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Sunday, 4 May 2014

Using Classroom Conversation to Push the Thinking and Deepen Understanding

CC licensed photo  shared by Flickr user Alexander Lyubavin

I am a huge believer in Assessment for and Assessment as Learning. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that it is Formative Assessment practices that are the game changer in education. I think it is paramount that in the 21st Century, we help students to develop into critical thinkers who are able to assess their own understandings and abilities. When they can do this accurately, they can set goals for themselves and take steps towards deepening their understandings and skills.

That is why it is so important to reflect on the way we are currently giving feedback to our students and encouraging them to give feedback to one another.

I don't believe in formulaic responses, not for responses to reading (please, no more "A.P.E." or "Point, Prove, Comment") and not for responding to someone else's work. I think "two stars and a wish" might have been a good place to start, but the more I read students' "stars and wishes" for their peers' work, the more I feel we are straying from the point of the exercise.

I fully admit, I used "two stars and a wish" with my own students.  But over time I started to feel deep down that this wasn't achieving the goal I had set out for. It first really hit me when I was having my students do a "Write Around" which I had learned about from Harvey Daniels. (Click on link for full instructions).  In a Write Around, students write a response or an opinion to something they have read or viewed, and then they pass their response to the person beside them. That person must then comment on what the first person has written, and then pass the notebook on again. The notebook then gets passed to a third person, who must comment on both the original response and their predecessor's comment. It is a great way to teach your students to dialogue, to push one another's thinking through questioning and extending.

Unfortunately, my students were writing things like "good job telling the main idea, and your printing is so neat, next time try to add more detail." How was this pushing anyone's thinking?  I have seen this time and time again in my travels as a Consultant. Teachers teach their students to "assess" their peers' work and provide them with feedback using "hearts and arrows" or "stars and wishes" without really teaching students WHY exactly they are doing this. Isn't it to push one another's thinking?

One of the most difficult aspects of teaching is assessing student work, putting a name to what makes one piece better than another and giving feedback that truly tells the student what to do next to improve. I think it is important to help our students develop a nose for quality, and I think it is important that we teach our students self-assessment and peer-assessment strategies. But we must not confuse "assessment" with "evaluation".  We need to teach our students how to use DESCRIPTIVE words rather than EVALUATIVE words when giving one another feedback. That means WE as teachers need to learn the difference first, and monitor what WE say when we are providing feedback. To truly develop a community of learners that push and extend one another's thinking we will gain more if we focus less on asking students to give "hearts and arrows" or "stars and wishes" to one another and more on teaching them how to converse with and challenge one another.

I love this Ministry monograph on Grand Conversation in the Junior Classroom. We need to teach our students how to converse with one another in a way that pushes their thinking and makes their learning visible to themselves and others. We need to teach them to address one another's misconceptions, to question discrepant events and ideas, and to seek clarity from one another.

I would far prefer to hear a student say "That doesn't make sense to me, why did you put the decimal there?" than "Good job solving that problem, your graph uses a proper scale, just remember to use labels." Students need to challenge and build on one another's ideas. They need to be making comments that push their peers for clarity, "I can't tell who's talking in this paragraph, is it the mother or the kid?" or "I don't see how you went from this step to this one, I got a completely different solution, I think you missed a step." Instead of "Great job using humour" how about "I cracked up when I read the part about the dog in the spaceship, it was hilarious!"

The first step in teaching your students how to think critically and converse critically with one another is to sit back and listen to them; less teacher talk, and more student-to-student talk. What do you notice? What types of things are they picking up on?  What types of questions are they asking one another? Are they even asking one another questions?  Pay attention to how they converse, and then bring it to their attention, making their conversation visible. Try video-taping them, and then analyzing the video together. Challenge them, "Why did you say that to her?", "What else would you like to ask him?", "Do you understand his work now?"  Monitor what you say to your students, model for them by challenging them and seeking clarity from them. Teach them to paraphrase, "So what you are saying is...".  If you need help, read the monograph.  And then together, with your students, establish the criteria for having a critical conversation.

Let me know how it goes!

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