Being Open to Learning is Harder Than It Appears

There is a volume of information about carrying on meaningful conversations, especially about change. In the last posting I mentioned Grice’s Maxims which specify 4 qualities of conversation (from: )

  1. The maxim of quantity, where one tries to be as informative as one possibly can, and gives as much information as is needed, and no more.
  2. The maxim of quality, where one tries to be truthful, and does not give information that is false or that is not supported by evidence.
  3. The maxim of relation, where one tries to be relevant, and says things that are pertinent to the discussion.
  4. The maxim of manner, when one tries to be as clear, as brief, and as orderly as one can in what one says, and where one avoids obscurity and ambiguity

This appears to be fairly straightforward but, in my experience, not a simple task.

Looking at the work of Robinson, I think we get a more realistic orientation to the challenges of conversations that are open to learning, conversations in making changes.

Here is a quote from the author (Viviane M. J. Robinson) University of Auckland cautioning us that “Open to learning” conversations are not easy, even when an administrator is talking with a teacher:

The Key Components of an Open-to-learning Conversation. There are no rules or step-by-step guides to open-to-learning conversations. This is because the shifts from less open to more open-to-learning conversations are as much about changes in values and ways of thinking as they are about changes in communication skills. Hard and fast rules also do not work because good conversations are responsive to context and to the other person. Despite this, it is possible to identify some of the recurring components of open-to-learning conversations. Table 3 identifies some of these components and shows how a leader might use them in conversations about the quality of teaching.”….

Nevertheless, she lists 7 components (starting points?):

  1. Describe your concern as your point of view. I need to tell you about a possible concern I have about.. I think we may have different views… I realise this may not be how you see it….
  2. Describe what your concern is based on. The reason why I was concerned is..
  3. Invite the other’s point of view. Pause and look at the other person or say.. What do you think?
  4. Paraphrase their point of view and check. I got three important messages from that…Am I on the right track?
  5. Detect and check important assumptions… What leads you to believe that the children…
  6. Establish common ground. The common ground might be based…
  7. Make a plan to get what you both want. How would you like to learn more about….

There are several YouTube videos that provide examples.  For example:



More Than a Gap in Words

Published in Print: April 22, 2015, as Research on Quality of Conversation Holds Deeper Clues Into Word Gap

Key to Vocabulary Gap Is Quality of Conversation, Not Dearth of Words

By Sarah D. Sparks


“The “30 million-word” gap is arguably the most famous but least significant part of a landmark study, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young Children, by the late University of Kansas child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley. As the work turns 20 this year, new research and more advanced measuring techniques have cast new light on long-overshadowed, and more nuanced, findings about exactly how adult interactions with infants and young children shape their early language development.”


Parent-Child Conversations

“This is the challenge of translating science to policy, and when one study captures the imagination of the public, and policy is made based on one study,” Mr. Barnett said. A study “has to be viewed in the context of the much larger body of knowledge about language and family and experience.”


“Conversational turns are vastly more important than the number of words a child is exposed to,” Ms. Gilkerson said.





Dialogue Blog Themes












EVERY CHILD DESERVES to be a Successful…Reader, Communicator, Learner

What To Do When Your Student Says “I’m Stupid!”

“For students with learning differences, empathy is more powerful than any skill or strategy. These kids are often trying harder than their peers and are frequently less successful. They feel different. They crave connections. Empathy cuts through suffering. It allows us to connect, motivate, and craft more responsive instruction.”


Beyond Retelling: Stop-Think-Talk

In Beyond Retelling: Toward Higher Level Thinking and Big Ideas by Cunningham and Smith (2008) Pearson Education, the authors lay out a carefully sequenced approach to reading comprehension

Reasons: What is/are the purposes of the dialogue?

The authors begin by justifying the focus on Higher Order Thinking (more specifically the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy: Evaluation, Analysis, Synthesis and Application). They point of how important those skills are for today’s world, how often they are related to successful reading instruction, and how frequently they are the focus of everyday instruction.

One of their areas of focus relative to “reasons” for their higher order thinking approach is the impact of such an approach on students in high poverty classrooms. Citing two studies from the 1990’s, the note that the teachers with the highest achievement gains did the following:

From the first study by Michael Knapp:

*Maximized opportunities to read

*Integrated reading and writing with other subjects

*Provided opportunities to discuss what was read (emphasis mine)

*Emphasized higher order meaning construction rather than lower order skills

From the second study by Taylor and Pearson (CIERA):

*Had higher pupil engagement

*Provided more small group instruction

*Provided more coaching to help children improve their work recognition

*Communicated more with parents

*Had children engage in more independent reading

*Asked more higher level comprehension questions

Although they support the importance of asking more higher level questions, they note that “leading the children to come up with good answers in much harder (p. 6);” thus the importance of thoughtful planning and carefully scaffolding of instruction. At the end of each section, Cunningham and Smith lay out a multi-step procedure for maximizing student participation and success.

The approach is based on engaging elementary school children in big questions, big ideas and deep thinking that are actualized through focusing on narrative themes like problem solving, courage, friendship, overcoming hardships.

