By Peter Johnston from the Foreword of Hands Down, Speak Out by Kassia Omohundro Wedekind and Christy Hermann Thompson
Knowing how to build ideas together, to disagree civilly and productively, and to collaboratively solve problems is the foundation of civilization. All advanced human accomplishments have been, directly or indirectly, collaborative accomplishments mediated through language: higher mathematics, modern medicine, cell phones, music, theater, and certainly democratic society itself. Multiple minds working well together overcome the limitations of individual minds. When children know how to think together well, they can solve more problems collaboratively than can groups who have not learned how to think together (Mercer, Wegerif, and Dawes 1999). But that’s not all. As they become more capable as a group, the individuals in the group become more capable than students who have not learned how to think together. This, alone, should place the ability to think together at the center of school curricula. It would also be sufficient reason to put Hands Down, Speak Out at the top of teachers’ and administrators’ reading lists, though there are many more reasons to do so.
Without knowing it, I have been waiting for this book. Engagingly written, thoroughly practical, and consistent with a large body of research, Hands Down, Speak Out is a systematic and responsive approach to maximizing children’s ability to think together. I say systematic because the authors’ practice is organized to strategically build from entry-level skills and understandings to more complex ones. At the same time, it is responsive because Christy and Kassia make it clear that the array of well-structured “micro-lessons” they provide should not simply be delivered in sequence. Rather, they recognize that different groups of children have different chemistries, bringing different individual and collective understandings, propensities, and relationships to classroom life. Consequently, they will not encounter the need for particular lessons in the same order. With concrete examples, Christy and Kassia show us how to recognize when particular lessons are appropriate, what those lessons might look like, and how to improvise in the immediate context.
Christy and Kassia make little distinction between thinking together in language arts and in mathematics. As they point out, categorizing knowledge in these ways has its limitations: becoming critically literate requires an understanding of math. Indeed, if they had written a longer book, they could have included other categories of knowledge such as science and social studies and still have been consistent with research. The interleaving of math and language arts examples is particularly useful because it helps us to more easily generalize the principles and practices they offer.
Although advanced human accomplishments depend on the skills, understandings, and propensities described in this book, there are even stronger reasons for teachers to read it. Vygotsky (1978) taught us that individual minds are created in the process of thinking and acting together with others. Indeed, the kind of conversations described in this book result in considerable individual intellectual development, including not only better reading comprehension (Rojas-Drummond et al. 2014) and better understanding in science and math (Mercer and Sams 2008), but also better abstract reasoning and creative thinking (Mercer, Wegerif, and Dawes 1999; Wegerif 2005). Children who experience these conversations also become more persuasive, partly because they are more likely to provide evidence and reasons for their perspective (Latawiec et al. 2016). Although these intellectual benefits are well documented, it would be a mis- take to assume that intellectual activity is merely about academic achievement and reasoning. Children who experience Hands-Down Conversations become more expressive and willing to speak in public (Trickey and Topping 2004) with increased confidence (Trickey and Topping 2006). Intellectual activity is not sep- arate from the emotions and relationships that color, motivate, and enable it. In my own work with colleagues, we find that as children engage in conversations taking different perspectives, they become more understanding, develop better relationships, have stronger moral reasoning, and acquire a better understanding of both themselves and others (Ivey and Johnston 2013, Johnston et al., 2020). Indeed, I often wonder how many future marriages and friendships these teachers save as they teach children how to think and solve problems together, engaging their partners’ perspectives.
It is no exaggeration to say that human development, both collective and individual, is made possible by the qualities of our collaborative intellectual practices. In fact, I sometimes wonder how the world will survive if children do not experience the sort of teaching presented in this book.
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Latawiec, Beata M., Richard C. Anderson, Ma Shufeng, and Nguyen-Jahiel Kim. 2016. “Influence of Collaborative Reasoning Discussions on Metadiscourse in Children’s Essays.” Text & Talk 36 (1): 23–46. doi: 10.1515/text-2016-0002.
Mercer, Neil, and Claire Sams. 2008. “Teaching Children How to Use Language to Solve Maths Problems.” Language and Education 20 (6): 507–528.
Mercer, Neil, Rupert Wegerif, and Lyn Dawes. 1999. “Children’s Talk and the Development of Reasoning in the Classroom.” British Educational Research Journal 25 (1): 95–111.
Rojas-Drummond, Sylvia, Nancy Mazón, Karen Littleton, and Maricela Vélez. 2014. “Developing Reading Comprehension through Collaborative Learning.” Journal of Research in Reading 37 (2): 138–158. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9817.2011.01526.x.
Trickey, S., and K. J. Topping. 2004. “‘Philosophy for Children’: A Systematic Review.” Research Papers in Education 19 (3): 365–380. 2006. “Collaborative Philosophical Enquiry for School Children.” School Psychology International 27 (5): 599–614.
Vygotsky, Lev S. 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wegerif, Rupert. 2005. “Reason and Creativity in Classroom Dialogues.” Language & Education: An International Journal 19 (3): 223–237.