning activities they use that have higher student agency.
- Interpreting – As the staff share the findings from the collection phase with each other, individuals and teams should reach an assessment as to the need for changing the degree of student agency.
- Deciding – Where teachers believe that increased student agency is needed, hypotheses should be generated along with plans to carry out investigations. (I’m thinking that I could increase student agency by providing an overview of key elements with questions in our upcoming unit and let students in small groups select one element to explore and understand in depth with the responsibility to instruct classmates on the critical elements.)
- Action – As teachers implement their investigations, peer coaching would allow the collection of evidence around changes in teacher and student behaviors/practices. Debriefing sessions where teachers shared problems and successes of implementation and student learning outcomes should generate thinking for future study and action.
Questioning is critical from the facilitator and from the participants to create talk that generates action and produces learning.