Energy for Learning: Get Students Talking
One of the most energizing things we can do for our teaching is to connect (this was discussed at length in chapter 2). An arresting statement quoted there deserves to be revisited: “The interactions that take place between students and teachers and among students are more central to student success than any method for teaching literacy, or science or math” (Cummins, 1996. p. 1). If you aren’t a little taken aback by this claim, please read it again. Soak it up. Once it penetrates, you should feel a tremor in the foundation of your assumptions about teaching. Personal interactions are central to student success? Even studentto-student interactions? How? For several decades now, researchers and educators have studied, applied, and verified the perceptions of Lev Vygotsky, a respected Russian educator and psychologist. His most fundamental observation was that learning takes place largely through social interaction, especially when assistance from a more knowledgeable “other” (adult or peer) enables a child to exceed his present capacity and embrace new ideas and skills. In modeling a task, it’s natural for the knowledgeable other to talk through processes, respond to the learner’s questions, ask leading questions, encourage, hint, and generally collaborate until the learner firms up his grasp on how to perform the work. “The child seeks to understand the actions or instructions provided by the tutor (often the parent or teacher) then internalizes the information, using it to guide or regulate their own performance” (Mcleod, 2007). This is how most of us learned to ride a bike, write our name, and master thousands of other complex details we take for granted. Vygotsky found that every step of learning occurred on the social (interactive) level first before becoming internalized. In other words, as a learner becomes secure in a task, he naturally transitions from other-assistance to self-assistance. (More details about
Vygotsky and the co-construction of knowledge are explored in chapter 2.) “Vygotsky proposed that language and thought combine . . . ‘children solve practical tasks with the help of their speech as well as their eyes and hands.’ In focusing attention on the interaction between speech and the child’s social and cultural experiences, Vygotsky provides us with a model of learning which emphasizes the role of talk and places social discourse at the center” (Corden, 2000, p. 8). A model of learning that emphasizes student talk requires a model of teaching with the same priority. No one knows better than we teachers that student talk can be boisterous, unfocused, and hard to manage. So why do psychologists and researchers insist that talk is such an important vehicle for children’s learning? What kinds of student talk have proven productive? How can we be sure student talk is really promoting learning objectives? The answers to these very natural questions are persuasive and surprising, revealing a potential for the power of student talk that most of us never imagined. Why is talk so important to learning? Educators and researchers have spent entire careers on this question, but the bare-bones answer is very simple: thinking and talking are closely related functions-so closely related that if we want to encourage students to think, we need to allow them to talk. Consider these observations:
♦ “Language . . . is how we think. It’s how we process information and remember. . . . Talk is the representation of thinking” (Fisher, Frey, & Rothenberg, 2008, p. 5).