When students are talking academically, they are also (usually) thinking academically. I try hard not to out-talk my students because I don’t want to be the only one generating new ideas and critically thinking through issues in class. Of course, the beginning of a course or unit is an exception to this rule; setting up norms and routines requires me to talk more than I usually do. But once these things are in place, I try to step back and allow my students to lead. Giving them time and space to talk (and ask their own questions) is one of the most important ways I can get them to think deeply and critically. They know they cannot rely on me to do this for them.
Our historic, unspoken understanding of teaching is “telling,” or transmitting information (typically from one person who ‘knows’ to those who ‘do not know’…yet). This practice, however, out of step with the profession today, and our desire to prepare students to tackle serious local and global issues in the decades ahead. How do we avoid defaulting to the idea and practice of “teaching as telling”?
1) Set Up Norms for Talking & Listening
We really cannot assume our students know how to talk with each other. Engaging in civil dialogue is a complex skill, one that requires explicit teaching and practice. Even adults need reminders and examples of things like sharing air time, active listening, and asking important questions.
Take time to front-load, model, and practice these skills before using discussion structures like: Turn & Talks, Socratic Seminars, Harkness Discussions, and Spider Web Discussions as vehicles for understanding content.
One of my favorite ways to get started with promoting a healthy ‘talk culture’ is a simple, 35-minute exercise called Heard, Seen, Respected from Liberating Structures. Students pair up and take turns sharing a story about a time in their life when they didn’t feel heard, seen, or respected. Each person shares for up to 7 minutes while the listener practices, well, listening. It’s worth noting that for this particular exercise, listeners are asked to simply be attentive and attuned (see chart above). The listener’s job, in other words, is not to verbally probe, solve, or soothe (at least in this exercise). Afterwards, everyone in the class discusses the commonalities of the stories they heard. It’s worth noting that these conversations should be held in strict confidence; no bringing the story back up with one another, even after class.
When students understand the full, emotional impact of not being heard, seen, or respected, they become much more conscious of avoiding this situation in the future. I use Heard, Seen, Respected now at the beginning of every course I teach. It’s great for staff meetings and PLCs, too.
2) Ask Questions That Deepen Thinking
The classic image of an inquiry classroom is of a teacher asking a thoughtful series of convergent and divergent questions leading students elegantly (and sometimes subversively) to new understandings and insights. How can we channel our inner-Socrates? One of my favorite books right now is Think Like Socrates by Shanna Peeples. In it, she shares ideas on how to develop and apply “leveled and big questions” in content-specific ways. She also includes samples of student-generated questions throughout the book.
For non-content specific questions, I like to keep this Questions Reference handy. I’ve either videotaped or asked colleagues to come into my class to check off which questions I’m asking a lot, or not enough, of. I’ve also seen this Reference taped down on student desks, so that students themselves can remember to use them during discussions.
3) Get Students to Ask Questions
In her talk about the Origins of Human Curiosity, Williams College Professor, Susan Engel, concludes that “Kids learn best when they’re trying to get the answer to their own question.” Unstructured time (like recess) is a great opportunity to catch a whiff of authentic student inquiry. What are kids asking when no adult is listening? Which questions do they truly own? What do they truly care about knowing?
What about eliciting authentic student questions in the classroom though? One of my “go to” activities is the Question Formulation Technique developed by The Right Question Institute. Students are asked to observe a provocative image or sentence for a period of time (10 minutes or less, depending on the students’ ages) and record all the questions they can about the image. Then, they systematically analyze the questions together, such as: Which ones are open and closed? Where do they cluster? Which question(s) would they most like to answer? While I love the QFT, I don’t always feel that it generates the most authentic list of questions, especially given the time constraint (students often get ‘competitive’ with who can generate the most in the shortest amount of time). Authentic questions need time and space!
Inspired in part by Lynda Barry’s Syllabus, this quarter I’ve asked students to purchase a Comp Book and turn it into a “Query Book.” Students are asked to write down all the questions that come up for them as they read a text or listen to a podcast for class. We then use these student-generated questions to engage in small group discussions. At the end of the quarter, students read each other’s Query Books, appreciating the questions they read and then choosing their favorite for each assignment. Not only has this practice helped create some accountability around preparing for class, but it’s also strengthened and vastly improved students’ question-asking skills.
4) Create discussion structures you can use in any context
If you and your students are getting tired of using the same discussion structures, mix it up a bit. For some great ideas on new structures, be sure to check out these fantastic resources:
Be sure to visit the EduProtocols website to download free protocols (including) adaptations for younger learners). EduProtocol authors’ “field guide” is where you get access to all 16 of them (highly recommended). I recently used the Cyber Sandwich activity, where students talk together after reading the same text to discuss what stood out for them. They then complete a Venn diagram illustrating what observations they shared in common and what really differed. Fascinating!
Liberating Structures offer a goldmine of ideas for helping students (and adults) reach decisions and expand their thinking. There are 33 different structures offered with the goal of “unleashing and including” everyone in the room. The one I am using most frequently right now is called Impromptu Networking. This is a very simple yet powerful structure that invites students to stand up, move around the room, find a partner, and have a short, reciprocal conversation together based on a prompt or question. Impromptu Networking is a great way to warm students up at the beginning of the day or center them after a break. It’s also an ingenious way to help students review content or whittle down topic choices. There are many ways to “change the dials” on this activity (new prompts, less or more time for discussion, number of rotations, etc.).
Have a lot of content but want to avoid “death by PowerPoint”"? You must check out this rapid-fire approach to presenting content in a concise and aesthetic way. A Pecha Kucha is 20 slides each one lasting only 20 seconds. I usually model it first for students (it’s more challenging than you think!) and then unleash them to use it as a way of synthesizing, organizing, and presenting content to one another. They love both the freedom and structure it gives them to be creative. You can also turn the 20x20 format into a 10x20 format (10 slides each lasting 20 seconds) or any other configuration that works.
The Big List of Classroom Discussion Strategies from Cult of Pedagogy
Jennifer Gonzalez has a treasure trove of highly-readable and relatable blog posts on instruction. The Big List of Classroom Discussion Strategies post is one of my favorites as it offers 15 different ways to get students talking.
I will conclude this post with a quote from my friend and colleague, Kath Murdoch, who reflects in the foreword of Experience Inquiry on her student teaching experience. In this beautiful piece, Murdoch reflects on her student teaching experience, and her mentor teacher, Frank Ryan, someone she “didn’t recall saying much,” but inspired true curiosity in his students by asking questions and nudging on their conversations.
“I wanted be someone who could teach without telling, someone who would truly listen to students and encourage them to think deeply.”
How do you teach without telling? How do you ask more, and talk less? Please share in the Comments section below!