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Orchestrating Authentic Classroom Discussions

posted Nov 30, 2014, 6:00 PM by HSD Principal

    “To engage students in real talk, we must be thoughtful and responsive, trust in students’ abilities, and support them in problem solving instead of controlling the process ourselves,” says Maria Nichols (San Diego schools innovations director) in this Educational Leadership article. Nichols says high-quality classroom discussions are “messy and dynamic,” sparked by complex texts and challenging ideas – for example, fourth graders incredulous about the Christmas truce during World War I when German and Allied soldiers paused from killing each other to play soccer, smoke cigarettes, and chat (“We think it’s all messed up,” exclaimed one student). Such intense, authentic involvement happens when a teacher establishes a learning environment and teaches a repertoire of discussion behaviors.

But this kind of classroom can easily run into five predictable problems. Nichols offers advice on how to deal with each one, following this general maxim: “Rather than protocoling the energy out of dialogic interactions, our work is to teach into the energy, lifting students’ ability to talk as we strengthen their construction of understanding.”

Everyone is talking at once. When multiple ideas are vying to be heard, students need help holding onto their ideas while focusing on what others are saying. A teacher might say, “Let’s begin with Monique, focus on her idea, and see where that takes us. Then, let’s remember that Keira and Martin have ideas, too, and be sure to come back around to them to see how those fit.”

No one is listening. One teacher tactic is to have students tell what their partner said, but this sets “the listening bar low,” Nichols writes. “It’s possible to comply without any intent to draw from your partner’s thinking – indeed, without actually understanding his or her thinking at all.” When students are moving on without listening to a thoughtful comment, Nichols says the teacher should immediately jump in and bring the conversation back to the comment, rein in students’ egocentrism, and get them listening to each other.

Some students dominate. One teacher pulled an over-participating girl aside and got her thinking about whether she was learning from her classmates the way they were learning from her. This required “a new conversational stance,” says Nichols, “and a new repertoire of strategies, including asking questions, noticing the quiet students and inviting them into the conversation, and listening for ideas that might shift her thinking.”

Some students don’t participate. “Knowing that silence on the outside does not equal silence on the inside, are we watching for evidence of engagement on students’ faces or in their body language, and then responding?” asks Nichols. “Are we giving students time to work through complex ideas with a partner prior to larger-group talk?” Are we helping shy students develop confidence and skills and gently reaching out to involve them?

The ‘right answer’ paradigm prevails. Teachers can fall back into the initiate-respond-evaluate pattern of classroom talk, sometimes using the telltale phrase, Can anyone tell me…? “The teacher responds to each student voice rather than encouraging students to respond to one another,” says Nichols. “This positions the teacher as the authority and focuses effort on answers instead of ideas.” The alternative is for the teacher to encourage discussion with questions like, “What do the rest of you think about this?” “Are there other possibilities?” “Does this make sense?” “How does this idea connect to our earlier thinking?”


“Real Talk, Real Teaching” by Maria Nichols in Educational Leadership, November 2014 (Vol. 72, #3, p. 73-77), http://bit.ly/1HDEDKP; Nichols is at mnichols45@cox.net.

Except Taken from Marshall Memo 562, November 24, 2014
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