Beyond the notion that it’s nice for students to chat, or ‘do oracy,’ is there any real merit in getting them to talk to each other during lessons?

Recently on Twitter, Barry Smith got in touch to go over all the things he sees that regularly go wrong with ‘turn & talk’:

  • Kids don’t know a lot & simply aren’t able to articulate anything meaningful in the time given.
  • Kids slow to start. Don’t have the words.
  • Kids given very short time to express ideas.
  • One child will dominate. Others don’t participate.
  • Kids embarrassed
  • Then there’s issue of kids teaching one another incorrect info.

Whilst all of the above are real problems that I have also seen play out in lots of different classrooms, I’d like to suggest that they shouldn’t happen if you know why you’re using turn & talk.

Previously, I’ve written about the need to solve three distinct problems every lesson:

  1. How do I know if all students are paying attention?
  2. How do I know if all students are making sense of what I’m teaching?
  3. How do I know if all students are getting better that the things I want them to get better at?

Thinking about lessons in this way is, I think, something of a game changer. Instead of choosing to deploy a pedagogical technique for its own sake, teaching moves should be employed to helps us answer these three questions.

Sort of like this

If we were to map ‘turn & talk’ onto this grid we’d need to ask ourselves what problem it would solve. So, does getting students to talk to each other help us to know whether they’re all paying attention? No, not really. We can scan a room and get a rapid sense that all students are in engaged in talking but to find out whether they’re talking about the thing we want them to talk about requires listening in to each individual conversation. We could of course wait until after the talk phase and cold call students to see if they have great contributions but all this really reveals is whether a student was definitely not attending. It’s of little help in detecting whether those who are faster on their feet were actually on task. MWB routines and cold calling are better used as an efficient way to create a culture where students pay attention to you and each other.

Neither will turn & talk but much use in answering the question about students getting better at specific skills (unless you’re wanting them to practise turning to each other and talking, which would, I think, be weird.)

Where T&T comes into its own is in collecting data on whether students are making sense out of the content they’re encountering. Typically, when teaching I’ll go through process like this:

Incorporating turn and talk into this sort of process not only provides an essential opportunity for students to test out new understandings and articulate how new ideas fit within their existing view of the world, but also mitigates against most if not all of Barry’s concerns about bad T&T.

  • Although they may not know a lot, the process is so tightly focussed that they only have to think about how new knowledge connects to existing knowledge.
  • Vocabulary is provided and modelled to ensure students get off to a quick, purposeful start
  • Because focus is deliberately narrow (a 1 sentence response to a prompt) there is enough time for both students to express their understanding
  • Because students are explicitly asked to share what they’ve heard, it’s hard for 1 student to dominate
  • Embarrassment is a function of unfamiliarity. If this kind of routine is regularly built into teaching sequences it quickly becomes normalised.
  • Part of the point of T&T should be to identify & intercept misconceptions. (Not doing this doesn’t get rid of misconception it just makes them harder to spot!)

I don’t want to claim there’s anything clever, original or special in any of this: quite the reverse. Effective, engaging teaching should be easy. My point is that T&T, like MWBs, is an important tool in a teacher’s arsenal that, if deployed to solve particular problems, is much more likely to be effective.