Do you ever stop to consider how meaningful your communication is or think about what we say, and why it matters?
Today on the Heinemann Podcast, we’re joined by author Maria Nichols. In her new book “Building Bigger Ideas: A Process for Teaching Purposeful Talk,” Maria drives home the growing importance of purposeful, face-to-face communication. Maria writes that “talk has a purpose – and that purpose is to tackle the unknown… to strategize, to innovate, to problem solve, to construct understanding…”
Our conversation began with this question: How is purposeful talk different from normal talk?
Below is a full transcript of this episode.
Maria: We know how to talk, and our children come to school knowing how to engage in all kinds of talk also. They're adept at chit-chatting. They know how to tell us things. They can often easily communicate as a one-way, a monologic process. We know how to talk to get normal, everyday processes taken care of, things like taking care of lunch, figuring out dinner. But the question becomes, how do we think and talk together when we're taking on complexity? When there's a challenge in front of us, when we have to figure something out, when we need to innovate. It's a very different kind of talk. And this is a kind of talk that we actually need to teach into.
It's very different in that, first of all, the intent is to construct. It is to think and talk together in such a way that was actually come up with ideas that are bigger and bolder than we can figure out in a single mind alone. In order to do that, we have to actually, not just honor perspectives but actually value different perspectives enough to purposefully draw from those perspectives, recognizing that what we construct will be exponentially better because that added perspective adds so much to the innovative process. And then recognizing that this kind of constructing together truly takes, not only expanded amounts of time because big ideas don't come quickly, but expanded space in that the conversations may begin in one context but we carry those conversations with us out into other contexts and then come back to the original conversation and continue to construct.
Brett: Why is it so important that we have children do that together, have that purposeful talk to one another?
Maria: It's critical. I mean, first of all, if we truly believe that learning is a social constructivist process, then teaching them how to think and talk in these ways to construct together leads to learning that's far deeper and far more lasting. Children actually come to own their learning. They own what they're constructing, as opposed to just absorbing information and giving it back to us.
Two, if we think about the world we're preparing our children for, you know we used to say the world of the future, but the reality is, it's happening right now. We need to think about the reality for children in terms of the world of work. The innovation economy requires people who know how to think and talk together in ways that innovate. If we think about research fields, we think about what it is to live in a participatory democracy. To contribute at a local and a global level, we need children who are learning to think and talk together in these kinds of constructive ways so that they can live in the kinds of societies that we want for them.
Brett: You write about a shift from answers to ideas. What do you mean by that and why is that so important?
Maria: This is critical to developing that understanding of talk, in terms of constructive intent. If children are talking just to answer questions, what we're doing, first of all, is falling into a pattern of schooling that's existed since we were children in school and well before. It's that old IRE pattern. The I being interrogate, the teacher asks a question. R being response, they go through a process of calling on children. "No, no, no, not quite, that's it." And that's that evaluative process, the E. Once the answer is given, there's nothing left to talk about. The answer is the answer. What doesn't happen then, is there's no space for different interpretations, for different ways of thinking, for those perspectives to enter the arena and children don't have a sense to begin to engage in that exploratory talk, that tentative talk where they begin to figure things out together, simply because they're searching inside of themselves for an answer, as opposed to engaging to construct.
Brett: Well and I would think that that thinking through something also means stronger retention. They'll hang onto the memory of it more than just delivering.
Maria: Absolutely. One of the questions we always have to ask ourselves as we think about our classroom's environment is, "Who owns the learning in this space?" If children are simply answering questions, they're being compliant. But if they are constructing together, they are constructing understandings that are unique to that group of individuals and they are constructing in ways that make sense, that are real and relevant and meaningful to them, so that's lasting.
Brett: You also write about something called dialogic space. What is that and how does that support purposeful talk?
