Classrooms can be places where students learn to talk with and listen to others, skills that have become increasingly important at a time when there are concerns about the lack of civil discourse in our country. We are seeing a renewed interest in classroom discussion because of its value both for student learning and for democracy. The Common Core State Standards, for example, encourage students to “propel conversations by posing and responding to questions . . . [to] actively incorporate others into the discussion; and clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions” (NGA & CCSSO, 2010). Unfortunately, though, some of the very teaching practices designed to encourage student voice are not fostering the kind of critical talking and listening essential to empowering discourse.
In my own observations of high school English classes that feature “academic discussion,” I often see more of a focus on being academic than on having an actual discussion. Teachers put so much emphasis on the format and style of academic talk that students never actually get a chance to engage in a genuine exchange of ideas. Students may speak a lot, and they may frame their thoughts in the ways that the teacher has required, using sentences that start with “To summarize what’s been said so far . . .” or “To build on what Elvia said . . .” But within a few minutes I feel like I’m watching a familiar sitcom in which every line is scripted and rehearsed. I already know where these conversations are going, and I am very rarely surprised by what I hear.
My concern with such classroom talk is not just pedagogical but democratic as well. If we want students to believe words matter, not just in schools but in life, we should avoid faux conversations in which they simply go through the motions, parroting the sorts of words and phrases that their teachers want them to use. Instead, we need to create environments that teem with energy, where students wrestle with ideas that truly mean something to them.
I was observing a class several months ago when — in the middle of a perfectly competent academic discussion — I heard something that suggests the kind of intellectual work that I’m after: “Hmm . . . ,” a student said, making the sound that people make when they’re genuinely intrigued by an idea and need to ponder it for a moment. (Recently, for example, when I learned that the word “cliché” comes from the sound old copying machines used to make, I found myself saying, “Hmm . . .” as I let this bit of information sink in.) That’s a worthy goal for classroom conversations, I realized. We should privilege and aim for the hmm . . ., that moment when students hear something that makes them pause and look at the world in a new way. It’s not enough to help them develop a competent academic voice. We should also teach them to use words powerfully, in ways that matter to themselves and their peers.
Formal classroom discussions
The more students talk in class about academic content, the better their opportunities to learn, to contribute to each other’s learning, and to be engaged in the intellectual substance of the curriculum. However, we can’t take for granted that just because students have chances to talk, their words will be important or compelling. More conversation isn’t necessarily better conversation (Nystrand & Gamoran, 1991). Formal discussions can easily become just another means of “doing school,” (Pope, 2001) or going through the motions to please the teacher.
By “formal discussions,” I’m referring to the kind of planned, structured talk that goes by names such as Socratic Seminars, Structured Academic Discussions, or Structured Academic Controversies, which aim to make literacy practices more transparent for students by pointing out specific conversational moves, sentence structures, and conventions for them to use. I don’t mean to downplay the value of these approaches. They draw from more than 40 years of research and practice in the field of writing composition, which gradually has moved away from what Romano (1987) calls the “due Friday” model of instruction, in which teachers give students an assignment and a due date and leave them to figure out the rest on their own. The work of scholars such as Applebee and Langer (1983), Bizzell (1986), Hillocks (1995), and many others has shown how important it is for teachers to provide explicit guidance to students throughout the writing process, particularly to students who have had limited exposure to academic kinds of speaking and writing (Delpit, 1988).
When we focus too narrowly on the desired form and structure of classroom discussions, we can inadvertently stifle the genuine exchange and exploration of ideas.
The current emphasis on structured academic discussions extends this approach from the teaching of writing to the teaching of communication more broadly, and it speaks to the growing recognition that many students can benefit from being shown explicitly how to engage productively in classroom talk. Often, they need preparation, guidance, and even formal rules for turn taking, listening, and the framing of comments. Otherwise — when teachers simply throw them into conversations, suddenly announcing, “Let’s talk about this” — things tend to go badly. A few students end up monopolizing the discussions, for example, or students talk over or past each other, or the teacher gives up and shifts back to lecture mode.
To be clear, I am not arguing against this kind of explicit, guided instruction in conversational norms and practices. I simply want to add a word of caution, pointing out that when we focus too narrowly on the desired form and structure of classroom discussions, we can inadvertently stifle the genuine exchange and exploration of ideas. It’s worth noting that the word discuss descends from a Latin term that meant to dash to pieces or break apart. And there’s something about that earlier meaning, suggesting tension and discord, that’s essential to good discussions. It is, I think, that urge to break things apart — to provoke a “Hmm, maybe I need to rethink this . . .” — that makes conversations come alive.
