Classroom Discussion “instruction”

This is a really nice extension of Zwier’s work on Academic Conversations posted last Tuesday.

How to Scaffold Skills for Student Discussions


Academic Conversations and School Success

Academic Conversations by Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford,  Stenhouse, 2011

Dialogue Blog for Monday, March 21 16

This book offers an extensive treatment of classroom talk with multiple examples and suggestions for application across the content areas.  In this multi-post sequence, my focus will be on the following chapters:

1 Reasons to Converse in School (pp 7-26)

2 Getting Started with Academic Conversations

3 Lesson Activities for Developing Core Conversation Skills

4 Designing Effective Conversation Tasks

5 Training Students for Academic Conversations

8 Conversations in History

9 Conversations in Science

To begin Chapter 1, Z and C offer a comment by a 4th grader:

“Conversations not only made us sound smarter, I think they actually made us smarter.”

Zwiers and Crawford begin this chapter by talking about the need for oral academic skills in school and in the larger world, and they note the problem that “Despite their power, rich conversations in school are rare.” (p. 7)  As always in reviewing a book in-depth, I highly recommend buying it.

Advantages of Conversation

They then go on to present a long list of “advantage of conversation” across a wide range of domains: language and literacy (LL), cognitive (COG), content learning (CON), Social and cultural (SC) and psychological (PSY).

Under Language and Literacy Advantages, they note:

Conversation Builds Academic Language

Conversation Builds Vocabulary

Conversation Builds Literacy Skills

Conversation Builds Oral Language and Communication Skills

In the Cognitive Domain, they note that Conversation

Builds Critical Thinking Skills

Promotes Different Perspectives and Empathy

Fosters Creativity

Fosters Skills for Negotiating Meaning and Focusing on a Topic

In the Content Domain they say Conversation

Builds Content Understanding

Cultivates Connections

Helps Students to Co-Construct Understanding

Helps Teachers and Students Assess Learning

For the Social Cultural Domain, conversation

Builds Relationships

Builds Academic Ambience

Makes Lessons More Culturally Relevant

Fosters Equity

And, in the Psychological Domain, Conversation

Develops Inner Dialogue and Self-Talk

Fosters Engagement and Motivation

Builds Confidence and Academic Identity

Fosters Choice, Ownership, and Control Over Thinking

Builds Academic Identity

Fosters Self-Discovery

Builds Student Voice and Empowerment.




Ritchhart Part 5: The Languages of Mindfulness and Praise/Feedback

Ritchhart begins:

The Language of Mindfulness

Can language cause us to be more aware, mindful, and flexible?  A long line of research suggests that it can.  The amazing thing is that this language is subtle in its presence but powerful in its impact on our thinking.  Specifically, language that slows for the possibility of interpretation and that opens the door to even a small bit of ambiguity has the power to keep the mind in an open state, avoiding early closure, pursuing possibilities, and listening to information presented by others…..”  (p. 78)

Ritchhart then goes on to give an example of a teacher who uses “conditional” vs. “absolute” vocabulary by choosing terms such as “might” vs “is” in inviting students to consider their work as they look at a picture relevant to a history lesson.  Ritchhart continues on with a description of a series of studies on “mindfulness” conducted by Ellen Langer, himself, and others over a ten year period in which the researchers determined that the way a task was presented (as an absolute or a conditional phenomenon) determined how the learner would respond.  Learners could think of problems as  “right/wrong answer” tasks or as tasks that offered possible solutions.  Furthermore, the way problem solvers treated tasks (absolute or conditional) impacted the degree to which the participants “negotiated” solutions with others, thereby inviting others into a/the conversation.

“Now visualize yourself in a classroom, and a fellow student makes a statement with which you disagree.  His or her words might have the effect of shutting down conversation. In contrast, when someone expresses an idea in conditional language, it can be much easier to add your thoughts to the conversation.” (p. 80)

Given this perspective, if we want students to become thinkers, it is important to be sensitive not just to the specific words (or phrases or sentences) we use, but the kinds of language—absolute or conditional—that we use.  There is a whole literature that addresses this distinction that is well worth our consideration.

