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We Need More Academic Conversations

August 24, 2012 | Tags: books
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by Cathy Gassenheimer
What does Socrates have to do with 21st Century teaching and learning? A lot, according to education experts who claim that an important missing link in many classrooms is the presence of conversations that promote reflection, critical thinking and content understanding.
Gerald Graff (2003) points to the importance of what he calls “argumentative literacy” -- the ability of students to read, write, discuss, debate, and understand content in ways that not only deepen their knowledge, but boost critical thinking and analytical skills. Argumentative literacy also strengthens a student’s ability to see issues from multiple perspectives.
Mike Schmoker, author of several books including Results and Results Now, agrees and in an Educational Leadership article (April 2007) he referenced a study sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities which found argumentative literacy to be one of the most essential skill students need to succeed in college (Conley 2003). The study also found that many of the students who do not complete college leave because they encounter difficulties in thinking, reading, and writing argumentatively. (Conley, 2003)
Writing together, Schmoker and Graff produced this article on the topic, "More Argument, Fewer Standards," in 2011.
Where does the "Why?" go?
As I was thinking about this issue, I remembered my children when they were two and three years old. They were constantly asking questions and challenging me. I remember wishing more than once that I had a dollar for every time one of them asked “Why?”
So, what happens to children once they enter school? Could it be that the pendulum has swung too far in favor of high stakes assessments that rely on bubble-in-the-answer tests? Are too many teachers spending too much time talking and lecturing rather than listening and conversing with students?
I’ve was privileged to hear Alabama State Superintendent Tommy Bice speak twice earlier this summer -- and with great passion-- about the type of learning he hopes every Alabama student receives. He describes an engaging and innovative classroom and shows a photo of student sitting outside with a laptop to encourage educators to be open to new and exciting possibilities to engaging students. Clearly, argumentative literacy would be one of his top priorities.
Classroom talk that fosters deeper learning
So, what can we do to promote engaging and deep conversations in the classrooms? One of my favorite new books is Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings, by Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford (Stenhouse, 2011). The authors suggest 5 skills that teachers can use to focus and deepen academic conversations:
1) elaborate and clarify;
2) support ideas with examples;
3) build on or challenge a partner's ideas;
4) paraphrase; and
5) synthesize
They also advocate helping students become skillful question askers, an ability near and dear to my ABPC colleague Jackie Walsh, who has co-written several books on questioning. According to Zeirs and Crawford, “Questions linger, push, and energize thinking. They open up the mind rather than shut it down. Questions help students to be creative, hypothetical, empathetic, and humble—all of which are qualities that will help them later in life.” (p. 79)
The authors suggest to guide students as they become expert questioners, teachers help students use question stems, such as:

“What do you mean by…?”
“How does that connect to…?”
“Why is that important?”
“How can we apply this in the future?”
“What makes this relevant or not?”

You can read more of their ideas at Five Core Academic Conversation Skills and How to Start Academic Conversations.
Just like my children when they were young, asking good questions can make you smarter. So let me encourage you in joining me in “dusting off” our questioning skills. Who knows, next time, we might even smile when a child asks us "What?" or "How?" or “Why?"
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