What does the classroom of a great teacher look like and sound like? I imagine there are many answers to that question: from pin-drop silence, as students are abuzz with mental activity, to a symphony of talk, conducted with deft expertise. Many great teachers conduct their classroom with unconscious skill – a tacit knowledge sometimes even they cannot fully put their finger on. It pays to observe such teachers with acute attention.

To take the symphony analogy one chord further, a great teacher leads talk in their classroom so that each student is actively listening and involved, regardless of whether they actually make a verbal contribution. Such expertise takes hours and hours – thousands by all accounts – to accrue, but it can be unpicked and learnt. We need to foreground these essential elements of high quality classroom talk.

The most basic model of teacher talk is IRE: Initiation (by the teacher) Response (by the student) and Evaluation (by the teacher). This structure is a sound starting point to classroom talk, but it won’t meet the requirements of really great discussion and feedback. Here are some of the key instructional steps to help your students really hit the high notes:

Signpost significant points. Students will listen to others in the main, but it is human nature to tune out of talk every once in a while, no matter how interesting. Ensure that students don’t miss the important stuff. Give them incontrovertible signals about what contributions have most value. For example: ‘That is a really good idea James…how does it link…’

Challenge. Not every student will hit the mark with their response. It is important to create a culture where students understands that a mistake is an opportunity to learn, not something they should mask or that should inhibit their reaching for understanding. Indeed, identifying misunderstandings can be more important and more useful than students parroting an answer they think you want to hear. Frame it positively, but be clear in identifying flaws in student responses. For example: ‘I like how you have considered the problem from a logical perspective Helen, but I don’t think you can have understood the meaning of the passage. James, how could you challenge Helen’s answer?’

Probe. Students, bless ’em, are out for an easy life. When questioned in a whole class context they are looking to get in and out of the limelight – most commonly to avoid the potential embarrassment of getting something wrong. Still, we can’t let them wriggle off the hook that easily. If we pose a challenging open question, we should expect a developed response. We could scaffold that response with probing questions that nudge them to consider different perspectives, or look to synthesise different points. For example, ‘What opinions – I stress opinions – may the audience hold towards Hector?…Can you explain further how the audience may be critical…What would your personal response be towards the character of Hector?’

Model. Sometimes student responses fall down flat, or they lack the linguistic glue that makes them hold fast. We may then need to model a response to take the class talk forward. We may provide the linguistic glue – the crucial discourse markers that indicate a developed response, such as ‘firstly‘, ‘furthermore‘, ‘however‘. Sometimes a quick interjection of ‘however…‘ can prompt young James to develop his initial response further. Often, students need a more developed response, especially if the concept is particularly tricky. We can model this in our question. For example: ‘The passive verb in this sentence, “pale eyes were frosted with sun glare”, sees Steinbeck focus on the character as a weak victim. Helen, can you identify another sentence in the passive, explaining the effect created?’

Recast. Like the aforementioned ‘glue‘ in the modelling step, it is often important to clarify and recast a salient point made in the classroom talk. This may be scaffolded by the teacher, to get the student to restructure their point more clearly, for example: ‘James, so you are saying that Steinbeck wants to create empathy for all the characters…’ (The stress upon key words helps clarify exactly what needs recasting). Otherwise, the teacher may want to simply restate the response to hammer home its importance (sometimes with the added gloss of sophisticated terminology to enhance the talk still further).

Link contributions. Students rarely build seamlessly upon the points of one another. They need a clear structure to develop upon the ideas of one another. A favourite model of mine is ‘ABC feedback’. It is simple, but it can add a great deal of sophistication too classroom talk. It stands for ‘Agree with…’, B for ‘Build upon…’ and C for ‘Challenge…‘. Once this structure is part of the fabric of group talk then ideas, concepts and arguments can undergo the logical scrutiny that is required of really well developed group talk. It really is easy; for example, “James, Helen has stated her view of Hector, do you want to A, B or C?’

Recap. Ten minutes later. You have successfully orchestrated a chorus of interesting ideas, challenging counterpoints and more. Students have listened intently. Still – never assume the best bits have been assimilated into understanding. Students need the ideas of others to be synthesised into a clear, understandable sequence. Sometimes a student may be capable of such a synthesis, but most often it will require the expert language and insight of the conductor-teacher. For example: ‘It is clear that we have a lot of knowledge in terms of interpreting our central protagonist. Helen has given a great response that articulates…, whereas James… In your essay, you need to explore all of these perspectives, before…’

Clarify the core message. The end of any session of classroom talk is a time to praise contributions and to recap upon some of the more significant responses. It is of course crucial that you condense the core message of the discussion – ideally into something memorable. Proverbs – like ‘people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones‘ has an enduring value because it is concise, concrete and clear. We should aim for a core message that ideally has the clarity of a proverb. Repetition is key to understanding a new or tricky concept, so any chance to reiterate the core message should be taken. For example: ‘It’s clear from the responses you have all given that there are multiple interpretations of our protagonist Hector. The key interpretation of Hector is…’

Related posts:

This post on ‘Disciplined Discussion’ links to some excellent Doug Lemov posts and it hones it on structuring questions in a more precise manner – see here.

This post has a useful range of strategies for oral feedback – see here.

This post on inclusive questioning poses some simple, but useful tips for asking questions effectively to elicit good feedback – see here.