Why student talk? Participation in Learning Conversations | Steve Barkley

Increasing Student Participation in Learning Conversations

Why student talk?

Maryellen Weimer identifies five reasons getting students to talk is worth the effort:

  • Students learn the content when they talk about it.
  • Talking lets students learn from each other.
  • Talking gives students, the opportunity to practice using the language of the discipline.
  • Talking connects students with the content.
  • Talking connects students with each other.Image of Content-Area Conversations Book

In the book, Content-Area Conversations, Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Carol Rothenberg share:

Language, in other words, is how we think. It’s how we process information and remember. It’s our operating system. Vygotsky (1962) suggested that thinking develops into words in a number of phases, moving from imaging to inner speech to inner speaking to speech. Tracing this idea backward, speech—talk—is the representation of thinking. As such, it seems reasonable to suggest that classrooms should be filled with talk, given that we want them filled with thinking!

Jake Rosch and Brianna Gray spotlight a problem in Talking in Class (a free interactive eBook):

“69% of the students surveyed believe that speaking or listening is the most important academic skill (over reading or writing). However, 73% reported receiving the least amount of classroom instruction on how to effectively speak or listen; research on language use has shown that approximately 40% of class time should be used in dialogue in order to maximise effective learning.”

Here are some strategies that can introduce, model, and coach students to practice talking and listening to learn:

Strategy #1: Pause, write, and share.

Begin by giving students five minutes to write down everything they know about or think about the topic or question that you want them to explore. Next, have them share that with one or two other students, identifying where their facts or opinions match or differ. At this point you can ask these groups to report out to the whole group what agreements, disagreements, and questions emerged. Questions that are shared can be given back to the pairs or triads before requesting responses from individuals.

Strategy #2: Ripple   

Pérsida and William Himmele  describe this process as a ripple. They remind us that the last step of getting responses to a quality question is calling on volunteers who want to share. The first step is for every student to develop a response (center of the ripple). Then each student in pair or small group shares response (first ripple). Lastly, volunteers or selected students respond to whole group (outer ripple).

Students talking

Strategy #3: Four Corners

The four corners of the classroom are labeled with the terms strongly agree, agree, disagree, and strongly disagree. Students are presented with a statement and decide their response to the statement as one of the labels presented. Provide think time for students to identify reasons for their decision. You might ask them to jot down key reasons they want to share. Students then walk to the corner of their response and collaborate (in small groups) with students who have made the same choice. The teacher can now facilitate a conversation sharing the various views. As an additional element, students in each corner may be asked to build a synthesis of their groups thinking. (At times I have also built in the opportunity for students to move corners as they hear other viewpoints.)

Strategy #4: Collaborative Conversations

Collaborative conversations are purposeful talk, sustained discussions between students in which ideas are presented, defended, elaborated upon, and responded to. They encourage exchanges of ideas, based on evidence, that generates new thinking and stronger understanding. Doug Fisher describes collaborative conversations in this video clip.

As Rousch and Gray identified above, we need to increase the development of students’ skills to be effective collaborative conversationalist to enhance their own learning and their classmates’ learning. How would you assess your students’ current effectiveness in collaborative conversation? What prompts, modeling, instruction and coaching do you need to provide students for the development of these skills? Redwood City School District in CA has posted resources for teachers to support students on collaborative conversations.

How much are teachers experiencing being active participants in learning conversations at staff meetings, professional development, and PLCs? Do teachers need practice in collaborative conversations skills to be better prepared to teach them to their students? How as instructional leaders are you modeling collaborative conversation opportunities?

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One Response to “ Increasing Student Participation in Learning Conversations ”

  1. Jan VanGilder Says:

    Stephen, I am working with 3 math education professors and we have been working on this for the past two years with high school math teachers! I am really interested in this because support the notion of student conversations because great questions can come from that conversations. It is always a great way for students to show their understanding of the intense vocabulary of mathematics! Thank you!

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