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When the student becomes the teacher

ACS Cobham HS Classroom Carry on talking optPurposeful conversation moves students from passive listeners to active learners. IB World magazine investigates how students’ classroom conversations encourage collaboration and strengthen problem solving and critical thinking skills

Viewed by some teachers as problematic and distracting, student chatter does enhance learning. Studies have shown that structured conversations help students make a deeper connection to concepts, and two MYP teachers have found that they have many more long-term academic and professional benefits.

Co-writers and researchers of the Talking in Class study, Brianna Gray from IB World School ACS International School in London, and Jake Rosch from Collège du Leman in Switzerland, are advocates of ‘dialogue with another learner.’ Their research discusses the significance of problem solving in relation to open discussion, as well as the ability to elaborate arguments, support ideas with examples, challenge their peers, paraphrase and synthesize conversation – all skills needed for the working world.

As part of their research, Gray and Rosch asked 96 students from grades 5-8, at ACS, to participate in an anonymous survey on student dialogue in the classroom. 69 per cent believed that ‘speaking or listening’ is the most important academic skill (over ‘reading or writing’). However, 73 per cent reported receiving the least amount of classroom instruction on how to effectively speak or listen in an academic setting.

“It’s our impression that oral language skills are often a stronger focus in younger year classrooms. Regardless of whether that is the case, it’s essential that communication skills – including speaking and listening – are encouraged and cultivated at all levels,” they said.

Talking in Class science shot 2carry on talkingoptThe challenges

Student discussion needs to be structured, but at the same time allow students to express their own unique opinions, say Gray and Rosch. Even short dialogue activities enhance learning.

This can be tricky for teachers. Will students stay on task? How will I assess the individual conversations? How is the inclusion of conversation going to impact the delivery of the subject content? These are just a few of the concerns.

“Many teachers, ourselves included, find it challenging to create opportunities for students to speak to one another in meaningful ways about class content,” say Gray and Rosch. “Much time has been devoted to training teachers how to best get students to interact with materials like textbooks. Yet preparing students to interact with peers is not included in many teacher training programmes.”

But once teachers are familiar with the design and structure of dialogue activities, these concerns are assuaged, according to Gray and Rosch. “Teachers and students discover the richness that talking about content can bring to a lesson in a way that might be missing in written or presentation-style assessment.”

Finding the time to create the activities can be another issue. Gray and Rosch encourage teachers to start small if they need to. The more students become familiar with the format and expectations of classroom conversation, the quicker they can jump into the activity itself, they advise.

Talking in Class math shot 2 grade 5 Carry on talkingoptCreating a dialogue chain

To introduce dialogue-based learning, the first step is to take the time to develop a good question that will create stimulating class discussion, and then design an activity in which it can be discussed. The ‘transfer of knowledge’ begins as a student has pieces of information that they must pass on to another student.

In creating this dialogue ‘chain’ students begin to see conversation as a means of understanding; it becomes an undoubtedly invaluable part of learning. But, it’s important to note that stimulating paired discussion can only follow after students understand the objective, expectations, and structure.

For ideas, Gray and Rosch refer to Jeff Zweirs’ ‘Seven Features of Effective Conversation’, which requires both parties (in this scenario, the two or more students) to talk. They also encourage teachers to use ‘scaffold structures’ to support the activity. These can be anything from providing sentence starters to a productive/non-productive behaviour checklist.

Whatever the methods used, student dialogue – when implemented effectively – is a significant and fundamental part of inquiry-based learning. It’s exhilarating for teachers to watch, too, say Gray and Rosch: “One of our colleagues pointed out that Newton’s Laws may not be the most exciting topic of conversation, but watching students converse about them in a meaningful way is thrilling.”

What interesting conversations have come from your students’ discussions? Email

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