Embracing Student Talk: Transform Classroom Chatter Into Productive Discussions

Whether we always like it or not, our students are going to talk. And honestly, they should be! Adolescents are social creatures. When we attempt to stifle that natural developmental drive, we run into all sorts of classroom management issues as our students become disengaged and our classroom environment suffers. Student talk is vital to learning.  

While student talk is vital, we know that all talk isn’t always productive talk. So how can we create opportunities that channel student talk into productive discussions that support student discovery and learning?

How can we embrace the talk in our classroom? Let’s take a look!


Setting The Stage: Creating A Culture That Allows For Productive Talk

While this isn’t the place to get into the nitty gritty of creating classroom culture – that will have to be a lesson for another day – there are some things you can do to ensure that you have set the stage for productive discussions.


1. See The Value

1. First, you have to believe that talking is a valuable learning activity, and that all of your students can learn from it.

Question-and-answer sessions are quick. They are easy. There is a right or wrong answer, and you can move on. Unfortunately, those types of “discussions” are not creating environments where students are empowered to explore and share their own ideas, listen to others, and take risks in their learning.  

Productive discussions take time, and it’s important not to rush them. Before you decide to go down this path (and I wholeheartedly think you should!), you must be prepared to give the activity the time it deserves, knowing that students will come out of the discussion knowing, understanding, and being able to do more. (And also, knowing that it takes time to master this skill, and it’s certainly a process. It’s ok if your first discussion isn’t a masterpiece!)


2. Establish Expectations

Second, you must have well-established procedures and expectations.  Sometimes as a teacher, giving students the freedom to talk is terrifying. (At least, that’s how I felt for a long time!) You are relinquishing some control, and it can get rowdy – particularly if you haven’t taken the appropriate measures to keep it focused.


3. Know Your Purpose

Third, you have to have a clear academic purpose for the discussion, you need to communicate that, and you need to be ready with your own strong understanding of the content.  

Discussions can have different purposes — uncovering student ideas, consolidating understanding, interpreting data, or crafting explanations supported by evidence and reasoning.  It’s important to know the ultimate goal, so that you can craft your own questioning to lead toward that goal. (While ideally our students are doing all of the talking, in reality you’re going to need to be there as the guide when discussion stalls or students get stuck. That said, the more students master the art of discussion, the less work falls on you!) 

Additionally, because in some sense “all is fair” when it comes to student talk, you must have a strong understanding of the content so that you can connect with the thoughts and ideas students bring up. Understanding how they think, how it actually works, and how to get them from A to B is going to influence the way you guide the discussion, the questions you ask, and the observations you make when the need arises.


4. Prepare

And fourth, speaking of questions and observations, you will want to have a game plan.  

You will need a question to launch the discussion (unless you’re starting with a phenomenon!), and you will want to have a few follow-up questions to move the conversation forward if students get stuck.  Crafting a great starting point is vital to fostering great science talk.

Moreover, you will need to know how you want to set up your discussion, and you will need to provide students with the necessary scaffolds to succeed in this format.  Productive talk can happen in whole-group settings, small-group, partners, non-verbally, incorporating movement, etc. Each of these strategies will require a unique approach and different tools, and some strategies will be more appropriate than others for your purpose and content. Cult of Pedagogy has a great post with a ton of discussion strategies and ideas!

Bring Wonder Back: Creating Engaged and Active Science Learners

Transitioning to the NGSS can be totally overwhelming.  Teaching is hard as it is – you’re busy keeping up with the “normal” lessons day to day and week to week, plus grading, meetings, IEPs, behavior management, so on and so forth. I get it. Who has the time or energy to figure out all that goes into these new standards and their impact on your curriculum, let alone what it means for your teaching!?

In this free workshop series, get your crash course on the heart of three-dimensional instruction and the NGSS. Through three on-demand video workshops, you will:

  • understand why “teaching topics” is killing curiosity and what to do instead
  • redefine your role as an educator and shift the work of learning where it belongs which means less work for you
  • transform your students into scientists which means creating a generation of creative, critical-thinkers

Register here!