How to Empower Every Student to Talk in Class—and Why It MattersBy Emma Lind Martinez
Students and teachers returning to face-to-face (or mask-to-mask) instruction are encountering a heightened set of challenges around classroom discussion. After a year-plus of learning at home or in varying degrees of isolation, academic discourse can feel unnatural.
Students talking in class might seem unremarkable. But it’s actually a critical factor in creating productive, equitable classrooms. High school educators know that most teenagers love to talk and have no shortage of things to say. When done well, structured class discussions can deepen learning for all students; but if not facilitated equitably, they can be exclusionary for students from nondominant backgrounds or without a strong sense of belonging in class.
What makes talk a tool for learning and equity?
In a productive academic discourse, students address each other rather than communicating through the teacher. By setting up goal-directed discussions about meaningful content, educators can help students transform their ideas into public resources for their classmates, advancing the whole group’s state of understanding. A lesson thus becomes a collective endeavor in building knowledge and deepening skills.
Classroom discourse provides students with authentic opportunities to process new content using methods from oral traditions. This sets them up to become independent, self-directed learners. At the same time, discourse builds and sustains a strong community of learners by making room for student voice and agency while centering class culture around communal talk and tasks.
While many of us think of class discussions as being strictly in the humanities realm, student discourse is just as powerful a tool for learning in math and science classrooms. Research backs this up: the authors of Ambitious Science Teaching found that in science classrooms, the most “powerful examples of learning” were characterized by verbal sense-making and “productive and equitable talk.”
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