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  • Elizabeth Barrett-Zahn

Teaching is Listening, Learning is Talking (S&C Editor's Note)

Updated: Aug 4, 2020

“Teaching is listening; learning is talking.”

        ~Deborah Meier, educational reform advocate

Let’s face it; preschool and elementary classrooms can be noisy. Yet in a productively noisy classroom, students can be sharing information, evaluating ideas, and expressing views with evidence. According to Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky's Thinking and Speaking (1934), thinking (consciousness) develops through speaking (words), and speaking develops through thinking. When we listen to student conversations, we have a window into their thinking and knowing what students think is essential in determining their needs as well as advancing them toward deeper understandings.



Classroom talk has changed over the last 200 years. In classrooms of the 1800s, students were readily punished for speaking during class, even if their discussions were on topic! Over time, teachers have realized the benefits of student talk yet often continued to use the same questioning strategies with an emphasis on too much teacher talk time. In such classrooms, students were not encouraged to share ideas with each other, and the focus was often on a preconceived “correct” answer.

More recently, teachers have been embracing the idea of student-led discussions through content-focused conversations. With increased student talk-time, teachers have been able to formatively assess, provide differentiation, and discover student misconceptions. Cultivating conversations requires the development of a consistent structure and practice with attention to developing discerning listeners: students and teachers alike.

According to Andrew Wilkinson (1965) "the ability to express oneself coherently and to communicate freely with others by word of mouth,” known as oracy, is an essential part of the development of proficient and competent readers and writers.

This month we take a look at cultivating classroom conversations by asking questions, constructing explanations, using visual thinking strategies, talk moves, and other strategies to encourage and promote student dialogue. Teachers are finding the more they allow students to share their thinking, explore their ideas, and critically listen to one another; the more they can synthesize new information, problem-solve collaboratively, and develop deeper understandings of key concepts. With conversations being supported and encouraged, student strengthened oracy is, in turn, promoting proficient literacy skills including reading and writing.

So, forget the “shhh!” and bring on the noise. With less time for teacher-led discussions, students will take the reins in all aspects of learning. Science, as a human endeavor, includes the requirement of sharing information, evaluating ideas, and expressing views with evidence. The science classroom may be the perfect place to incorporate essential conversation skills.

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