Master Teaching

a blog for teachers who follow the Master Teacher

Who owns classroom conversations?

microphoneResearchers have made two observations (among others) about the way teachers communicate. We ask a lot of questions we already know the answers to, often in order to elicit right answers. Then, rather than replying genuinely, we evaluate students’ responses.

Box 1
We may communicate this way for good reasons: eliciting what students know or a particular word or form, etc. However, these two characteristics may, possibly without our awareness, support a “transmission model” of classroom interaction.[1] In this model, teachers, in the role of expert, transmit knowledge (right answers) to students, and more broadly, they also control classroom conversations—who can talk, when, and about what.

Let me use my own classroom conversations as an illustration of how this model can stifle ownership. I often ask questions I already know the answers to. Then, I evaluate students’ responses by reformulating them into the expected answers. In other words, I ask a question looking for a “right answer,” and then in order to make my point, I reword whatever part of the student’s response fits my agenda. This “tendency to rephrase and redeem students’ off-track answers sometimes does them a disservice by taking away their opportunity for ownership.[2]

If you find yourself stuck in a transmission model, here are three ways to encourage students to own classroom conversations.

1. A Constructivist Model of Classroom Interaction

Instead of using primarily a transmission model, we can encourage a “constructivist model of communication[3] in our classrooms. Asking questions in authentic conversations (with genuine interest in the answers), we elicit students’ experiences and ideas and lead them to use their thinking—in cooperation with us and their classmates—to figure out new information or construct understandings of what they are learning.

In a recent Teaching Methodology class where I was attempting to follow a constructivist model, our genuine conversation about teaching was enriched when students (pre-service teachers) shared their ideas and we constructed understandings together. Some of our co-constructions are listed in the box below and also in my notes for future reference.
Box 2
2. Break It Down

When learners give an incorrect answer or don’t understand, our tendency—for the sake of time or face, etc.—is to take ownership back from students and transmit the answer. Instead, we could “break it down [4] by asking a series of simpler questions that help learners build up to figuring out the problem autonomously. This strategy may work especially well with lower level students or factual information. An example is included in the box. Box 3
3. Catalytic Helping

Similar to break it down, “catalytic helping[5] may encourage learner ownership, especially when dealing with ideas and opinions. The point is to encourage our students to come to their own conclusions rather than imposing ours. Its “five core strategies”[6] are quoted in the box: Box 4
Asking more and better questions that help students come to their own conclusions is one good way to support learner ownership in classroom conversations. However, as a colleague pointed out, we don’t want our interactions to become an interrogation. Rather, we want to lean toward genuine communication.

[1] Thomas S. C. Farrell, Talking, Listening, and Teaching (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2009), 40.
[2] Melissa K. Smith, “Like a Content Course,” TESOL Theory and Praxis 3, no. 1 (2018): 4-21.
[3] Farrell, Talking, Listening, and Teaching.
[4] Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010).
[5] Jim Scrivener, Classroom Management Techniques (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 154.
[6] Scrivener, 155.

Further exploration

What’s your perspective?

We welcome your comments on any of the ideas in this post or in answer to the questions below.

  • Which are you more comfortable with in the classroom: a transmission or constructivist model of communication? Why?
  • Who has ownership of your classroom conversations? How well does that work
  • Which of the three techniques described in this post fits best into your teaching context?
  • Picture yourself as a student in the Master Teacher’s classroom. What do you think you might observe about His classroom conversations? When and how would He give His students ownership?

Try it out: Classroom Conversations Self-Observation

  1. Record a 30-45 minute period of class when you are interacting with students. Then, while you listen to or watch the recording, use the observation form to analyze your conversations: Classroom Conversations Self-Observation.
  2. Choose one of the techniques described in this post and try it out with the same students. Record a 30-45 minute period. Then while you listen or watch, fill out the self-observation form again.
  3. Share what you’ve learned with another teacher.

Post Author

Melissa K. Smith

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