Embracing The 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.  Our students need to talk. That said, it is our job to channel that talk into productive discussions that support student discovery and learning. I know, I know – easier said than done. So 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. First, you have to believe that this is a valuable learning activity, and that all 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. Second, you must have well-established procedures and expectations.  Often as a teacher, giving students the freedom to talk is terrifying. You are relinquishing some control, and it can get rowdy – particularly if you haven’t taken the appropriate measures to keep it focused and contained.  

3. Third, you have to have a clear academic purpose and a 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 questioning to lead toward that goal. 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.

4. And fourth, speaking of questions and observations, you must have a game plan.  You will need a question to launch the discussion, and you will want to have a few follow-up questions to move the conversation forward.  Crafting a great starting point is vital to fostering great science talk. Moreover, you must know how you will 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.

Science Teacher Tribe: Convenient and Comprehensive NGSS Professional Development

If you are anything like me, 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!

Well, I’m happy to say there IS an easier way. You don’t HAVE to muddle through everything, and you definitely don’t have to do it alone!

Imagine feeling confident that the curriculum you designed is actually aligned to the standards, that your units incorporate the three dimensions and engage your students in Science and Engineering Practices that matter. Imagine classes full of students who take ownership of their learning, who thrive on “figuring it out” and “puzzling through it” and come to learn the content through discovery.  Imagine days where you DON’T have to stand in front of the class, battling for their attention, delivering boring lectures and notes, printing worksheet after worksheet, and wasting tons of time on review and reteaching — only to have your students fail to perform anyway. Imagine learning that sticks, and engaging activities (that you may already be doing!) but that lead to true understanding.  It’s not magic, and it doesn’t necessarily come easy, but it IS possible.  

Learn more at the Science Teacher Tribe Course and Community.