These teachers’ uses several techniques to careful scaffolding is the way in which they help children progress through reading tasks. These might be thought of as interacting “routines” that children learn to follow. That is, they learn what how they are expected to work and communicate during each phase of the lesson.

Routines: Dialogue entails multiple “turns” among participants. What kinds of “turns” are there? How do participants determine whose “turn” it is and what kind of contribution is appropriate? Meaningful? Helpful? How are the routines influenced by Reasons, Rules and Roles?

  1. Simple Formats

They use two simple formats to take children though a single story and across multiple stories: A Concept Chart based on Frayer’s model of vocabulary instruction and a Thinking Theme chart that asks students to address a theme-based Big Question by identifying Events or Actions, determine Why a character asked in a certain way, determining what the character Gets for acting that way and providing support for how the event shows the focus theme.

Roles: Who are the participants in the dialogue and how, in the particular context, are they related to each/one another?

  1.  Reading tasks.

They start with read alouds, engages children in partner reading, reading teams (with a coach and recorder on each team to complete the charts). Further along the line, the teacher creates a “three-ring circle” in which children either read with the teacher, with a partner, or alone. The authors note that their planning is strongly influenced by the “Gradual Release of Responsibility” framework. They move from shared reading, to guided reading, to reading partnerships, to conferring with reading partnerships, and finally to independent reading and literature circles (See Chapter 7)

  1. Multiple examples

The teacher starts by having children draw examples from their own lives and then offers children several examples of the target theme, before they even begin reading. Then children will be focused on identifying examples as they read, stopping at predetermined (sticky notes) places.

  1. Moving from Nonfiction to Fiction  (See Chapter 6)

Rules: Is there a set of “rules” that participants follow. Are the rules implicit or explicit? If implicit, are all of the participants aware of the rules? Do they all agree to the rules?

A hallmark of the Cunningham and Smith model is that children are explicitly taught what the expectations are. They are not simply told what to do; it is described, and practiced and evaluated, with the children as full partners.

Rewards: Can dialogue really achieve the desired/specified

I am stretching this part of the framework to fit my focus on dialogue and reading, but I think the stretch is justified. This approach doesn’t work without paying attention to dialogue. In a sense, the heart of the approach is “stop-think-talk.” For every part of the lessons and the sequences, talk is essential. The talk comes from the children’s experiences before, during, and after reading.   It builds on their prior knowledge and experiences. It is inherent in their evaluation of their tasks. But it also comes from the careful sequencing of instruction. These children know about the kinds of talk, the timing of talk, the importance of talk, and the outcome of “talking” because their teachers have taken on the task of “leading the children to come up with good answers in much harder.” And “talking” is inherently related to higher order thinking.

This book has much to offer elementary teachers. It is well worth investing the time to read and try out the ideas. I would also recommend it to parts as an example of carefully sequenced, explicit instruction in reading comprehension

“My kids talk. What’s the big idea?”

Dialogue and Reading Success: Comprehension Through Conversation

The Subtitle of Comprehension Through Conversation by Maria Nichols (Heineman, 2006) is The Power of Purposeful Talk in the Reading Workshop. Nichols begins her text by reporting on a comment made to a colleague during a staff meeting on “accountable talk.” She says, “I distinctly remember leaning over to a colleague and whispering, “My kids talk. What’s the big idea?” … Years later at a week long Reading and Writing Institute she heard Richard Allington talk about the Six T’s of exemplary teaching, one of which got her full attention: Talk. That started a project of in depth research on talk.”

Her work continued into the spring of the first year at the Professional Development Center. She says: “My first-graders and I had just wrapped up a nonfiction unit of study in reading in which we had immersed ourselves in the discovery of fascinating things in, and thoughts about the real world. As part of the study, focusing on the importance of building an understanding of what’s in a character’s heart by listening to their words and carefully scrutinizing their action. Embedded in these studies, as in all aspect of our learning, was the important of thinking and talking about our thinking as a means of constructing ideas, negotiating meaning, and developing structure for independent thought.” (p. xi)

She goes on to say:

“Constructivist thinking like this does not happen by accident. It is the byproduct of classrooms where children think and talk together to make meaning, work collectively to construct stronger ideas, push back at thinking that doesn’t make sense to them (even the teacher’s), come to expect and anticipate differences of opinion, and do this on such a regular basis that thinking in this way becomes a habit of mind.”…

Based on the central idea of Purposeful Talk, Nichols explores the use of Read Alouds as a tool for helping children “Thinking and Talking About Reading in Increasingly Complex Ways” through units of study.

Although I don’t believe I can do justice to the thoughtfulness, carefulness, and comprehensiveness of Nichols’ work, I’d like to briefly outline her work here in relation to my 5Rs of Dialogue.. This is really a text worth buying, reading and rereading.


Reasons: What is/are the purposes of the dialogue?

Nichols engages children in “Purposeful Talk” in order to prepare them to interact in a meaningful and effective way in the economic, political and learning demands of the larger world. I would characterize this as an “interactive” world demanding higher order thinking and collaborative problem solving.


