I’m back from vacation. That means goodbye for now to swimming in the river with my kids and falling asleep to the plurp of tree frogs at night, but it means hello again to video meetings with the team at Taxonomy Towers, so there’s that.
Today we watched video of several teachers including North Star High School’s Mike Taubman. The topic we were investigating was the “Turn and Talk,” an oft used tool of teachers the world over but one that is often used sub-optimally—that is without the efficiency and rigor it might have. So our question was: how do the most successful teachers use the “Turn and Talk”? I had two insights from watching this clip of Mike. (Thanks to Relay GSE for the footage.)
The first is that the key challenge to Turn and Talks is to not make them exercises in low hanging fruit, where students are dispatched to talk on their own only to discuss the most obvious of available ideas in the least rigorous way… or, worse, to discuss the latest episode of whatever it is they watch on TV. The second is to make them rigorous by making them the starting point instead of the ending point of your processing of an idea. That is, in my opinion, they are usually more useful as an exercise in “pump priming”- getting things started by helping your students generate some ideas and bat them around, engaging in the topic with some energy and enthusiasm, and having everyone do that. But then you follow up by processing those initial thoughts—by having students share and improve and track and prioritize the contents of their collective “pair” discussions and perhaps even end by writing about the idea in a more informed manner than they started off. Turn and talks, at least in my experience as an obsessive observer of classrooms, lead somewhere and are not sufficient as a stand-alone or a capstone.
Mike does that in today’s clip by having students share out their ideas and complete a set of “Cornell Notes” led by a student but tracked by all of them and including the ideas discussed by a wide array of classmates. He chooses this approach because he’s doing what I’d describe as Meta-work—they’re watching him mark up a text and inferring from that how to mark up texts generally. If they were doing more content-based work, I might expect to see Mike do something more rigorous as the follow up like having them craft a sentence describing what the article seemed to be about at first but what further reading revealed it to really be about. But of course the tools suit the purpose of the lesson so I like what mike does here.
As an aside I love the way he deputizes the student whose calling on folks to cold call to enhance the sense of accountability for discussions- make sure you talk about something of substance because anyone might get called on to share.
Either way the expectation here is that you take what you talked about in your Turn and Talk and develop it by listening and comparing to what others took from the discussion and by tracking a wide array of thoughts on the topic, not just your own.
Interestingly we watched another video this morning of another teacher doing a Turn and Talk that didn’t work as well, even though the content was potentialy more rigorous. The teacher was leading a lesson on the Earth’s rotation around the sun. The students looked a graphic showing that the Earth was closer to the Sun in January than in July. He asked them what I thought was a great question: “Why is that counter-intuitive? Given what we know about the Sun and its effect on weather, why is it surprising that we are closer to it in January than in July. Discuss with your partner. Go!”
The discussion was pretty animated and the teacher called on one student to answer at the end of the discussion. Her answer was decent- not great and not terrible, but he added a thought or two and went on to the next topic. It was pretty clear to me that 1) there was a lot more rigor to be extracted from the discussion that just what he got and 2) that there was no reason to suppose most students in the room had processed that more rigorous answer… or even her basic answer. So I was hoping he would add a bit of what we call “Art of the Sentence” (see more about that here) by saying something like: “OK, everyone take 90 seconds right now and capture what’s counterintuitive about the Sun’s proximity to the Earth in January in a single well-written complete sentence that starts with the phrase ‘Despite the fact that…’ Go!” This would have caused everybody to answer in a more rigorous manner using the ideas they discussed in Turn and Talk and that they heard in the broader class discussion.
Anyway, we’re working on a new workshop on boosting your Ratio—the proportion of the cognitive work done by the students—and Turn and Talks—and a bunch of other tools–will be a part of that. Watch this space for news.