The Language of Praise/Feedback

Here, again, Ritchhart talks about the kind of language we, as teachers use, in this case, to provide students with guidance about the work they are doing, have already done, and/or will do.  He draws a distinction between praise and feedback (a topic getting a lot of attention lately in the education literature as it focuses on “growth mindset” and “formative and summative feedback.”) “Praise terms such as “perfect,” “good job,” “well done” are characterized as “not informative to the students; consequently, it may have no impact on the child beyond the realization that he or she got the answer right or wrong.” (p. 81) Referring to Dweck’s “Growth Mindset” work, he notes that Dweck (2007) suggests that “praise is intricately connected to how students view their intelligence” (p. 34) and therefore praise of one’s abilities may produce a burst of pride but ultimately be detrimental to learning….” (p. 81)

In contrast ”feedback” is described as being informative, task related, and potentially actionable relative to improving the task performance or guiding future learning.  Ritchhart offers suggestions on a research-based “language of feedback” illustrated by reference to Lisa’s (the featured teacher in this text) examples.    It is noted that she first points out, specifically, what they did that worked: “tried to find an explanations for what’s going on…used what you already know, things that you’ve already seen…” And then she “directs their attention to the next task, again highlighting the thinking to be done.” (p. 82)

And, again, it is not just the specific words/phrases/sentences that the teacher uses that matter, but the purpose/intention of the language choices that matters. Ideally, we don’t usually use words that don’t match our intentions.

Ritchhart ends the section by noting that there are other “kinds of language” that are relevant to the classroom and learning that we could consider: the language of trust, the language of direction, the language of responsibility, the language of framing, the language of metaphor, and the language of discourse.

And on the last page of this chapter, the author offers 7 ways to “Become proficient users of the languages of the classroom”:

*Become more aware of the language moves you are currently making.

*Listen to your students’ use of conditional and absolute language.

*In planning, list the key thinking moves.

*Practice the language of praise and feedback in writing.

*To become a better listener, try to avoid making assumptions about what others are saying or presuming you understand their intent.

*Check if you are nurturing initiative versus developing dependence…

*Make a list of the various roles you want students to step into in your classroom.


Ritchhart Part 4: The Languages of Identity and Initiative

The Language of Identity Ritchhart raises the question of roles students take, depending on how we, as teachers, introduce a lesson/topic.  Do we tell them what they will learn about or should teac…

Source: Ritchhart Part 4: The Languages of Identity and Initiative

Ritchhart Part 4: The Languages of Identity and Initiative

The Language of Identity

Ritchhart raises the question of roles students take, depending on how we, as teachers, introduce a lesson/topic.  Do we tell them what they will learn about or should teachers introduce a lesson by saying: “Today as scientists we are going to be investigating how chemicals react under various circumstances.”  In the first example, students are likely to take a passive role as receiver of information, rather than taking on a new role.  “This [new role] includes not only discipline-based roles (scientists, artists, historians, and so on) but also process-based roles (thinkers, researchers, data collectors, analysts, commentators, advocates, inventors, and the like). (p. 75)(bolding mine)

Ritchhart says that the field of literacy instruction has already identified learners as readers or writers. “For decades, those involved in literacy education have embraced the language of identity and have come to refer easily to students as readers writers, authors, poets, and so on as a matter of course.” (p. 74)

Clearly, students have the ability, even at a young age, to identify themselves as active learners in a specific domain  and to use the language of learning:

I have heard a 4 year old distinguish between “teached” and “learned” in a conversation about learning.

I have heard Kindergarten children refer to themselves as “readers’ and “writers.”

And I have heard a middle school student refer to herself as a learner after having a “coach” say, “You’re learning.”

I can’t help but wonder at what age children come to see themselves as “learners” and have the vocabulary to talk about their learning.  What role do parents and teachers play in providing the vocabulary of learning?  One road to seeing oneself as a learner is the “initiative” that children are able to take in their learning.

The Language of Initiative

There is so much in this section that it will be difficult to do it justice.  But here are a few examples of what Ritchhart offers.

“Contemplating the skills and dispositions required for success in the twenty-first century, we saw the need for flexible, independent learners able to demonstrate initiative and innovation emerge as a common demand across multiple constituencies.”… (p. 75)

“If we accept that initiative is indeed an important goal for education in the twenty-first century, then we need to know what actually develops when we foster initiative.  A key aspect of initiative, or what researchers in sociology and psychology sometimes refer to as “agency,” is the ability to make choices and direct activity based on one’s own resourcefulness and enterprise….” (p. 76)

To help students develop this initiative,

^Teachers can use language to direct a student’s attention to the strategies they employ:

*”Tell me what you just did.”

*“What is your plan for tackling this?”

In contexts where students are given the opportunity to use initiative, students’ language reflects that:

^Students’ use of “agent” language includes:

*Use of hypotheticals:  If we do this…” or “let’s imagine…”

*Use of modals (would, could, should) as ways to identify option for consideration.

In describing such contexts, Heath (1999) “notice that both leaders and older members of the group regularly used the language of initiative, thus providing new members the opportunity to internalize it.” (p. 78)

Ritchhart ends this section by saying:

“Our goal as educators, parents and mentors is to encourage those whom we are trying to nurture to be the thinkers and see themselves as thinkers, planners, and doers.” (p. 78)

The language we use can encourage or discourage students to/from being “agents” and “thinkers.”