Maria: Dialogic space, or the notion of dialogic space is a beautiful metaphor coined by Rupert Wegerif. And what he's getting at is that very intense engagement, that sense of immersion into the constructive idea that happens when children are really captivated by the ideas they're constructing together. When they get so immersed in their conversations that they lose sense of time, they lose sense of what's happening around them.
I use the example of a second grader, Lawrence, in Building Bigger Ideas at a read aloud of just a gorgeous picture book, A Kitten Called Moonlight, that we had read together as a class and I was working with the children. I had wrapped up the conversation, I thought. But as I was preparing to get the children off to reading workshop, I see a little hand waving me off and I look over at Lawrence and he leans in and he says, "Why did they tell it again?" And what he was referring to was an understanding the children were trying to build of a story-telling process that two characters in the text were engaged with. He was still living in the space of constructing those ideas and wasn't able to pull himself out of it, and so engaged, so intent on that constructive process, that he was willing to halt the whole transfer over to workshop because he needed to stay in that space and keep constructing.
And the beauty of that moment is the rest of the class dove right back in with him. And that's really part of the beauty of constructing together, coming back to that notion of owning the learning. That constructive process was very real, very relevant, and very meaningful to him. I think when we think about the notion of dialogic space, we need to think about the kinds of communities that children are living in, their learning community. In order for children to construct with that kind of intensity together, they need to ... I was going to say we need to have created, but we don't create it, the children need to have created a space where they can live as learners that honors every voice, that honors what individuals bring to the process, and truly honors their constructive potential together.
Brett: And that really builds community among learners at such a young age.
Maria: Yes, it's incredible. I always say, communities that think and talk together develop stronger communities. There's just a reciprocity between the talk and the community. As you think and talk together, you get to know each other in ways that aren't possible when children sit quietly and answer questions. And as they get to know each other, they're more willing to bring their lived experiences into the constructive process and so the perspectives become richer, they're able to draw better from what each child brings to the table, and truly construct in unique ways.
Brett: And I imagine that also invites the child to be more excited about school, excited about class and to be more engaged.
Maria: They know they're honored in that space, they know they're listened to in that space, and I think that right there is incredibly powerful.
Brett: You mentioned something a minute ago that I'd like to come back to, you said that the way students are talking leads them to building bigger ideas. Why is that that leading to building bigger ideas matter?
Maria: First of all, just thinking about what comprehension is, if we're talking within the realm of literacy, although this isn't just about literacy, it's about deep understandings in science and mathematics. The more that we think and talk together, the more we unfold layers or construct layers of meaning and get to incredible depths in text that wouldn't be possible if we were having conversations that skimmed over the surface, that answered a few quick questions, close the book and move on. That notion of lingering inside of a text and thinking and talking our ways to deeper layers of understanding is critical.
Brett: Can you explain a little bit about, you write about the cycle of focus, facilitation and feedback as a part of the process. Can you explain a little bit about that?
Maria: Yeah, as we work to build classrooms where children and think and talk together, I think there's two foundational fears and they're related to each other. The first fear that we tend to have as teachers is that children won't talk and we won't know what to do. The other fear is that they will talk and we won't know what to do. And so we need to think about, first of all, shifting ourselves out of that space of asking questions and expecting children to answer the questions, into the space of actually teaching children about talk and through talk, but that is incredibly dynamic and messy. And what we tend to do when teaching is dynamic and messy is rely on protocols, but protocols tend to give us one right, rigid way of doing things that doesn't allow for the dynamic beauty of talk to emerge.
So the focus, facilitate and feedback cycles give us a predictable way of teaching into something that's dynamic and messy. And in order to think about the cycles of focus, facilitate and feedback, we need to first think about how we teach children about talk. What is it we're teaching? What we're really teaching children about is talk behavior and this is something I talked a little bit about in Comprehension Through Conversation, the realization that we need to help children recognize that we need to hear all voices, that what they are doing is actually growing ideas together, and that we can actually, as we begin to grow multiple ideas, begin to negotiate among those ideas.