Discussion as cargo cult
Over the past two years, I’ve observed discussions in more than a dozen high school English classrooms in California, looking for evidence that students were engaged in the kind of intellectually substantive exchange of ideas long advocated by scholars such as Nystrand and Gamoran (1991). Specifically, I focused on what students were saying, what they were doing while other students spoke, and whether and how they followed up on or grappled with the ideas offered by their classmates. What I saw, over and over again, were teachers and students paying so much attention to the process of having a good discussion — taking turns, paraphrasing each other’s comments, listening actively, and so on — that they couldn’t actually have good discussions.
Many students need to be shown, explicitly, how to engage productively in classroom talk.
Strangely enough, I was reminded of the cargo cults I learned about in an anthropology class in college. Cargo cults emerged, mostly in the South Pacific, when island communities were first exposed to the modern transportation systems of the United States and Europe (Worsley, 1959; Read, 1958). According to some anthropologists (though others disagree with this interpretation of events), having learned of airplanes and large ships and the western goods they brought with them, some groups of Melanesians attempted to lure cargo to their islands with constructions that resembled runways, planes, docks, or warehouses but were in fact nonfunctioning replicas (e.g., airplanes made out of palm fronds or wood structures roughly shaped like air traffic control towers). Not surprisingly, such rituals failed to secure cargo. And since then, cargo cults have become synonymous with efforts to replicate something’s outward form while missing its fundamental essence (e.g., the effort to build a “plane” that has no engine, fuel, or mechanical system).
Similarly, in many classrooms, I’ve observed what seem outwardly to be competent academic discussions, with students taking turns, offering hypotheses, and using familiar talk moves, sentence frames, note-taking strategies, and nonverbal gestures meant to show interest. But the conversation has no spark, no sign that important ideas are truly being exchanged. The academic versions of runways, towers, and docks are on display, but the intellectual cargo never arrives. On closer inspection, there is none of what Mercer, Wegerif, and Dawes (1999) call exploratory talk, in which students chew on interesting ideas and engage “critically but constructively with each other’s ideas” (p. 97).
Listening for something beyond words
Some months ago, a parent told me about his daughter’s experience in a class where the teacher used the technique of Socratic Seminar. He had noticed that the night before each classroom discussion, she would become very nervous, dreading the next day at school. Why, I wondered, would an upcoming discussion provoke such anxiety? Why would his daughter be so nervous to enter a setting where interesting ideas are taken up, played with, discarded, and explored? Why was a structure that was intended to empower his daughter and make it easier for her to participate in classroom discussion, causing her to lose her voice rather than helping her develop it? I realized that discussions had, in some cases, become yet another tool for evaluation, an opportunity for students to try to perform within rigid parameters.
Then, one day, I saw a conversation go right. I was observing a discussion of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and at first it looked like the same old routine. Trying their best to use “academic” language, a few students commented on the color yellow and its importance as a symbol. A few others compared the characters of Tom and Gatsby. Everybody took care to “add on to” previous comments and to “invite” each other into the discussion. It was all a bit listless, but they were playing their parts, acting like capable students. And then, after fumbling a bit for words, a student asked a question about Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy: “Why are all these guys even fighting over her anyway? What makes her so desirable?”
That is when I heard it. A pause from the group, followed by at least one audible hmm. . .
Suddenly, the discussion began to have some life. The cargo had actually arrived. Other students had theories and hypotheses (which may or may not have been introduced with the sentence stem “I hypothesize. . . ” I didn’t notice because it didn’t matter). They were genuinely interested in their classmate’s question. They were engaged. They wanted to offer ideas about Daisy, about desire, about Gatsby, and about Tom. They were saying things I had not heard before in a conversation about The Great Gatsby, saying things that would not be in any online summary. They were breaking apart ideas and building new ones. In short, they had reached a moment of exploratory talk, which, I would argue, is one of the fundamental goals of academic discussion. And that brings me back to the sound.
That is when I heard it. A pause from the group, followed by at least one audible hmm … Suddenly, the discussion began to haave some life.
The power of hmm . . .
