Talking and listening in the classroom is really the bread and butter of what we do as teachers and learners. While we, the formal assessors, together with the world at large (including parents), might value the written word over talk, and certainly accept the written word for evidence of learning (appropriately constructed, of course), it is talk that powers the learning in the classroom.
Lots of classroom talk can be chat, and there is a place for that – the first couple of minutes after a break, getting organised for the next session, or just prior to leaving at the end of the day. A considerable amount of classroom talk is conducted in ways that can appear purposeful, as in the standard and too familiar, Initiate – Respond – Evaluate (IRE) exchanges.
But what we really want to do is have our students engage in sustained and deep purposeful talk.
For most teachers, this is where the ground can become a bit unsteady. We worry that the kids might just talk about anything, they might disagree with each other and not be able to handle it, or they might not learn what I am supposed to be teaching them. It might get out of control. And the perennial fear – what will their parents say if they know their children are just sitting around all day talking?
Deep and purposeful talk
We can harness the power of talk, of dialogue for learning, where every student knows they can contribute, and every contribution is weighed and considered in its value to the topic/idea/area of inquiry, to cover so much more territory and so many of the learning outcomes listed in our syllabuses, listed separately as if they stand alone. Our students can demonstrate those behaviours that indicate the development of literacy across all subjects, again these are listed carefully and separately in literacy continuums and the Literacy Learning Progressions. But we have to put the effort into the setting the groundwork. We can value talk, and its listening counterpart, more effectively than we do.
Over the next few weeks I will be looking at some structures and support for building our knowledge about managing classroom talk that ticks all the boxes. This will require a bit of reading and reframing.
One structure which supports the valuing of talk is ‘dialogic teaching’, developed by Robin Alexander (see blog on this website, Dialogic teaching and talking about writing). The term represents teaching that harnesses the power of talk to stimulate and extend students’ thinking and advance their learning and understanding. (Alexander, https://www.robinalexander.org.uk/dialogic-teaching/ accessed 19/11/2018).
We have to start with the value we place on talk as an integral component of the learning process as we deliver curriculum. We have to be prepared to set up our classroom so that talk can happen, purposefully, and it is valued. Alexander sees classroom organisation, climate and relationships as essential for such ‘dialogic teaching’.
How we do this depends on how much we really mean that we want our students to talk to each other.
Have a look at the resource I will post later this week for some suggestions.
Meanwhile, we will have a look at the NSW English K-6 syllabus for what it offers us as guidance.
The NSW English syllabus outcomes describe students moving from:
- Communicating with peers and known adults in informal and guided activities demonstrating emerging skills of group interaction (ENe-1A) at the end of the first year of school, through to
- Communicating effectively for a variety of audiences and purposes using increasingly challenging topics, ideas, issues and language forms and features (EN3-1A) at the end of Stage 3.
For the content detail, please refer to the NSW English Syllabus (2012, pages 32 and 104).
An example of opportunity for this engagement – and more! – is the collective action taken during the week leading to Friday 30 November, 2018, by school students all over Australia regarding government action on climate change. This was in response to a call from Greta Thunberg, a Swedish high school student, to Australian students. Greta has been taking action for some time to raise awareness of the need for governments to act.
This is certainly a challenging issue. There will be some interesting – and hopefully, purposeful – learning discussions next week, in classrooms around the country.
There was a sense of shock as some members of our government realised that our students have learned to think about and act on major issues, and are able to articulate their thoughts very effectively. They should be pretty good – these students have been writing persuasive texts as part of the narrow NAPLAN regime every two years for the last ten. They are pretty good.
One report focused on students ‘skipping school’, and carrying ‘crude signs’. And they were, with messages described by a patronizing commentator as being ‘a little blunt’.
That ‘bluntness’ is part of the learning how to communicate effectively. That’s the way we all are until we learn more effective and appropriate ways to get our message across, and our language becomes measured, credible and intelligent. The models that our students are provided with in the federal parliament are pretty blunt too, and a fair distance from the outcomes our students are working towards. Walkouts, abuse, sexism, obfuscation and lies do not ensure our students are seeing the most appropriate behaviours. We have much work to do.
