• Alex Box

Conversations and Learning

Updated: May 16, 2021

Conversation - a talk, especially an informal one, between two or more people, in which news and ideas are exchanged (Oxford Dictionary).

Social connection has become a pretty unarguable necessity in meeting our social and emotional needs. And conversations are a key event when connecting with others. What I´ve been pondering lately is whether informal conversations get nearly enough kudos in the education space in terms of their impact on growth and learning as they probably should.

I recently surprised a friend when I credited a conversation that we had to me re-activating my inner basketball fan. It was simply a matter of connecting, of engaging in a conversation that reminded me of a pastime I hadn´t engaged in for years. That evening I signed up for a league pass and something shifted in me. I felt a little bit as though I´d found something that I hadn´t noticed had been lost. I took some joy in acknowledging the role of that conversation in sparking an action that enriched my own life.

It might seem like an insignificant example. What does watching a few basketball matches have to do with the serious business of learning? That sense of learning who we are, what brings us joy and what we want to become is something I feel is often missing from the general education landscape. But that´s more of a sidenote.

What this particular moment of discovery got me thinking about is the power of conversations on our individual and collective development throughout our whole lives. We have a general trust and acknowledgement that during early childhood, children will learn language, learn about the world and will develop a sense of themselves through the many informal conversations they´re exposed to. What I´m wondering is, are school-aged learners given enough time and space to learn through informal conversations? My hunch, based on 10 years+ working in the chaotic space of primary classrooms where there are many competing curriculum and other priorities, is probably not.

A quick google search indicates that ¨learning conversations¨ often describe a specialised and formal conversation which involves a certain set of individuals or contextual factors. But I´d pose that a conversation doesn´t need to happen between a teacher and a student, or to happen in class, or with a clipboard and a conferencing rubric for learning to occur. Not to discount conferencing and other similar exchanges as powerful mechanisms for learning, that involve a conversation along with other layers. These are indeed important. But I´d pose that, if used as a title, learning conversations could be applied at a broader level to encompass a diversity of conversation formats.

Educators (including but not limited to qualified teachers) are particularly skilled at building learning opportunities into casual conversations. Instead of simply scold, we spark conversations which model curiosity and compassion about behaviours and the emotions behind them. We use literature to engage learners in ideas about the world and about the complex nature of being human.

Our discipline was really just conversation.

- Marian Robinson (mother of Michelle Obama)

Having spent almost all of my teaching career thinking about (and being motivated by) what makes for a school experience which is relevant and enjoyable for everyone, I now spend my working hours thinking about, and working on this, with regards to Maths. What can be done to build people´s curiosity and confidence in Maths? As someone who was very disillusioned, overwhelmed and bored by Maths growing up (like so many others!) I often reflect on my own journey in reaching a point in adulthood where these personal commodities of curiosity and confidence are in plentiful supply.

It´s interesting to think about the many intricacies around how maths education has evolved historically and why. Number Talks are a pedagogical approach which I´ve come to see as a way of bringing rich and enjoyable learning conversations to the maths learning space. They usually last 5-15 minutes and involve a key set of pedagogies which the teacher draws on to create authentic moments of learning. Number Talks can be intentional - they can nudge learners towards certain understandings. But an idea is never forced. They´re a gentle approach which honours and values the individuality in any group in a way where the group benefits from that diversity of ideas and ways of thinking.

But a Number Talk looks like, sounds like and feels like something very different to what most of us might think of as a maths lesson. For people of all ages, including myself, Number Talks spark curiosity and over time build confidence in Maths. And the positive ideas and feelings, and the norms and protocols, that these conversations bring to the learning space spread to other areas of learning and teaching Maths.

After the year we've had, I'm thinking more about the role that approaches like number talks and other opportunities to collaborate have on our own learning and growth as ever-developing individuals. What are your thoughts on this? Do you have a story to share?

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