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Two Way Talk

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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In the case of freshmen there is no question that the most painfully difficult part of my own teaching is getting them to talk to me.


The posting below gives some valuable insights on how to encourage more dialog with your students. It is from Chapter 5, Teaching and Pedagogy, in THINKING ABOUT TEACHING AND LEARNING: Developing Habits of Learning with First Year College and University Students, by Robert Leamnson. Copyright 1999 Stylus Publishing LLC. Published in USA, Canada, Central and Latin America by: Stylus Publishing, LLC, 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, VA 20166, and, Published in the rest of the world by: Trentham Books Limited.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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General James A Garfield, speaking at Williams College in 1871, gave the classic example of an ideal learning situation. He said, "Give me a log hut, with only a simple bench, Mark Hopkins on one end and I on the other" (Higher 1996). We can safely assume that the General would not have sat like a lump listening to a wise man rambling on, None of us, given that opportunity, would have failed to make known our state of knowledge, or ignorance, or to ask questions, or to request amplification. Freshmen, however, would sooner die. Not many of them start out with the idea that their teachers in college have something valuable to offer them, and that they should go after it. Their modus operandi is to never attract attention to themselves, speak only when spoken to, and say as little as possible.

In the case of freshmen there is no question that the most painfully difficult part of my own teaching is getting them to talk to me. Getting one-word answers to trivia questions in not hard-they've been playing that game for years. Nor am I thinking of the garrulous extrovert who will inundate you with a flood of "like-y'know" word clusters. By talk I mean something that sounds literate, comes in sentences, and is germane to the topic at hand.

What has this to do with breaking down the barriers between school and reality? I believe literate conversation is effective in doing just that because it precludes students applying stock answers to stock questions-the essence of the game of school. When a student is required to talk about some topic of the course content for just twenty or thirty seconds, in clear English, an without a script, something desirable seems to happen. The sheer process of fusing personal, real language with school facts begins to chip away at the walls. Simply talking in an adult way about a real event has the effect of nudging that event out of the game world of school. The effect is very different from that of asking for lists of names or dates. In the later case you find out what the student knows, in the former you find out what he is thinking.

Student-teacher discourse is such an essential component of pedagogy that I believe it should be spent having students tell the world in clear English what they know, or think, about some topic, or even what they are sure they don't know about it. According to Hirsh: 'If?speaking and listening skills have been impoverished by growing up in a limited linguistic environment, no effort should be spared to enhance those foundational oral-aural skills as a prerequisite for further literacy skills" (1996). Getting students to talk is of the essence. Bringing it off, however, is a matter of the greatest delicacy.

For instance on a considered response, with at least two parts of speech, will not be taken by most freshmen in the heuristic sense it is intended. More likely it will be seen as university-sanctioned hazing and probably worthy of mention on their end-of-term evaluation reports. What we are about here is difficult because it involves learning in the sense of using new and untried synapses. Worse yet, it means not using some old and very hard-wired neuronal paths. Students are well practiced in the art of question-answer, as they understand it. For them the game is set questions having set answers, and they will resist your efforts to deviate from the rules.

The average time a teacher waits for a response to a question in the typical classroom is about one second (Rowe 1987). Teachers all estimate it much higher than that, but when measured, it is one second or so. Dead silence in the classroom seems to be unbearable. Most teachers will do something if no response comes within one second. And like Pavlov's dogs, students quickly learn that the embarrassment of ignorance can only last a second or so, after which the desired answer will be given or the spotlight will focus on someone else.

Mary Budd Rowe's extensive research on "wait times" suggests that waiting three seconds after asking for a student response produces a response more frequently than waiting one second or less. She also found that waiting another three seconds at the end of a student response encouraged elaboration, extending explanation, and contributions from other students (1987). My experience bears out the findings of these detailed studies, including the fact that being stone quiet for three seconds in both situations is decidedly difficult to do and demands discipline and practice.

The pedagogy suggested here is intended to establish new response patterns and discourage students' ingrained defensive responses. Except in cases of obvious emotional duress, I tend to not let a student off the hook until something intelligible has been said. At the beginning this might necessitate a great deal of coaching-a powerful and most useful technique. In the case of a student who seems incapable of saying anything about anything, the prompt, "Would you say that??" usually elicits a relieved, "Yeah!" At this point the student can be asked to paraphrase whatever it was that you suggested. If he makes a valiant attempt, don't spare the praise. There is no greater favor you can do beginning freshmen than convincing them that talking to the teacher in reasonably clear prose is a very good thing.

What I have just described might take several minutes of class time and would seem to involve only one student. There is a simple device that will keep the rest alert. When talking to one student, put as much space between that student and yourself as the room will allow. This forces the two of you to speak to the class as an audience. The audience will pay much closer attention to these interchanges than if you were standing near the person talking or being coached. Also, putting physical distance between yourself and the student makes the whole thing seem less personal.

Dialogue with individual students eats up time, and some teachers don't make use of it for that reason. But it is not necessary to talk with a great number of students to have the desired effect. Calling for responses from just three students a day will take only five or six minutes or so at the beginning of each period. It's a painful and difficult process at first and it takes real resolve to keep at it day after day. But the effects can be quite remarkable. My experience has been that those students not in the limelight pay closer attention to what's going on than if I were lecturing. "That might have been me" is going through a lot of heads, and if the teacher is diligent, they all know that tomorrow, or the next minute, they might indeed be the center of attention. That prospect tends to focus the mind.

An alternative to asking direct questions is to start a class period by asking a student to review briefly the important ideas from the previous period. "Tell me something true and interesting that was discussed last period." Students will always try to divert your attention with some well-rehearsed response, "What?" Or "Would you repeat the question?" or "I don't know" and so on. But by sticking with one student, and by encouraging, coaching, having her start over, and then by praising a final coherent sentence, I signal to everyone that I'm not playing the game-at least not the one they are familiar with.

As noted, the rest of the group seems to pay close attention to these exchanges. Usually the third or forth person called on has caught on and is willing to do whatever it takes to minimize this badgering, even if that means speaking standard English. If a teacher has the stamina to keep at it, three students a day, every day, something quite unusual will happen. A lot of students will start coming to class "prepared." Once it is clear that a few well-chosen sentences on the topic is all that it takes, many, and in some cases most, prefer to come in ready to talk. Still, coaching their speech may be necessary for some time. According to Healy (1990): "They often remain silent because they can't get their curiosity into words."

In talking about pedagogy I have intentionally started with a device that is probably the most stressful for student and teacher alike. I do so for two reasons. It exemplifies, first, that real learning, being the use of not-yet-stabilized synapses, is intrinsically taxing. It cannot be made quick, and fun, and easy. Secondly, adult conversation is one of the most effective ways to force the struggle with language, a goal I consider primary. Eliciting coherent speech, as well as writing, will figure largely in most aspects of effective teaching.