The following is a guest blog from Jeff Zwiers, author of the upcoming book, Next Steps with Academic Conversations, the follow-up resource to his popular, Academic Conversations.
Academic conversations are powerful ways to develop students’ content, language, cognition, agency, and socioemotional skills. However, students’ academic conversations vary widely and wildly, as do the teacher strategies for fostering them. Conversations can be short with long turns, long with short turns, shallow, deep, focused, unfocused, etc. For these reasons I have spent the last decade working with teachers on developing a better understanding of classroom conversations and how they can be best cultivated across grade levels and disciplines. I have included a brief synopsis of some of the most salient learnings from this work. (See my Next Steps with Academic Conversations book for a more complete description of these ideas.)
Why Conversations Evolved
In most classrooms, lots of high-quality conversations between students are still rare, especially in settings with students from diverse language and cultural backgrounds. Why? Because, too often, linguistically and culturally diverse students tend to receive more basic, direct, boring, test-prep types of instruction. Conversation-rich teaching is a radical, and for many folks, risky approach to learning. In the minds of many educators, such teaching does not have enough direct influence on test scores. And, yet, conversation was not invented to help people choose the right answers on tests. Conversations evolved to solve problems, build ideas, build relationships, understand others, and understand the world. The more we can encourage and support conversations that do the things for which they were invented, the more likely our students will lastingly learn key concepts, skills, and language.
Core Conversation Skills
One of the most important learnings from my recent work with teachers is the importance of focusing on building up ideas in conversation. If students don’t focus on building up at least one idea (or at least two competing ideas, if it’s an argument), the conversation often loses direction and purpose. The challenge is that many students and adults have not: (a) come to see the value of putting in the energy to build up an idea with others, and (b) learned strategies for doing so.
The main skills are:
Building up an idea, which acts a bit like a contractor who oversees and directs the construction of a building. The contractor knows which materials and skills are needed and when.
- Posing (or choosing) a buildable and relevant idea, which focuses on coming up the initial idea with the best potential for responding to the prompt or purpose.
- Clarifying, which focuses on making sure students are on the same page with respect to the meanings of the words and expressions that they are using.
- Supporting, which focuses on using evidence and examples to support the idea that is being built up.
- Evaluating and comparing, which focuses on assigning value and weight to evidence, often by using criteria, and then, in the case of argumentation, comparing the weight of the competing sides and choosing the “heaviest” one.
Of course, just putting a poster up with these skills on it won’t do much. Teachers need to use a variety of effective scaffolding techniques, tools, and activities for helping students develop these skills, including graphic organizers (e.g., Idea Building Blueprint, Argument Balance Scale, semantic map), modeling (using fishbowls, video, transcripts), student conversation coaches, and frequent opportunities to practice conversations with others with teacher support.
And in many settings, conversation prompts need to be improved, which means that they: (1) need to have a clearer and more engaging purpose in which students need and want to build up meaty ideas of value to the discipline; (2) there are information gaps between students that they need to bridge in their conversational turns; and (3) have extra clear directions that explain to students how they can effectively build ideas and bridge gaps.
Finally, a quick note about conversations and tests. Because of more and better conversations, yearly test scores might go up or down. If they do go down, or if they go up just a little, some might feel that conversations aren’t worth the extra time and effort. However, teachers with whom I have worked have seen significant growth in students’ engagement, content learning, language, and sense of agency. One teacher even said, “I’m never going back (to non-conversational teaching), even if they threaten to fire me.”
So if your primary focus is not raising test scores, and you have additional and even higher priorities for students (e.g., stronger relationships, graduating from high school, interest in learning, abilities to converse with a wide range of others, empathy, collaborative argument skills, critical thinking, and creativity), then using and improving classroom conversations will likely be worth your and your students’ valuable time.
Keep an eye out for more information on Next Steps with Academic Conversations coming soon.