Saturday, July 26, 2014

Learning to Discuss and Discussing to Learn

Some teachers I know are artists at orchestrating whole-class discussions, but I find that what happens when I try that is the following: I have a discussion with 2 or 3 students, 2 or 3 more listen in, and all the rest fall asleep or start thinking about what’s for lunch. But if students carry on a discussion in groups of 4, all are engaged. And engaged students learn more than passive listeners, and way more than sleepers and lunch-dreamers.

I learned to get even more mileage from those small group discussions (and also why it is they work so well) a couple of years ago when I read Productive Group Work. But there’s always the class period or the particular group that just doesn’t function as well as the others. And I’m always looking for ways to help kids learn better. This week’s read, Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings by Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford, did just that.

My biggest take-aways were the following:
  1. Make having a good academic conversation the objective. Tell the kids. Sometimes they think it’s about getting the answer. Or everyone in the group sharing the answer they got. But if I’ve come up with a decent prompt, the real goal is having a conversation that brings you and your partners to an understanding you hadn’t had before. 
  2. Give students tools for keeping/getting conversations back on track. 
  3. Give students the equivalent of 1-on-1 teaching: Wouldn’t it be great if students could always have a 1-on-1 conversation with the teacher?  What if it were possible to train students to have that kind of conversation with each other? 
  4. Pass on the insights. I wonder if there are parts that would be particularly helpful for our middle school social studies department, which has targeted discussion (as a precursor to debate in high school) as a department assessment.
A little more about each of the above....

Five core skills for a good academic conversation are defined and explained in chapter 2. I appreciated the list (see end of paragraph), the emphasis on specificity (name the bit you found interesting or unclear or agreed with or disagreed with), and the observation that each skill is actually 2--the skill of doing is, and the skill of prompting a partner to do it.
  1. Elaborate and clarify
  2. Support ideas with examples
  3. Build on and/or challenge a partner’s idea
  4. Paraphrase
  5. Synthesize conversation points
When conversations wander, it almost always takes a word from me--or sometimes just my presence approaching the guilty group. Wouldn’t it be great if students could monitor and recall themselves? Next year I’ll try teaching them a few ways to cope:
  • Paraphrase: “So far, we agree that... we disagree that... you argue that...” (89).
  • Ask questions: “What are we trying to do?” “What is our goal?” (77).
  • Refocus group: “Remember, our central question is...” (77).
Training students in “teacher-like conversation skills” might sound unrealistic, but the breakdown given in chapter 5 looks like a list of life skills for advanced education, citizenship, employment...and even something I really appreciate in my friends! Zwiers and Crawford maintain that we can train students to...
  1. Perceive when their listeners don’t understand.
  2. Ask useful questions.
  3. Negotiate meaning. (This occurs when 2 speakers start with different understandings of a topic, and in the course of hearing a new perspective, both shift their understanding somewhat.) 
  4. Encourage and compliment.
  5. Maintain logical flow, connections, and depth of thought.
  6. Recognize that an abstract idea needs support, elaboration, and/or examples.
  7. Be leaders and team players.
  8. Think and talk like experts.
There’s plenty more here to come back to--for instance, the specialized chapters on academic conversations in the subject areas of language arts, social studies, and science (7-9) and chapter 10 on academic conversation assessment, both formative and summative, with sample rubrics and transcribed conversations. But I think I’ve got enough captured here to chew on for next year’s academic discussions: Make learning from the conversation the articulated goal, and give students tools for keeping the conversations on track and driving them deeper.

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