post by Jill Davidson, 2019-2020 The Educator Collaborative Associate
Talk That Grows Thinking
Talk is a powerful resource for students to use in order to demonstrate their thinking. Debates, presentations, and formal speeches can be used as demonstrations of how well students understand topics or concepts. In these cases, the talk comes after the learning and is often used as evidence of progress toward a learning target or as part of a grade. Inviting students to talk about what they have learned offers us unique insight, but conversation can be so much more than a product of students’ knowledge after the learning has finished. It can actually serve as an integral part of the learning itself.
In her recent book, Building Bigger Ideas: A Process for Teaching Purposeful Talk, Maria Nichols describes purposeful talk as a process that “ensures participants leave the conversation with thinking that’s deepened and changed. Each carries footprints of others’ thinking with them, enabling bits of the conversation to resonate internally, likely to surface again as they connect to new inquiries.” As a learner, I thrive on collaborative conversations with others who add new perspectives to my thinking and challenge me to take my ideas in new directions so that I walk away a deeper understanding than I had before we talked.
Shana Frazen and Katie Wischow describe these conversations in Unlocking the Power of Classroom Talk: Teaching Kids to Talk with Clarity and Purpose as “the kind of talk that you might imagine doing over coffee, or wine, with good friends. Dorm room talk. Late night talk. This is talk for the pure joy of discovering what new thinking might emerge if we talk long enough—and it’s talk that actually revels in the ‘wrong’ answers, because the point is the journey of thought as much as the destination.”
How do we create the conditions for students to grow their thinking through conversations with one another? How do we make talking part of the journey and not just the destination?
Audit the Talk in Your Classroom
- Observe the ratio of teacher talk to student talk: Who is doing most of the talking on a regular basis? Challenge yourself to turn the majority of talking over to students.
- Pay attention to whether the student talk is dominated by a few voices. Practice facilitating more equitable and inclusive conversations by incorporating partner talk, small group discussions, written conversations, discussion protocols, and technology tools that support asynchronous dialogue.
Teach and Model Conversation Behaviors
- Putting students into groups and expecting them to have collaborative conversations may not immediately achieve the results you are hoping for, especially if they have not experienced these kinds of discussions before. Resources such as Building Bigger Ideas: A Process for Teaching Purposeful Talk by Maria Nichols, Unlocking the Power of Classroom Talk: Teaching Kids to Talk with Clarity and Purpose by Shana Frazen and Katie Wischow, and Teaching Talk: A Practical Guide to Fostering Student Thinking and Conversation by Kara Pranikoff will help you develop a vision for what talk that grows thinking can look like in your classroom and, from there, develop mini-lessons that will build students’ capacity over time.
- Discussion protocols, sentence starters, and more structured activities can be helpful scaffolds toward independence. As students develop conversation behaviors over time, they won’t require as much direction and support, so think of using them in the service of practicing productive talk, but not as the end goal. Facing History and Ourselves, Teaching Tolerance, and Visible Thinking (Project Zero) are excellent sources for discussion-based activities.
Provide Opportunities for Reflection
- In her book Teaching Talk: A Practical Guide to Fostering Student Thinking and Conversation, Kara Pranikoff recommends using artifacts of talk such as transcripts and video recordings as opportunities for the teacher and students to reflect, provide feedback, and set new goals for discussion. She suggests beginning with the question “What would improve our student-driven conversation?” as a starting point.
Offer Compelling Ideas to Talk (and Think) About
- If we want students to construct thinking together through conversation, they need topics and ideas they believe are worth talking about. Texts, images, and current events can be excellent sparks for conversation. The caution here, though, is to be careful not to guide the conversation with prompts or tasks that are too directive.
- Pose open-ended questions (or consider using none at all) that leave plenty of space for the conversation to unfold naturally as students share ideas and build on each other’s thinking. Better yet, start with questions generated by the students themselves.
- Writing is an excellent rehearsal for talking. Giving students time to think on the page first often elevates the level of conversation. This strategy also supports students who prefer think time before getting into a discussion.
- Conversely, talking is also a useful rehearsal for writing. Conversation allows students to explore possible ideas for writing and to receive feedback from peers.
- Conversations can also occur through writing. Silent conversations and discussion boards encourage discussion and generate artifacts that can be used later for reflection.
Give it Time
Like any skill, we get better at talking to grow our thinking the more often we engage in these kinds of collaborative conversations. Students will need time to practice, reflect and grow. They’ll also need dedicated time for talking in the classroom. Because thinking expands through sharing, students will need ample time to linger in their ideas together.
Frazen, Shana, and Kate Wischow. Unlocking the Power of Classroom Talk: Teaching Kids to Talk with Clarity and Purpose. Heinemann, 2019.
Nichols, Maria. Building Bigger Ideas: A Process for Teaching Purposeful Talk. Heinemann, 2019.
Pranikoff, Kara. Teaching Talk: A Practical Guide to Fostering Student Thinking and Conversation. Heinemann, 2017.