How are we going to do it?
We are going to make sure we find out the best model/idea/structure for ourselves to use in the classroom. This can’t be mandated. I have to do the research for me, and find the philosophy, process, structure, that suits me as a teacher. Luckily, the algorithm that looks at my search history and sends me ads for holidays in New Zealand also homes in on my interest in talking and listening in the classroom. Let it work for you too.
Or use the PETAA books I have mentioned in the two previous blogs. There really is sooooo much out there for us to tap into!
IRE is dead?
Does this mean I can’t EVER use the IRE structure for interactions in the classroom?
Not at all.
We are teachers. We know how to be adaptable, to adjust our teaching to fit the subject we are teaching, the range of topics, the particular content to be addressed today, the melt-down by little Johnny and the thunderstorm at lunchtime.
If we are working on handwriting, then a didactic, modeled lesson is appropriate. Luckily, the 15 minutes allocated for the day’s lesson is sufficient for getting the message across, practice and a building of the resource the students are writing for themselves.
It is this that makes us so good at what we do. We each develop a ‘kitbag’ of teaching knowledge and understandings, skills and strategies, based on our training, our experience, our philosophy of education, and our beliefs about children. We pluck things out of our kitbag for our teaching, applying what is most appropriate to the situations that change so rapidly in the classroom, often from minute to minute.
We do need to be careful, though. It is easy to empty our kitbag of everything but what we know has worked in the past, and what we feel safe with. I think this is why we default to the IRE. It is safe, predictable, keeps everyone reasonably quiet because all the participants know the ‘rules’, and is the perfect stage setting for the written follow-up. We all know how to do it.
What we forget, or have not noticed, is that it has very little to do with actual learning. Revision? OK. Reminders of the previous day’s activities – like a trigger? Sure. But learning? No.
Likewise, many of the tricks and activities that are given to us by other teachers, and we can download from the dozens of ‘helpful’ websites as ‘easy’, and ‘fail-safe’, are just busy work, and have little to do with learning. (A clue is to see if there is a worksheet; if there is, don’t use it). If we are doing a bit of a panic in our classroom at the end of the year and find we are still madly looking around for such time-fillers, then we have not set up our classrooms as places of learning, but rather we – and the students – are simply lurching from one activity to another.
Talk is valued and encouraged
In a classroom where talk is valued and encouraged, where structures, and the practices of effective dialogue are securely in place, there is never a need to look for tricks. Our students will talk about every topic. We can concentrate on syllabus content, because students have the skills and knowledges that they have been developing and practising all year, to engage in real learning.
Alexander’s ‘dialogic teaching’ appeals to me because it does not insist that there is only one right way to maximize the power of classroom talk. Alexander uses the term ‘repertoire’, and he suggests that every teacher needs, not just strategies for talk, but a broad range of these strategies to expand and refine the talk repertoires and capacities of their students. (Alexander 2007 p.2, my emphasis, and sounds a lot like potential additions to my ‘kitbag’).
He has developed four basic ‘repertoires’ – for both teachers and students. You can follow these up here.
What underlines the repertoire principle is that although teaching talk prioritises discussion and
dialogue, it also includes rote, recitation, instruction and exposition, arguing that even though
teaching restricted to these may be less productive, they too have their place.
(Alexander, 2017 P.2)
It’s not just about us and what we say – it is about how we are providing the learning opportunities for them to speak and listen as effectively as possible, how we say it, and what our students say.
Alexander, R. (2017) Dialogic teaching in brief at https://www.robinalexander.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Dialogc-teaching-in-brief-170622.pdf accessed 29/11/2018
Alexander, R. (2007) in https://www.robinalexander.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Dialogc-teaching-in-brief-170622.pdf retrieved 19/11/2018
Alexander, R. https://www.robinalexander.org.uk/dialogic-teaching/ accessed 19/11/2018
NSW Board of Studies (2012) English K-10 Syllabus for the Australian curriculum Vol. 1 Sydney
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