“We can enter into conversation by asking questions and making sure we understand what others are saying before we give our opinions. By temporarily setting aside our own opinions, we can really hear what others have to say and powerfully demonstrate that we respect others’ perspectives. When we listen with empathy, we communicate that others’ lives are important and meaningful.” (Knight, Ryschon Knight, Carlson, p. 26
Recall our very first blog post Assessment Defined, “…assessment is the process of gathering information about what a learner knows, can do, and understands with respect to a learning goal. The word assessment comes from the Latin word assidere, meaning ‘to sit beside’.”
The importance of sitting alongside a student is often understated or dismissed: “There isn’t enough time to sit down and talk to all students” or “I find myself reteaching or rescuing the student by showing them what to do next. It feels like I’m supporting learned helplessness.” Promoting learning conversations – between student and educator, between peers or with a whole group – stems from a belief in the worth of each student’s ideas as a respected contributor within the community. Conversation builds relational trust. In these moments of reciprocal interaction, educators glean feedback from students about what students know and can do including what struggles they are facing; students obtain timely feedback which affirms and provokes learning to move forward.
Early in my career I remember approaching students who were displaying signs of frustration and tried to engage in conversations. Often, it went something like this and proved to be less than helpful for students or myself!
T: “You’re not working on the problems.”
S: “I just don’t get it! I don’t know what to do.”
T: “What ‘don’t you get’?”
S: “I don’t know!!!”
It’s humbling to look back and acknowledge that I had to intentionally work on how to engage in Better Conversations*. It started by examining my own mindset.
Learning Conversations: From an Educator’s Perspective
Reflecting on my own learning journey about conversations led me to the following insights:
- Establish relationships; know students as learners.
- Reflect on possible bias or assumptions you may hold when listening: avoid anticipating student responses.
- Adopt an asset-based stance by valuing what the student is telling you; listen deeply.
- Witness and acknowledge the good but probe for misconceptions.
- Ask probing questions; resist rescuing students by directing or telling students what to do.
- Redirect negative emotions and thoughts; be empathetic (e.g. “I can hear frustration in your tone of voice. I know it comes from a desire to do your best. Help me understand. How might I help you?”)
- Stay in a listening mode; encourage student agency. Avoid acting from a position of power.
- Document learning conversations; harness key ideas through documentation.
Learning Conversations: 10 Conditions for Success
“When students have a chance to to express their ideas, teachers have more information about what the students do understand, what they are grappling with, and where they might be stumbling or confused.” (Kazemi, Hintz, 2014, p 4).
What intentional educator moves optimize conditions for successful learning conversations within a classroom setting?
- Foster a positive learning environment; share and enact your beliefs. Value all students as risk takers and acknowledge that learning comes from how we respond to errors.
- Consider the physical environment of the classroom to encourage participation; arrange the space so students can see and hear each other.
- Align learning goals and success criteria; be open to revisions as the ideas develop over time.
- Design learning experiences that allow students to explore and extend ideas.
- Collaboratively develop success criteria for group norms including what and how to share ideas; model by sharing your own ideas.
- Collaboratively develop anchor charts; sentence starters model how to engage in conversations respectfully. (See chart below)
- Consider the importance of wait time; slow down the learning and allow students to think before responding.
- Model and use thinking structures to promote conversations; e.g. think-pair-share, inside-outside circles, four corners to explore ideas; mini whiteboards or stickies to jot down initial ideas.
- ‘Notice and name’ criteria; as you notice a specific success criteria of effective conversations, take the time to bring it to the attention of others and name it. (e.g. a student rephrases the opinion of a peer and asks a clarifying question)
- Consolidate learning through peer and self assessment; ask students to reflect on criteria for effective conversations. Give time for students to pinpoint strengths and identify how they might improve.
The sample anchor chart below gives examples of both educator prompts as well accompanying sentence starters for students in support of learning conversations.
One last thought – and a call to action! Think about what strategies you intentionally use to promote learning conversations in your classroom. Is there one (or more) of the Conditions for Success that you haven’t tried? Why not commit to trying it tomorrow. It would be helpful to our community if you did, and then told us about the outcome. Join in the conversation! Share ideas with us in the comment section below or follow us on @HarnessingA.
Fosnot, C. (2016). Conferring with Young Mathematicians at Work: Making Moments Matter. New London, CT: New Perspectives on Learning.
Kazemi, E. Hintz, Allison. (2014). Intentional Talk: How to Structure and Lead Productive Mathematical Discussions. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers.
*Knight, Jim. Ryschon Knight, J. Carlson, C. (2016). The Reflection Guide to Better Conversations: Coaching Ourselves and Each Other to be More Credible, Caring and Connected. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Ontario Ministry of Education’s Adolescent Literacy: Make Room for Talking to Learn. (2012). Retrieved from: http://www.edugains.ca/resourcesLIT/AdolescentLiteracy/AL_Resources/TalkingtoLearnALERT_8X11.pdf
Ontario Ministry of Education’s Capacity Building Series. (2011). Grand Conversations in Primary Classrooms. Retrieved from: https://thelearningexchange.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/CBS_Grand_Conversations.pdf
Ontario Ministry of Education’s Capacity Building Series. (2011). Grand Conversations in Junior Classrooms. Retrieved from: https://thelearningexchange.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/CBS_Grand_Conversations_Junor.pdf