Education is talk. Talk is what makes teaching and learning go. It is all around us when a group of students works together on an assignment, or when a teacher explains something, or when a response is given to a question in a learning conversation. Talk is so self evident in instruction we almost take it for granted “like the air around us”. But how we talk and in what manner we conduct a conversation will make it really a learning conversation (1). Talk in education is meant to express yourself in a content-related, domain-specific way; so others, i.e., your fellow students, your teacher understand, i.e, not misinterpret, what you mean. In a way it is accurate talk. Imagine following topic to be discussed:
Teacher (T): Can you tell me what stars in the universe are made of? Student (S): hot gases, I think? Or alternatively: T: In the universe stars are composed of certain gases, who can name a few of these gases more precisely by name? S: I know of Hydrogen.., and Helium..
The manner of these two conversations is creating a wide dispersion in learning potential. Whereas the first just taps a response to an inexplicit initiation, the second promotes thinking about retrieving the proper answer based on what is learned.
A recent position paper in the journal Kappa Delta Pi Record urges us to pay particular attention to how talk and conversation evolves in the classroom. To maintain a high level of ‘conceptual exchange’ (2) teachers can have a huge impact on the preciseness and detail they request of an educational conversation. So, unless teachers look closely at how they conduct talks they will not be able to help student to express themselves in a knowledgeable way.
It is so easy sliding into ‘engaging’ modes of asking and responding. But the words that are spoken affect the way students understand, and therefore a wakeup call for teachers to be aware of how they conduct conversations is needed to support the talking to learn. It is a bit like a fear of swimming in deeper waters, once gripped it opens new possibilities.
Gisela Ernst-Slavit & Kerri J. Wenger (2016) Surrounded by Water: Talking to Learn in Today’s Classrooms, Kappa Delta Pi Record, 52:1, 28-34, DOI:10.1080/00228958.2016.1123042
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00228958.2016.1123042