Collaborative conversations vehicle for building knowledge

Imagine yourself observing a rich dialogue between students about an article they have been reading.  The students, seated in small groupings, are actively asking questions, expressing opinions, posing hypotheses and returning to the text for evidence to support their ideas. These types of conversations exemplify productive talk that supports deeper learning. 

The updated Maine Learning Results for English Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics, and the Framework for K-12 Science Education place an increased emphasis on the use of collaborative conversations as a vehicle for improving comprehension and building knowledge across disciplines.  A key difference in the updated standards is the emphasis on student-to-student interactions that enable students to engage effectively with a wide range of people and to use those conversations as mechanisms for building collective understanding.

What are collaborative conversations?

Collaborative conversations are characterized by purposeful talk focused around topics and texts appropriate to the grade level and discipline.  They are sustained discussions among students in which ideas are presented, defended, elaborated upon, and responded to.  Collaborative conversations encourage exchanges of ideas, based on evidence, that generate new thinking and stronger understanding.

Why are collaborative conversations important?

Constructing meaning is a primary goal of collaborative conversations. Engaged dialogue helps learners build knowledge, increase vocabulary and identify evidence to support thinking.  Additionally, collaborative conversations lead students to making real-world connections and teach them how to dialogue in ways that enable ideas to develop.  Finally, collaborative conversations support reading and writing.

What instructional strategies support collaborative conversations?

There are a wide variety of instructional strategies teachers may employ to promote collaborative conversations.  The following list is by no means exhaustive, but may provide some helpful food for thought.

  • Teach rules of discussion and model appropriate and inappropriate conversations.  Model and expect use of complete sentences for responses.  Encourage elaboration of ideas and multiple exchanges among students.   Employ ample wait time so students feel comfortable thinking about their responses before sharing them.
  • Use a variety of grouping patterns for conversations.  Partnerships and small groups of four to six students provide more opportunities for all students to contribute.
  • Provide many opportunities for students to engage in structured discussions about texts or topics of study.  Be thoughtful about selecting rich texts and sources that lend themselves to collaborative conversations – sufficiently complex texts/sources that beg to be read/viewed multiple times are particularly well suited to collaborative conversations.
  • Employ routines and protocols for collaborative conversations, such as “Think-Pair-Share,” “The Final Word” and “Give One, Get One.”  Utilize routines that encourage and expect contributions by every student.  Many examples of protocols for collaborative conversations can be found at the National School Reform Faculty’s website.
  • Teach sentence starters or frames to help students learn to share their thinking, such as, “I believe ______ because…,” “The facts that support my idea are…..” and “I think I hear you saying…”
  • Use graphic organizers and note taking strategies to help students collect their ideas prior to sharing.  Encourage them to add to their notes as they engage in conversations.
  • Chart ideas and questions generated during conversations and code by responder/contributor.
  • Use techniques for students to analyze conversations, such as fish bowls, critiques of videos and rubrics for reflecting.

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