Classroom Conversations

I find myself thinking about how to best moderate and encourage classroom conversations. Two blog posts have me looking in the mirror. One of them is one I have written about previously. Ben Blum-Smith wrote at his blog (Research in Practice) about having students summarize each others’ statements. I am still working on making this a teaching move that I regularly go to. It has mostly worked well for me. However, I have noticed that when I do this I almost always have to interject and pass along some value judgment about the response of one student before I can get another to elaborate/explain/restate what was said. Andrew Stadel (over at Divisible by 3) wrote something that really has me thinking. You should read what he wrote by clicking on his name. (The same goes for Ben’s post – you can click on his name to read what he wrote) I’ll try to summarize part of Andrew’s post here, but I encourage you to go read his post. 

Andrew discourages teachers, as I read it, from telling a student that they are correct (or incorrect) and instead urges us to explore reasoning and to try and get the student to tell us why they arrived at the conclusion that they did. I get it – I think I really do. I want to understand their reasoning and, more importantly, I want my students to be able to reason out loud. To think through their own process and have the language at hand to explain that process. What I notice though, is that my students are rarely willing to expound at length on their own thoughts without knowing whether their statement was correct – or at least in the ballpark. Once I give them some confirmation that their original statement had value, then they are willing to expand on what they said. I understand this feeling. I imagine them feeling that they are about to be ambushed if I ask them to say more about what they think when they are unsure of whether they are right or not. I know that I can work on creating more of an environment where this kind of thinking out loud feels safe. No doubt about it. However, I think that there is something kind of primal that I am working against here. It is so natural to be shy about talking out loud when I think I might be wrong. Add in the social pressure of being wrong out loud in front of your peers and that’s a heck of a force to push against. Another item on my list of things to think about and to try to modify in my teaching. I hope that this process never ends.


4 thoughts on “Classroom Conversations”

  1. Jim, what about naming that with your students? What about naming the vulnerability that comes with putting your ideas out there and with being asked to substantiate them? How that never goes away, no matter how old we are. That it’s important to get comfortable with failing (and succeeding) publicly in order to develop a deep capacity for taking risks in thinking and doing. That the classroom can be an place of empathy, where we empathize with the person willing to speak up, even if s/he is wrong. That we cultivate the willingness to risk and the willingness to empathize with those who risk and succeed, as well as fail.

    What do you think?

    Such an important skill to speak up and share ideas, thoughts, etc., without always fearing failure, no?

    Great thinking and questions and reflecting!

    1. Interesting thought to be SO completely transparent about this challenge. My first thought is that this kind of conversation would be much more meaningful in August than in late February. However, if I am committed not only to changing this practice in my classroom but also to changing this habit in my students, then I owe it to them to have this chat. We have four days before spring break. I will craft my thoughts and try to have this chat when we return and regather ourselves for the stretch run. The challenge for me in implementing Ben and Andrew’s strategies will be to try and develop a poker face of some sort. Kids joke about the fact that I practically bounce when someone asks a great question or offers an idea that really intrigues me. Thanks, as always. for dropping in and sharing your thoughts.

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