Coaching Tip of the Month…
The February 2020 ASCD SmartBrief, included an opinion piece by Natalie Wexler entitled, Why Teachers Need To Do More Than Have Kids ‘Turn and Talk.’ In this article, Ms. Wexler reports that students get “little or no benefit” from students working in pairs or groups. She thinks teachers have been “brainwashed” into thinking that the “turn and talk” strategy needs to be an integral part of their pedagogical practice. She goes on to say that it’s possible to have engagement without learning. While I can’t disagree with that, I can disagree that when implemented with fidelity, planning, and practice, pairing and group work are very effective.
Yet, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget theorized that active engagement leads to learning.
A team of U.K. researchers gathered 71 studies of 7000 students. What did they learn? “Students tend to learn better by interacting with each other rather than wrestling with an assignment or a new topic on their own. But interacting with an adult one-to-one is even better than peer-to-peer interaction” (“The science of talking in class” The Hechinger Report). This study also found that students didn’t always learn more working in pairs or groups but that students with the strongest learning gains were in classrooms where their teachers gave clear instructions and expectations were transparent.
So, why are these findings important even if the studies were conducted in controlled laboratory environment?
Learning is social. No doubt about that. But, without accountable talk, learning is compromised. Asking students what they think about a topic prior to actually learning about the topic accesses prior knowledge which is a formative assessment for teachers. However, like anything else in education, partner or group work must be planned, prepared, and well-structured with “real time” student observations also time for everyone to reflect on how the learning accomplished the goals of the work. The other obvious thing is that the teacher must know which students complement each other to reinforce collaboration time and skills building.
One major goal of partner work is helping students understand the difference between cooperation and collaboration. Both are needed in schools, home, and the workplace. That’s reinforcing 21st century skills. When students are exposed to the expectations of partner or group work and tasked with effective activities, they are more likely to learn from each other. But, not without adult support. First, teachers need to understand how and why these structures are effective.
Instructional coaches are perfectly poised to help teachers understand how to prepare themselves and their students for effective partner or group work. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water because a teacher may not be experienced in effective student pairing or grouping or in ways to engage their students. Instructional coaches help teachers understand effective pairing, flexible learning groups, and how to implement effective instructional practices. On the other hand, working with students in pairs or groups is an effective way, but not the only way, to ensure learning takes place. Again, partner or group work does not supplant whole group instruction.
Coaches help teachers think about their practice before actual “real time” instruction. It is through the before, during, and after coaching interactions that coaches and teachers collaborate and reflect on the goals, instructional strategies, resources, assessments, and adjustments to talk about the impact on learning.
Turn and talk is an effective way to take the pulse. It’s helps clarify who needs help and who is on task. It’s a way to ensure that teachers talk for 10 minutes and turn for 2 minutes to continually assess their students’ level of engagement, interest, knowledge, and learning. This formula is not written in stone so some discussions will take longer. Whatever the time limit, teacher intervention is critical for the time to be used wisely. And, helping students connect their thinking by writing their thoughts encourages reading, writing, thinking, and listening. Isn’t that what we want all students to be able to do?
Tips to help teachers effectively use “turn and talk” and pair students:
- Identify if the “turn and talk” is to access prior knowledge or simple to have students self-select partners;
- Identify the goals for the activity before determining the pairs;
- Depending on the goals, decide if you want to partner by similar ability or high/low combination;
- Some activities lend themselves to random selection… know when to use that method;
- Understand that partnering to share thoughts does not replace content instruction.