The following is an excerpt from the new book by Jeff Zwiers, Next Steps with Academic Conversations: New Ideas for Improving Learning Through Classroom Talk, the follow up to his popular book Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings, released in 2011. This exciting follow-up addition is due to be published in September, 2019.
Academic conversations offer many benefits to students. You likely already know these, but, given that it does take quite a bit of work to use and improve conversations throughout the school day, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of them.
Conversations offer a chance for students to share their questions and confusions with others. Not every partner will be able to clarify everything, but conversation does allow students to get a better idea of what they don’t know and what they need to know. As they talk with partners, they also benefit from the knowledge, evidence, and experiences of others.
Every other turn in an authentic conversation, the student receives oral input tailored just for him or her. If, let’s say, Ana is talking with David about the theme of a story, and she doesn’t understand something that David just said, she says, “What?” or “Huh?” Then, David rephrases, uses a synonym, acts it out, or does whatever it takes to help Ana understand what he is saying. And every other turn, Ana is pushed to put her ideas into words and sentences (oral output) for David to understand and use in building his ideas. As she constructs meaning, the words and grammar tend to stick in her brain. And some words and grammatical structures are reinforced because they are used multiple times in the conversation.
Stronger socio-emotional skills.
Neuroscientists argue that our brains and minds are shaped by face-to-face interactions with other people. Rather than just decoding and encoding verbal messages during conversation (as robots might do), a person’s mind tries to understand, or mirror, the other’s mind by inferring meanings, feelings, and values (Hari and Kujala 2007). As students converse with others, they see how others think and feel about a range of issues and how they express those feelings. This builds the ability to understand how others view and respond to the world, which leads to the important skill of empathy. Empathy in turn allows people to connect with others and create better relationships.
Stronger academic identity, agency, and voice.
Conversations can help build an academic identity. When students are given the freedom to work together to build up ideas and ways of expressing those ideas, their sense of agency in their learning grows. Agency means, in a nutshell, that you learn to use the tools of learning (language, thinking, etc.) to do meaningful things, rather than just to show that you can use the tools. Students also tend to feel that they have more of a voice: that their ideas matter and can contribute to the collective learning and ideas in class. These things, of course, help build students’ sense of belonging, confidence, and the knowledge that they can learn just as well as others in class, in school, and in life. It is vital that students believe in their capacities to learn.
Equity means strategically providing a range of resources and experiences to students in different ways so that the learning potential of all students is maximized. Conversations foster equity by getting students to interact with students of different backgrounds, language proficiencies, and abilities. As the teacher, you can and should provide varying supports before, during, and after the conversations, but the conversations and the students will do most of the work. We become more like those with whom we interact. As students interact with others, they are always pushed, cognitively and linguistically, to understand what others say and how they feel. This moves everyone forward.
Conversations offer excellent windows into what students know and can do, as well as who they are and who they want to be. This allows you to make appropriate adjustments and additions to future lessons in order to improve their learning. The downside, of course, is that you can’t take all of their conversations home every night and “grade them.” (If you can do this, please contact me. I have some questions for you.) But we can observe a few conversations each day and learn a lot about students’ learning.
Next Steps with Academic Conversations will be released in September, 2019. To pre-order, go HERE.
Hari, R., and M. V. Kujala. 2007. “Brain Basis of Human Social Interaction: From Concepts to Brain Imaging.” Physiological Reviews 89 (2): 453–479.