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Dean Larry Flick

Making Time for Students to Think Out Loud

October 21st, 2013

vanessa2The Common Core State Standards in Mathematics and the Next Generation Science Standards will place a greater premium on developing student capabilities for “talking science” or “talking math”.  Spending time in math or science classrooms suggests that this is a radical shift in how instruction is currently performed.

If we are able to accomplish this transition to a form of instruction that values and increases the amount of guided student talk that expresses developing ideas in mathematics and science, we will have gone a long way toward making the subject matter – matter in their lives.  And if we can do that, it is virtually certain we can improve student achievement.

Public and professional discussion about education is enamored by the influence of the Internet and the breathtaking capabilities new mobile technologies.  But spending a little time in current math and science classrooms reveals that most instruction fails to develop and utilize the single most powerful tool in support of learning – student language skills.  Students are not supported in nor asked to talk about subject matter beyond a word or phrase.  Often the word phrase used is directly from the text or an earlier statement by the teacher.

Researchers at Harvard examined literature on academic discussions. *  One summary of that work was stated as “Years of research have provided evidence that students who engage in academic discussions are more effective at group problem solving, show signs of improved reasoning skills, and experience higher levels of individual achievement” (pp. 1216-1217).  They went on to discuss the requirements of the Common Core State Standards in Language Arts but as noted above requirements in math and science are similar with respect to an emphasis on talk that applies the language of subject-matter.

Expressing yourself in complete sentences and in a connected argument is difficult.  It is perhaps one of the most demanding forms of cognitive activity, similar to writing.  Thinking out loud is also risky if you are in a group. But talking is also a social activity that links the talker to others and to what they know.  If everyone risks, the risks are lower.  Connecting the cognitive effort of learning to a social function has promising pedagogical value.  Consider the significant value in the informal banter with a friend or colleague when you are trying to learn something.  Teachers and teacher education faculty would do well to listen to recordings of their own meetings as they try to learn a new grading system or understand new standards.  There is a flow of talk from formal to informal.  People express frustration and fascination.  They grouse, grin, and generate good ideas.

Why aren’t we doing more of this in science and math classes?  Why don’t we ask students to explain how they worked a problem and why they did it that way?  Why don’t we ask students to explain how a concept in science is applied in a particular situation and why it makes sense – or not?  Developing these verbal skills has social implications for linking students together in learning.  With teacher support, students can learn to give critiques to other students based on how an explanation makes sense and why.  This is healthy discourse that supports learning.

Students hear a lot of terminology in science and math lessons but when do students employ that terminology.  Rarely.  Typically, students are allowed one–word responses to questions.  A function of math and science lessons does not seem to include student talk that links what is being learned to what students already know.  New learning requires context to make sense.  Processing an idea or a new word by talking about it is a way of building context.  Talking in coherent, connected sentences requires linking new knowledge to current knowledge.  Otherwise it is not possible to talk clearly, right?

Since 2003, Oregon’s students have dropped below the national average in math achievement.  Today, Oregon 4th and 8th graders rank 37 and 31, respectively, on the NAPE.  For students in poverty, the decrease has been worse.  Implementing the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSSM) offers both a significant opportunity and a serious challenge.**  If we meet the challenge of preparing current professionals and educate new teachers now for the kind of equitable and high-impact instruction required to make the CCSSM accessible to all students, then we will be in a position to raise student achievement and close achievement gaps.


*Elizabeth, Tracy, Trisha L. Ross Anderson, Elana H. Snow, and Robert L. Selman (2012). Academic Discussions: An Analysis of Instructional Discourse and an Argument for an Integrative Assessment Framework. American Educational Research Journal (46) 6, 1214–1250.

**CHANGE THE EQUATION (September 2012). Improving teaching and learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). www.Changetheequation.org

**Natasha Ushomirsky (2013). UNEVEN AT THE START: Differences in State Track Records Foreshadow Challenges and Opportunities for Common Core. Washington DC: The Education Trust.

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