Learning Conversations: A Window into Thinking (Part 1)

“Speaking out loud to explain one’s thinking or articulating one’s reasoning can be a complex communication process that involves both cognitive and metacognitive processes.” (Rosenthal Tolisano & Hale, 2018, p. 148)

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then what is the value of a conversation? Priceless!

Have you experienced this situation? A colleague exclaims in frustration, “I don’t know what to do next for this student! The test scores don’t match up with what I know this student can do. Just last week in class, the student explained his reasoning to me. It was insightful, addressing meaningful connections. Why doesn’t this understanding transfer to the test? How will I justify a grade to parents if the test scores are low but class work is exemplary?”

I can visualize your head nodding as you read this anecdote because you have wrestled with this dilemma in the past. Making assumptions that the student is lazy in writing a test response or is anxious about taking tests is likely erroneous. If we change the way we look at assessment then different questions emerge:

  • What documentation, aligned to the learning goal and success criteria, will I accept as a valid representation of a student’s understanding?
  • How might the structure of an assessment tool impact how effectively a student is able to demonstrate his/her thinking? (eg. Is a test the most reliable and valid tool to allow students to demonstrate their thinking?)
  • How might a variety of assessment modalities (ie. observations, conversations and products) inform and enhance my judgment related to student achievement?

Talking to Learn*

The interactions between student and educator, between peers and within a group collective are precious moments that open the window to student thinking. Speaking out loud is the brain’s way of playing with ideas: communicating and explaining thinking, seeking clarification, considering alternatives, and extending ideas by listening to others.

Reconsider the scenario of an educator struggling to interpret discrepancies between types of documentation. Let’s recognize the worth of learning conversations and give ourselves permission to accept auditory artifacts as valid representations of student thinking. Conversations should never be discounted as fleeting, momentary glimpses but rather elevated to one of the most powerful assessment opportunities we can harness.

“[Teachers] listen to their [students] to determine each child’s depth of understanding. Daily they hear the emotions and personal feelings that characterize their students’ lives and interactions. They listen and observe in order to respond to student needs and to build on successes. When listening to students, teachers use their eyes as well as their ears, looking for expressions to catch a glimpse into [students]’ thinking (Harvey and Goudis, 2007). Equally important, teachers engage in constant dialogue with their own inner voice to challenge assumptions, problem solve and deepen understanding of the teaching/learning process.” (Capacity Building Series: Let’s Talk about Listening, 2009)

Coming soon:

Learning Conversations: Conditions for Success (Part 2)

Learning Conversations: Tools for Documenting (Part 3)

runner 150One last thought – and a call to action! Consider the key messages in the quotation above. Think of a time you listened to a student with your ‘eyes as well as your ears’. Tell a colleague what you saw and heard that was surprising to you. Did your inner voice challenge an assumption you held about this student?  How did this moment provoke a deeper understanding of the teaching/learning process? Share your insights with us in the comment section below or follow us on @HarnessingA.

*Literacy Gains. (2012). Adolescent Literacy: Making Room for Talking to Learn.

Retrieved from: http://www.edugains.ca/resourcesLIT/AdolescentLiteracy/AL_Resources/TalkingtoLearnALERT_8X11.pdf

Ontario Ministry of Education’s Capacity Building Series. (2009). Let’s Talk about Listening. Retrieved from: http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/talk_about_listening.pdf

Rosenthal Tolisano, S. Hale, J. (2018). A Guide to Documenting Learning: Making Visible, Meaningful, Shareable and Amplified. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

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