Dialogue/Conversation and Learning: Preschool Through High School and Into Adulthood

In recent posts the emphasis was on dialogue and young children (age 3+/- to grade 3), but dialogue retains its importance to learning through school and into adulthood in the world of work, politics and social media.

Next, I’d like to frame a contemporary book on dialogue focused on grades 3 to 12: Academic Conversations by Jeff Zwiers & Marie Crawford, Stenhouse Publishers, 2011.

Chapter 1 is Titled: Reasons to Converse in School (pages 7 to 24). The authors present the “advantages of conversation in 5 categories: language and literacy, cognitive, content learning, cultural and psychological. Just to detail a few, noting that each of these categories is subdivided:

LANGUAGE AND LITERACY

*Builds Academic Language

*Builds Vocabulary

*Builds Literacy Skills

*Builds Oral Language and Communication Skills

COGNITIVE SKILLS

Critical Thinking Skills

Promotes Different Perspectives and Empathy

Fosters Creativity

Fosters Skills in Negotiating Meaning and Focusing on a Topic

RULES

In a section titled, Behaviors of Effective Conversation, the authors list 5 “behaviors”: appropriate eye contact, facing one another, attentive posture, nodding to show understanding and appropriate gesturing. While those elements are important, it is the “attitudes and dispositions” that reflect our sense of “rules.” (pp. 42-43) These include

Humility: admit they have things to learn, open to new ideas and having minds changed, knowing that our opinions have limitations, patient.

Thoroughness: exploring ad deepening ideas, extending conversations, look at all perspective and possible solutions to accomplish a task.

Respect: open to opposing views, providing opportunities to talk.

Positivity: attitude that great learning can happen through conversation.

Interest: be interested rather than be interesting, work with, build from and encourage others’ ideas.

ROLES

The authors describe the roles as “skill based.” (These roles are based on the 5 core conversation skills described in chapter 3: elaborate and clarify, support ideas with examples, build on and/or challenge a partner’s ideas, paraphrase, synthesize conversation points. These are student roles, but the authors don’t take a sink or swim approach. They don’t assume that the students already (naturally) have these skill-based roles. They note:

“Designing effective conversation tasks is an ever-evolving process. Sometimes the prompt (based on deep questions, thinking skills, product/task, and personal experiences) needs to change; sometimes you need to intervene and help students while they are conversing.” (p. 59). Further, the authors discuss ways to “train” students for advanced conversations (See Chapter 5).

Skill-Based Roles for Group Conversation (p. 56)

“Even though you want students to use all of the essential conversation skills as they talk, at times you can tell them to emphasize a certain skill in order to hone it. For example, in a group of four when student can be the focuser, another the builder, another the elaborator and example person, and the last person the paraphrases an synthesizer….”

ROUTINES

As you might expect, the “routines” are directly related to the reasons and (core conversational) skills the teacher intends to help the students build. So, to “Train Students to Take Conversation to More Academic Levels” there are basic overlapping academic (macro) routines to (1) build and explore ideas, (2) debate issues, (3) solve problems, and (4) teach and learn. Chapter 6 gives students the academic grammar and vocabulary to successfully use these routines, including: transitions and connectives, qualifying words, cohesion devices, and “academic” vocabulary (see page 103). . And, ultimately these routines will be to applied in language arts, science, math and history.

Here is an example from history.

“Similar to conversations in literature classes, good history conversations usually depend on skills of interpretation, perspective taking, identifying importance, and persuading, which were described in Chapter 7.” (p. 141) Below is an example of one “inferring cause and effect” routine:

Alex: Why did Columbus said the ocean blue?

Sandra: To prove the world wasn’t flat?

Alex: I don’t know, though. One thing we read said he used maps that showed American land on them.

Sandra: Can you explain the map part more?

Alex: Well, if he had maps, then he knew he wouldn’t fall off the earth.

Although this seems like a fairly simple routine and it might appear as though such conversations happen naturally, without instruction, Zwiers and Crawford (as well as the writer) would suggest that these types of conversation require instruction and practice across contexts.   The details of the Zwiers/Crawford text and hundreds of references support this view. I wonder how much investment is made in the average classroom to develop these kinds of conversational skills.

REWARDS

If the instruction is successful we would expect students to get increasingly more skillful at using these conversational skills across contexts and into adulthood. The adult literature on conversational skills would suggest that we aren’t there yet. See, for example, Deborah Tanner, The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue, Kegan and Lahey, How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, and David Perkins, King Arthur’s Round Table: How Collaborative Conversations Create Smart Organizations.

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