What Makes Great Conversation?

When was the last time you were involved in a quality conversation? What characteristics distinguished it from other conversations you have had?

We have all been part of company that lost our attention because the conversation was very one-sided. An exchange that leaves us in the receiving role with no opportunity for engagement in a topic or question leaves us feeling bored and possibly empty and dissatisfied. On the other hand, the really good conversationalists in our life know how to bring an open space to talk, allowing for a reciprocal sharing of a compelling idea or question and for a potential new understanding to emerge. Great conversationalists have a genuine interest in what others have to say.


Engaging students in rigorous discussions changes the balance of authority in the class, empowering them to think for themselves.

We are social creatures and our brains thrive on the kind of interactions that leave us feeling we were part of creating something new. The creation might be in the form of an understanding or an idea, or it might be something more concrete like a plan or a possible solution. These kinds of conversations can be academically termed “dialogic” whereas closed conversations in which one person conveys information to another are called monologic.

It is no secret that teaching has traditionally represented mostly monologic dialogue, either in the form of lecture or teachers asking all of the questioandquestions in which there are single answers or answers which are already known. As Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst explain in their book, Notice and Note, monologic dialog means teachers act as the experts who deliver content and ask most of the questions. In this model, students passively receive information and look to the authority, the teacher, to know whether their answers are correct.

Dialogic discussion, on the other hand, makes speakers and listeners of everyone, opening up the possibility of co-constructed learning, with teachers as facilitators. Beers and Probst, like most literacy experts, advocate for less monologic and more dialogic interaction in classrooms, creating the type of authentic engagement that instills confidence in students by making them an integral part of the learning. Inside this type of learning climate, students do not have to look solely at teachers to know if their answers are correct; they are taught that they can discern the answers, both individually and with peers, by looking at evidence, facts, and by doing their own investigations.

An environment which supports student questioning and discussion has an underpinning of rigor.

An environment which supports student questioning and discussion has an underpinning of rigor.

A significant shift for teachers who want better conversations in their classrooms is that they must give up the sage on the stage mindset and embrace the thinking of their students on a level that conveys mutual respect. Teachers need adequate training, time, and reflection in order to make this shift in meaningful and appropriate ways.

While speaking and listening standards in ELA are not new, there seems to finally be a wider acceptance now that they are an integral part of any content learning. But the shift is not an easy one for teachers to make because more student talk does not necessarily mean that the discussion is rigorous. The following three concepts will help teachers consider the best strategies for student discourse:

1)     Select strategies for student discourse that will serve the purpose of the learning. Having students talk or work in groups just for the sake of doing so does not bring intentionality to the lesson. Know which strategies will work in the context of the learning.

2)     Teach students what quality discourse looks like and sounds like, then engage them in debriefing the discussion process as well as the other learning taking place. Students must know that how they interact is an integral part of the content of the conversation.

3)     Value students’ questions and make them a prominent part of your instruction. An interesting professional development idea would be to track how questions are used in a semester, noting whether a teacher’s instruction is helping or hindering student inquiry in this way.

The three concepts mentioned above would work well for principals to follow in faculty meetings and other adult learning opportunities as well. If a principal wants an active student discourse culture in the classroom, then helping the adult discourse culture grow is the first step.

If you have used effective discussion strategies that produced rigorous results, please share them in the comments space below. We would love to hear how both teachers and principals are changing their culture through dialogic strategies.

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