Rules: Is there a set of “rules” that participants follow. Are the rules implicit or explicit. If implicit, are all of the participants aware of the rules? Do they all agree to the rules?

In Chapter 4, Nichols describes Teaching Conversational Behavior that will apply across tasks, situations and contexts.

^Hearing All Voices: Learning to how to both take and give turns

^Growing ideas

*saying something meaningful: understanding the text or the world through the text

*listening with intent: actually engaging with the ideas

*keeping lines of thinking alive: agreeing, disagreeing, adding on to an idea, clarifying meaning

^Negotiating Meaning: Voicing ideas and pushing back and forth at each other’s thinking; listening with the intent of understanding the reasoning and evidence behind differing idea by allowing them to develop.

These are fairly general rules and will be adapted to the task and contexts in which the talking (and listening) takes place.


Roles: Who are the participants in the dialogue and how, in the particular context, are they related to each/one another?

Nichols outlines 4 roles based on the work of Luke and Freebody: code breaker, text participant (meaning maker), text user (what do I do with the text here and now) and text analyst (what does the text do to me). Her focus is on the roles of participant, user and analyst. It isn’t clear how these three roles function in the context of routines, which reflect reading together and turn taking.


Routines: Dialogue entails multiple “turns” among participants. What kinds of “turns” are there? How do participants determine whose “turn” it is and what kind of contribution is appropriate? meaningful? helpful? How are the routines influenced by Reasons, Rules and Roles?

In the section on Orchestrating the Talk (Conversations), Chapter 5, Nichols focuses on Read Alouds as the starting point in a “Release of Responsibility Model.” (p. 53)   Here is the real strength of Nichols’ approach: knowing when and how to help children move to the next level of conversation. She does this in two ways. She gradually moves children through types of reading conversations, beginning with Read Alouds and then moving to Shared Readings, Guiding Reading, Partnerships and Literature Circles…and only then to Independence. In her effort to be sensitive to the strengths and challenges of all language learners, she thoughtfully plans Macro (stages of interaction) and Micro (types of interaction) progressions, systematically monitoring children’s progress in order to move them to the next more challenging level of interaction/conversation. Although Nichols work doesn’t reflect “routines” in the typical sense of how turns are determined among the readers engaged in the conversations, she does show what kinds of turns there are as children participate in different stages of reading (Read Alouds, Shared Reading, etc.) and engage in a variety of fiction and nonfiction tasks. One of the ways she brings these examples to life is by charting stopping places as the children engage in reading. Her charts show stopping place, reasons for stopping, what talk indicative of meaning-making sounds like and possible scaffolds if the children aren’t constructing strong meaning. (p. 59)

Micro Routines

Here Nichols uses three techniques: focusing on the nature of the reading task, determining where to stop in the reading (to allow for thinking/reflection) , and addressing the differing demands of both fiction and nonfiction.

The reading task.

Nichols takes a grade by grade approach, suggesting what kinds of task might be appropriate at each grade level. For example: “In kindergarten or first grade, a study lasting approximately four to six weeks might focus entirely on understanding characters. When planning studies, I always include an expectation for children’s talk. Once children are thinking about their reading in this way, what should their talk sound like…..”

Where to stop

Here Nichols gives very explicit examples of places in text to stop. She outlines “focus points,” “how readers do this,” and “what the talk might sound like.” Focus points include “tasks” like: getting to know what’s in a character’s heart, noticing changes in characters, and understanding what caused a character to change.

Differences in fiction and nonfiction reading

Here are some examples on nonfiction tasks: reading with a wide-awake mind, making sense of information, asking questions and forming theories, reading for big ideas, differentiating fact and opinion. Again, Nichols shows us how the reader does this and what the talk might sound like.


Rewards: Can dialogue really achieve the desired/specified “reasons” for all of the participants? How do we know?

The End Result (p 102-4) in Nichols’ words:

“Over time, we should see and hear evidence of the cumulative effect of instructional experiences in reading, thinking and talking and opportunities to practice with supports along the Release of Responsibility slide. Our children should be emerging from these experiences not only as stronger meaning makers capable of orchestrating their own conversation and negotiating with others for the purpose of construction meaning but as critically aware.”

“By teaching our children to read, think and talk about their thinking we enable them not only to have purposeful conversations that construct meaning with others, but also to have raging conversations in their own heads, even when thinking alone. In this way, we create self-sustaining , purposefully literate beings who question, build on the thinking of others, pursue more information, seek out and actually listen to other points of view, and in the end, make up their own minds” (P 103

…and..”the ability to take part in an intellectual exchange of ideas the constantly enlightens us, guides us, and helps us continually rethink our physical, social, political, and economic environments.”( P 104)

Bolding of print mine.

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:


*Builds Academic Language

*Builds Vocabulary

*Builds Literacy Skills

*Builds Oral Language and Communication Skills


Critical Thinking Skills

Promotes Different Perspectives and Empathy

Fosters Creativity

Fosters Skills in Negotiating Meaning and Focusing on a Topic


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.


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….”


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.


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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