Making Thinking Audible – A Whole School Approach
Lucy West, internationally renowned educator and author, indicates that in order to cultivate a culture of deep thinking and understanding in the classroom it is essential to give “the weight in conversation to students not just the teacher.” We know that listening to classroom talk enables teachers to understand student thinking and to make instructional decisions in the form of questions or scaffolded prompts which will help students to move forward in their learning. Students benefit from listening to their own ideas as it helps them to clarify their own thinking and to question, build on and extend the thinking of others. While teachers understand the many reasons dialogue and discourse are central to student engagement and understanding, barriers often prevent the practice of sustained, accountable talk and cooperative learning in the classroom.
Time constraints, preferred learning/teaching styles, lack of emotional safety and mistrust of others can often get in the way of our intention to invite and encourage deep thinking and discourse. Some teachers may fear that cooperative learning will result in off task discussion and behaviour and slow down the learning process; however, John Hattie’s extensive research shows that cooperative learning has a very positive impact on student achievement.
Creating a classroom culture that encourages deep thinking through student discourse requires the co-development of social norms.
“Collaboration occurs when group members bring their own perspectives and ideas and wrestle with their thinking collectively so that new ideas emerge. Collaboration allows each student to express, challenge, and build on the ideas of others as well as their own (Frey, Fisher & Everlove, 2009).
Co-constructing community norms can help us in our school improvement planning and create a community of learners for sustained learning. At MacLeod’s Landing in YRDSB administration and staff have embraced community norms which are woven throughout each grade, classroom, content area, professional learning opportunity and family engagement process.
Students are learning to identify when the norms are exhibited in the playground and in classroom talk. They can explain how following the norms supports their learning in the classroom and also helps them to maintain positive relationships with their peers. Will Richardson suggests that the conditions for powerful learning – for students and educators – include: an emotionally and physically safe environment, personal investment in the learning, challenging and relevant questions to investigate and a sense of autonomy. So, both teachers and students require opportunities to practice collaboration. The following community norms are foundational to the school improvement plan and central to the educational philosophy of the classroom:
We benefit from the strengths of all when we encourage our peers to contribute in our community. This norm helps to establish an environment of safety and trust. We invite risk-taking, participation and inquiry when we invite others to share their thinking by proposing they “say more about that.”
Learning how to work alongside others in a meaningful way requires that we can manage our own tendencies to dominate or retreat, disagree passionately or agree passively, attend to or disregard the contributions of others. Being mindful of our own behaviours and how we interact with others is essential to building community.
Listening is an active meaning making process that requires explicit instruction, time, practice and commitment. Teachers need time to sit alongside students to listen in to their thinking in order to understand where they are and help them to clarify their own thoughts. Monitoring our own ability to listen and contribute and build upon ideas rather than impatiently waiting for our turn to speak is critical to exposing and supporting student thinking.
This norm highlights the value placed on hearing from our entire community of learners. Regardless of position, grade, subject expertise – all voices are important and their perspectives can help contribute and build on community understanding. This places importance on taking the time to ensure that we are not just waiting for the right answer and urgently moving on to the next problem or question. We are appreciating and contemplating the input of all.
Disagreeing in an agreeable way
When we disagree, we must do so in a respectful way by asking others politely to explain their thinking. As Lucy West indicates, we “need to question each other not from a place of attack, but from a place of inquiry.” In this way we build social and cognitive engagement and probe the thinking of others. Questions evoke and expose thinking. When students share their questions in the classroom, they hear the perspectives and ways of thinking of others (McComas & Abraham, retrieved March 2012). In addition, when students are posing and pursuing questions collaboratively, they build a number of connections, including with their peers. “[Q]uality questioning activates and sustains interactions and relationships between students and teachers, between students and content, and between teachers and the content in ways that increase both student engagement and achievement” (Walsh & Sattes, 2011).
Talk Moves – Scaffolding Thinking
Peers can help to scaffold new learning for one another through meaningful talk, but this requires explicit instruction in “talk moves” which require practice over time in order to move beyond mechanical application of strategies.
It is important to recognize that this requires everyone to slow down and to become reflective and strategic learners.
Providing students with sentence starters to contribute to discussion is essential for all students and especially critical to new language learners. It is important to remember that we are not looking for the “right answers” through the use of talk moves; in fact, we are purposefully using language to scaffold thinking and to make meaning together. Students need opportunities to practice across the curriculum through debate, dialogue and discussion.
We understand that collaboration enhances the effectiveness of learning in schools, yet our efforts to establish productive and engaged learning communities are often challenging. Learning together as a school community requires vision, effort, collaboration and ongoing refinement and re-direction. Co-constructing and maintaining community norms, teaching specific strategies for accountable and productive talk helps to remove the barriers to creating collaborative learning communities.
Richardson, Will. From Master Teacher to Master Learner. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree, 2015. Print.
About Theresa Meikle
Theresa Meikle is a retired school administrator with experience from K-12. She is currently “on contract” at MacLeod’s Landing in the York Region District School Board. Theresa has many years of experience in a variety of roles: Language/English/ Drama teacher, Literacy and Assessment Curriculum Consultant, Secondary Vice-Principal and Educational Officer at the Ministry of Education. Each position has provided Theresa with opportunities for learning as a team member at the school, regional and provincial level. Although retired, Theresa is still engaged in professional learning and consulting.