Sunday / July 21

Keeping the Conversation Going in Science Class

This is what you’ve been waiting for. You spent hours–OK, if we are honest, days–planning the perfect lesson. It is fueled by an engaging phenomenon and you are quite sure that your students will not be able to contain their curiosity. You anticipate a fountain of conversation that will spill over and lead to shared observations, evidence-based arguments and insightful explanations. You sit back, wait and watch.

In the beginning, you are confident because you start to hear spurts of conversation here and there, a few spouts of curiosity bubbling over among your students. Then a short time later your confidence starts to drain away drop by drop. Sooner than you expected the promising conversations you just witnessed are gurgling towards a slow trickle. And then to your disappointment what follows next is a dampening silence. You think to yourself, wait what just happened here? How did that happen so quickly? What can I do?

If this scenario is familiar to you, you can take comfort in the fact that you are not alone. All of us have experienced times when our best laid plans go awry in our classrooms. In this instance we anticipated student talk to naturally lead toward shared learning goals only to find that student conversations veered off or were stalled and very difficult to get started again. However, discussing observations, describing data, making model revisions and arguing from evidence may feel unnatural for students because in the past they may have experienced limited scaffolds and missed opportunities to freely share and interject ideas, describe their thinking and actively listen to the ideas of others.

You can support students in navigating the twists and turns of conversations in ways that keep students talking and learning.

To create an environment where productive talk is expected, supported, and sustained requires practice on your part in developing talk moves.

Talk Moves

Talk moves are phrases you might say within a conversation to promote and scaffold student talk. Different talk moves serve different purposes for keeping the conversation focused and ongoing.

  1. Wait time: It may seem odd to have wait time featured as the first talk move. As we stated previously, students may not feel uncomfortable sharing and not everyone can respond on the spot. If we are to value and expect sensemaking conversations in the classroom we must provide time for students to examine their thinking. Pausing gives everyone the opportunity to prepare what they would like to say and how they want to voice their ideas. Wait time is something you have control over and can be used to support more thoughtful contributions from all of your students.
  2. Selecting and making public observations, thinking, and experiences: This moves honors prior experiences and brings initial ideas into the conversation. It is at this stage that you think about what ideas you want to select to surface for students and for what purpose. This is not about evaluating those ideas, but instead, it is about surfacing the views of the group and connecting them to each other.
  • What do you notice?
  • What do you think is happening here?
  • What experiences have you had that might be similar?
  1. Repeat, rephrase, and question for understanding: This move is one you would make to be ensure everyone has heard the idea and is clear about its meaning. This is not about evaluating the merit or correctness of the idea; instead, it is to help you and your students hear and understand the idea that was just made public. Asking students to rephrase is a way to ensure others in the class have a clear understanding of what was said even if the idea is incorrect. By doing this you are setting the stage for students to listen to each other’s ideas and opening up the opportunity for student cross-talk.
    • Who can repeat what ______said in their own words?
    • Can you rephrase what ______said in your own words and check with them to see if that was what they meant?
  1. Follow up on the initial ideas: There are times when you and your class need to know more about what a student is saying beyond what a simple rephrasing might supply. In this case, you are signaling to the students that you genuinely are interested in what they are saying and you and the class want to know more.
  • Can you tell me more about that?
  • Can you give an example of that?
  • What do you mean when you say_________?
  1. Reason with and apply the ideas of others: There are times when you will need to support students in reasoning further with an idea they offered or an idea another student shared. That may require asking for more information from the individual student or the whole group. This information may be needed to push student thinking in the following ways:
    • Ask for evidence or explanations:
  • What made you think that?
  • How did you arrive at that conclusion?
  • Ask for alternatives or what-if questions:
    • Does anyone have an alternative idea?
    • What might make the outcome different?
    • What if we…?
  • Ask for consistency:
    • What do these observations have in common?
    • Where have we seen this before?
  • Ask someone to add to an idea:
    • Who can add on to that idea?
    • Can anyone take that suggestion further?

Monitoring tool: Because you have so many things to attend to during a classroom period, a preplanned monitoring tool will help you keep track of each group’s progress. It is useful to fill out a simple chart like the one below so that you can highlight or note the number of times you hear ideas/questions or misconceptions.

Group Name Ideas to listen for Questions I am hearing Misconceptions to surface

With the talk moves described and the rubric provided that will aid you in on-the-spot thinking, you’ll find that students will eventually embrace the idea of sharing publicly with the class to support ongoing conversations.

Written by

Laura Shafer, PhD, is a Senior Program Officer and Academy Instructor for the Knowles Teacher Initiative. She taught high school Physics, Biology, Chemistry, and Integrated Science focusing on facilitating student engagement in the practices of science to develop disciplinary knowledge. She designed and implemented curriculum components for a graduate science education methods course for preservice teachers focused on supporting preservice teachers in developing and facilitating lessons in alignment with the Next Generation Science Standards. She provided supervision for pre-service teachers developing and implementing approaches for working individually and collaboratively with resident mentor teachers. She designed and facilitated professional development workshop series for K-12 educators, administrators and language resource personnel to support understanding and implementation of NGSS and integration of CCSS. She is a co-author of Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Secondary Science.

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