A Better Way to Promote Discussion

“Know When to Stop Talking,” by Thomas Newkirk, Education Week, 7/28/15

Exploratory talk loops back again and again, as students formulate a thought, refine it, extend it.

There is an old saying, “Never miss an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.” It’s good advice for us teachers…. It’s well documented that we talk too much. When students do speak, there is often a recitation pattern that goes like this: (1) Teacher asks question…., (2) student answers, (3) teacher evaluates the answer of the student. Then on to the next question, the next student.

The proportions are pretty obvious—even when students are raising their hands to respond (not always the case), the teacher has two out of every three turns. Some students choose not even to bid for recognition, often because they aren’t quick enough.

As teachers, we fall into this pattern so easily…. It’s the default setting in classroom talk….

This pattern works if the purpose of classroom talk is to have students share fully formulated responses—and to be judged by the teacher. But this doesn’t work if the purpose of talk is to develop that response. The response can convey understanding, but it can’t create understanding.

How many of us, after all, say what we really want to say on the first try? Rather, exploratory talk loops back again and again, as we formulate a thought, refine it, extend it, and complicate it. It’s messy. And we usually do this exploration in the presence of a sympathetic and interested audience that is not pressed for time. In this inviting space, our memory seems to work better—details are recalled, stories and other points of view mysteriously become available. That’s the gift of talk.

We can break this typical pattern with what I call the “blank turn”—a refusal to evaluate the student response and go to the next student. It sounds like this, “Say more about that.” Or this, “Yes, go on.” Or like this … just silence. Sometimes the student apologizes, “Boy, I’m just rambling on.” And if I’m on my game, I say “Keep rambling.”…

This doesn’t go on forever. Given time constraints, it can’t. But after a stretch of free talk on the part of the students, I can re-enter and reflect back what I have heard….

A colleague of mine has a variation when she gets the inevitable “I don’t know” in response to a question. She responds, “I know you don’t know, honey. But if you did, what would you say?” It feels like nonsense, but it works.

It sounds easy, but listening and waiting can be hard work. Harder than talking….

Teaching…is not about us being brilliant; it is about students being brilliant…. The only way they can do this is to give them that generous gift of time and receptivity. There are few generalizations that hold for all good teachers, but I will hazard this one: Good teachers never appear rushed. Or make students feel rushed….

In this age of high-tech and expensive teaching programs, let me offer up this simple and powerful intervention: the blank turn. It costs us nothing but our attention. It is built on the rock-solid principle that we need talk, and a receptive audience, to build understanding and to know what we know.

In Bernard Pomerance’s play The Elephant Man, the deformed main character, Merrick, has the experience of being listened to for the first time—and he finds he can speak: “Before I spoke with people, I did not think of those things because there was no one to think them for. But now things come out of my mouth that are true.”

Thomas Newkirk is the director of the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes. His most recent book is Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts.

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