Academic Dialogue

Academic Dialogue isn’t the teacher asking questions and then calling on students one at a time.  Students need to publically communicate their ideas and work to help each other as well as respond to the teacher.

Creating a community of learners is the key to rigorous academic dialogue.  Students have to feel success when responding to questions, defending their answers and encouraging each other to reach their potential.  This doesn’t happen overnight but the following is some of the steps I completed to reach this goal.

I used cards to call on students.  This placed everyone in the room on alert.  No one knew when they would be called on and from the beginning I practiced the principle that what everyone said was important.  Every fourth or fifth question I would ask if the student agreed with the previous answer and why.  This process should never be used as a ‘gotcha’ to catch students unprepared or off task.  Many students will be nervous and the teacher needs to be aware and work to make the situation a positive experience for each student.  Giving the students enough time to respond, having other students help them out and elaborating on accepted limited responses will set the tone, allowing them to relax and learn from each other.   Questioning should be an outgrowth of specific objectives.  Know why you are asking.  Plan your questions to ensure that students have understood your objective.  This is your formative assessment process.  Asking students to restate and support ideas will help them to fully understand the meaning of their answers and begin to formulate evidence to back up their intuition.

Using a Fish Bowl process students begin to understand the importance of communication and are able to demonstrate their understanding of topics through guided conversation.  This introduces skills needed for the Socratic seminar.  For what evidence would I be looking? One, all students will be able participate in meaningful conversation on assigned topics.  Two, all students will be able to reflect on the process and indicate through analysis of their own and other classmates work their understanding of chosen topics.

I started the process with spontaneous problems from Odessey of the Mind.  Using objects of any kind (an odd shaped piece of drift wood, a stapler, geometric shape, etc.), students are asked to imagine what they could be (a home for a family of ants, a paper weight, a piece of art work in a hamster cage).  Volunteers (4-6) are asked to come to a central location. The rest of the class needs to be able to see what is happening at the central location. They are asked to observe an object for one minute and then to respond verbally with what the object could be or what it might be used for within a given time limit (usually 3-5 minutes).  Students are not allowed to pass or skip their turn.  If a student is stuck the entire team is stuck.  Student responses are scored as either common or creative.  This is the judge’s (usually the teacher) decision and that decision is final.

The rest of the students are seated around the volunteers and they are given the instructions to be a WALL.  Walls can SEE, HEAR and in this case WRITE, but they cannot MOVE or TALK.  The outside students are asked to score the responses as they hear them for later discussion.

After the first time, all students wanted to participate, but eventually someone gets stuck and can’t think of anything to say.  This is difficult for all of the students, particularly the one that is stuck with no response.  As the facilitator I have to be very aware of the students’ frustration level and I have to stop the process as soon as everyone sees how it works.  The best of all worlds is to let the silence drag on until the student can think of a response of some kind,  let one or two more respond and then stop the process and discuss what happened.  Points that need to be made:

This happens to everyone.

How do we prepare for the inevitable?

We are all in this together, how do we help each other?

Creativity can be learned.

I do have to share that my students never tired of spontaneous problems.  I used them as a class treat when we finished activities more quickly than expected or a when a reward was needed.

After the understanding of the spontaneous process is understood we can move into conversations around specific topics.  Students are given guiding questions around the topic(s) to enhance the conversation.

Examples:

All students have researched a planet or other solar body (The Solar System is the topic).  Students are placed in groups (4-6) dependent upon their selection.  Example – Mercury, Venus, Mars and Earth are in the same group because they are the inner planets.

One student begins in the center or on the hot seat and the other students are behind the center student as part of the outer circle.  As conversation begins the students tap in and out of the hot seat as they have points to make about their specific topic in response to the guiding questions.

There are many other possible ways to develop student understanding through this strategy.  The group in the hot seats could have all studied the same topic and the outer students are evaluating their responses.  Students might work in pairs on a topic, with 4-6 pairs in the center each pair is tapping in and out of the hot seat with the rest of the class evaluating their responses.

Students are asked to reflect on the process and to evaluate their work in comparison to other students.  Students can also evaluate the responses given by the other students.  A rubric should be developed for this specific purpose.

Use this strategy for book clubs / discussion groups of 3-5 students reading the same book or information.  Start with fiction if needed but science social dilemmas such as stem cell research, cloning, hazards of smoking, etc. can work as well.  This can become Socratic seminars guided by the teacher or the decisions on what to discuss can be determined by the students and approved by the teacher with the student facilitator changing each meeting.

Academic dialogue is a rewarding experience for everyone, teacher and student.  I hope you will try to develop this skill in your students and that you will share with me what is working and what isn’t.  I always want to improve the process and can’t wait to hear from you.

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