Hmm is a sound we make when confronted by an unexpected idea, something that makes us reconsider our assumptions. We can’t have lively discussions when we already know what’s likely to be said. Or, more precisely, while we can have such discussions (I can recall more than a few faculty meetings), nobody enjoys them or seeks them out.
If we believe that empowerment comes from supporting students’ agency and creativity, then we need to nurture the unexpected, encouraging them to shake things up (Beghetto, 2009). Often, the most provocative ideas come in the form of tentative, half-formed comments, offered by students who feel moved to speak up even though they’re not sure what words to use. Further, when students provoke such a reaction — whether a thoughtful pause or an audible “hmm . . .” — they get authentic feedback, showing them that their words and ideas matter, that they can have a powerful effect. They learn that the whole point of a discussion, whether academic or informal, is to share new and compelling ideas. And with luck, they’ll transfer this lesson to their lives outside school, becoming the sort of people who make it their habit to engage in lively conversations.
So far, though, in observing classroom discussions and reviewing discussion rubrics and lists of talk moves, I have seen little encouragement for students to provoke a “hmm . . .” from their peers. Again and again, the goal seems to be to get students to have competent discussions but not to move others to think differently or to break ideas apart and form new ones.
Not a silver bullet — just another arrow for the quiver
I do not mean to suggest that it is easy to foster dynamic academic discussions or that it is always a good idea to encourage students to offer provocative, half-formed ideas. I imagine that if I told my students that I value the “hmm . . .,” then they’d soon begin saying it all the time, treating it as just another empty gesture to perform for the teacher. But I do think it can be useful to pay close attention to the ways in which students react — viscerally, audibly, emotionally — to each other’s words and ideas in the classroom. And we should often remind ourselves what we are listening for, asking ourselves an essential question about the purpose of classroom talk: Precisely what are we trying to accomplish by inviting students to participate in discussions?
We may have several goals in mind for student talk — e.g., giving them access to academic language, making participation more equitable, teaching them how to synthesize and summarize — but let’s not forget that perhaps the most fundamental goal is to engage students in a real exchange of ideas, encouraging them to grapple with unexpected ideas and new ways of thinking.
In the English department, we ask students to interpret literature through various lenses; it’s a practice we should use when thinking about classroom discussions, too: We might see things one way when looking through the lens of democratic participation (Is everyone speaking?), another way looking through the lens of gender dynamics (Is a certain group dominating the discussion?) or academic language (Are students using proper forms and structures?). But we need to remind ourselves that nothing is more important than looking through the lens of student engagement if we want students to feel the power of words and appreciate the privilege and value of participating in meaningful conversation, both in school and in the rest of their lives.
Empowering student voices is not simply a matter of increasing the number of words they speak in the classroom or helping them master academic language and rhetorical moves. Real discussion is more than just a collection of gestures and forms. We should aspire to teach students to create conversational spaces where minds work together to test and break apart old ideas and to influence and shape new ones.
Applebee, A.N. & Langer, J.A. (1983). Instructional scaffolding: Reading and writing as natural language activities. Language Arts, 60 (2), 168-175.
Beghetto, R.A. (2009). In search of the unexpected: Finding creativity in the micromoments of the classroom. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 3 (1), 2-5.
Bizzell, P. (1986). Composing processes: An overview. In A.R. Petrosky & D. Bartholomae (Eds.), The teaching of writing. Chicago, IL: The National Society for the Study of Education.
Delpit, L. (1988). The silenced dialogue: Power and pedagogy in educating other people’s children. Harvard Educational Review, 58 (3), 280-299.
Hillocks, G. (1995). Teaching writing as reflective practice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Mercer, N., Wegerif, R., & Dawes, L. (1999). Children’s talk and the development of reasoning in the classroom. British Educational Research Journal, 25 (1), 95-111.
National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA) & Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). (2010). Common core state standards for English language arts and literacy (section SL.9-10.1.C). Washington, DC: NGA & CCSSO.
Nystrand, M. & Gamoran, A. (1991). Instructional discourse, student engagement, and literature achievement. Research in the Teaching of English, 261-290.
Pope, D. (2001). Doing school. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Read, K.E. (1958). A ‘cargo’ situation in the Markham Valley, New Guinea. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 14 (3), 1958.
Romano, T. (1987). Clearing the way: Working with teenage writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Worsley, P.M. (1959). Cargo cults. Scientific American, 200, 117-130.
Originally published in February 2018 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (5), 56-60. © 2018 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.