Wednesday, September 24, 2014

You Can Talk, but Can You Converse?

In recent years there has been a welcomed trend towards inviting students to do more in their own learning.  This is a very good thing as mental immobility rarely results in learning.  But as with all trends that feel good, we tend to keep pushing it until we go past the point of usefulness and enter into something just as weak as the thing we are trying to correct.  In this case, if we require more and more of students, the false corollary is that we need to require less and less of teachers.  You can see that the end of that thinking is for teachers to be deemed unnecessary (some with little understanding would cheer that result).  However, to eliminate the teacher weakens the class as much as having a teacher who does everything and asks nothing of students. 

So what is the real value of having a teacher in the class?  It is the experience, the wisdom, and the voice.  Students can replicate everything that happens in a class except hear the voice of the teacher.  They can read the text on their own, organize their own little study groups and talk things out.  They can make up review sheets and give each other little quizzes and tests.  The only thing they cannot do on their own is hear the voice of the teacher and get her point of view and her experience and her synthesis of a situation.  

Years ago a colleague made this comment, almost in passing: "Great teaching is a great conversation with your students."  I liked it then and agree with it more now.  This is a place where great learning can occur. 

What makes great conversation (as opposed to hanging out and talking about nothing)?  It is friends sitting around talking about things that matter.  They may or may not come to a conclusion but interest is stirred and thinking ensues.  Some of the most meaningful conversations I have ever had have been in a class, with students. We are friends, and the topics before us are meaningful.

Just a few things are necessary to begin a great classroom conversation. It is almost always initiated by a teacher leading the class in a purposeful direction.  It generally starts with a real question or a real problem that needs a solution. It should be clearly understood that effective classroom conversations are more than just one teacher and one student talking.  There needs to be that but there also needs to be student to student talk. When these elements are present there can be real discussions.

It took a long time in my marriage for my wife and I to figure out our conversational patterns.  When she asks me a question, I rarely respond quickly.  I pause a lot because I want to respond well.  But in the early days she interpreted my silence as a sign for her to say something else.  We just had to work out the details of when we are ready to speak because I don't like being cut off in the middle of an idea, even as I am muddling my way through it.  She doesn't either.  Neither do you, so if you want a great classroom conversation, allow students to muddle their way through.

I have sort of a deliberate pace to my speaking and I don't like someone to steal the punch line of a joke or to complete my sentences before I get to them because of that pacing.  Do you?  Probably not.  Allow your students the same courtesy.

The inherent danger of a conversation is that it tends to drift quite easily.  If you like your students and feel at ease in the gentle banter that accompanies such friendship then you really have to guard against such a drift. Remember that the purpose of a discussion is not simply to get students talking.  The fact that they are talking is no accomplishment at all.  The purpose is to come to an understanding of a question or problem.  The purpose is to counsel together and mutually arrive at a place where we see clearer. The teacher needs to be one voice in the room but not the only voice and perhaps not even the dominant voice.  

So converse with students and make it enjoyable.  Let them hear your voice, and position yourself to want to hear their voices.  In the next few posts there will be some ideas for helping accomplish that.

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