So as we think about how those talk behaviors break down, anytime we think and talk together, we need to first teach children, or focus them on some aspect of their talk behavior. When we think about focusing children, what we are not doing is working on a single talk behavior in isolation. We're simply helping children to be more mindful of their talk behavior, to remind them of aspects of the talk behavior that we want to think a little more about, encourage a little more. And then as children begin to talk, we begin to facilitate. Which is encouraging them to bring their fullest selves to the conversation and to engage to the fullest potential.
So when we think about facilitation, first of all, it's invitational. We are attending to children, inviting voices into the conversation. Watching facial expressions to help us realize when there's a thought that we might draw into the conversation. It is responsive. We're not firing off a hit list of questions. We're actually listening to where children are going in their talk and nudging more out of them. It is agentive. Peter Johnston reminds us that the word choices we use create identities in our children, so we are staying away from things such as, "Who can tell me," which positions us as authoritative and puts children in the place of answering to please us. Asking questions instead, such as, "What are you thinking?", which positions children as capable, thoughtful beings who can take this work on. And then of course facilitation is always meaning driven. We are lifting where we need to lift, nudging where we need to nudge, asking questions that extend the meaning making.
And then as we wrap up conversations, we want to make sure that we offer children feedback. Dewey reminds us that we don't learn from doing, we learn from reflecting on the doing. So what we want to offer children is what Peter Johnston again terms causal process feedback, which is essentially, you did this and this happened. So we connect the doing and the result of that doing. When we're in the arena of giving feedback on talk, it's this was your talk behavior and this is what happened because of it. That then helps children to be aware of their process and when they're aware of that process, they then can do it again. So through that process of focus, facilitate and feedback, we're actually teaching on two different levels. We're moving the meaning making and lifting the talk behavior in the moment, but we're also helping children to internalize the behaviors that they need to think and talk without us, which is really our ultimate goal.
Brett: How would you recommend to teachers that they get started in this work?
Maria: I think first and foremost, it's working on community, developing a community of kids who live together beautifully in a crowded space, which is really what a classroom is. We think about things such as the unique personalities coming together, the kinds of routines and rituals they build together, the language that we use together, the little sayings that we begin to develop, all of those things that say, "We belong here. We share this space. We share this way of being."
The next step is all about compelling text. Finding those texts that resonate with your kids, that are real and relevant. The kinds of books that kids can't not talk about. It's very challenging, even with children who have developed depth with talk behavior to think and talk about texts that just don't resonate. There's nothing there to talk about. And then really to begin that process of the focusing on them on some aspect of talk behavior and just beginning to facilitate.
A lot of the work that I'm doing right now is in the field of STEAM teaching and learning. And in that arena we talk a good deal about the HACK mindset. And the HACK mindset is all about taking tiny iterative steps towards a complex goal. It's all about starting small. So when you think about getting that talk work launched, take just one tiny goal. Your goal might be to figure out the kind of books that resonate with your kids that they can't stop talking about. Your goal might be just to work on hearing all voices. Trying a few facilitative moves. Trying out a little bit of feedback. And just give it a go. Watch, listen, lean in, notice what's happening with your children. Celebrate the dynamic complexity, revel in the fact that you've got real human beings in front of you doing incredible things. Step back afterwards, give yourself a little reflective time. Rethink for the next day and dive right in and try again.
One of the things that I constantly revel in, as this work takes hold in the classroom, is the way the classrooms come alive, the children come alive. They become very unique individually and collectively. There's a bond that's created through this work that you just don't find in classrooms where children sit quietly.
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Maria Nichols is a literacy consultant and Director of School Innovation for the San Diego Unified School District. A former elementary classroom teacher, Nichols received the Distinguished Elementary Educator Award from the San Diego chapter of Phi Delta Kappa, 2002.
Maria is the author of Comprehension Through Conversation andBuilding Bigger Ideas.
You can follow Maria on Twitter @marianichols45