Sharing the Talk

It happened too often in too many of my classes for too many years. I’d ask a question or invite a discussion, and the same students would plunge right in. Over and over these few offered right answers and insightful ideas. They were quick-thinking extraverts, the producers of meaning for the class.

The trouble was that the consuming students didn’t learn much by listening in. Students learn best when they actively interact with content. They’re more likely to remember, to connect concepts, and to make academic language part of their vocabularies.

But, aside from squelching the quick-thinking extraverts, how could I make spaces for the introverts? For the more reflective students, who were slower on the uptake? I found that asking three-stage questions helped.

Stage 1: Reflect and Record—In this stage, I’d pose a problem: What evidence in the text can you find that . . . ? What changes would you make to revise . . .?  What would happen if . . .?  How would you improve . . .?  Then I’d give students time to think alone and to write or diagram or sketch their responses. I often played instrumental music as they worked. This, I found, provided a curtain of privacy, making them less aware of each other. In this stage, no voices are heard.

Stage 2: Triad Talk—During this time, students shared what they prepared. And instead of one person speaking to a whole group, many are spoke to smaller groups. Three in a group worked well. Pairs, to me, seemed less dynamic. But with more than three in a group, voices tended to get lost. This is the stage of many voices.

Stage 3: Full Forum—After the preparation of the first two stages, whole class discussion became richer. More students contributed comments, and even their listening was more active—alert postures, nodding heads, and smiles or frowns. Often I started this stage with the question: What did you hear someone say that would be good for others to hear?  Students grew more willing to speak out after they heard others affirm their thoughts. In this stage, many hear one voice at a time.

Usually, the less I said and the more students said, the more they learned. After all, when students tried to explain to someone else, they understood better themselves. And often it was easier for students to learn from each other than from me. They brought different learning styles to each other and provided a safe place to ask questions and try out ideas. Together, they produced meaning.

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