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  • Writer's pictureAlex Box

Conversations and Learning

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

- Oxford Dictionary

I´ve been pondering lately whether conversations get nearly enough kudos. It seems to me that they're particularly important in the education space in terms of their impact on growth and learning.

Social connection is widely acknowledged as a necessity for meeting our emotional needs - and conversations are key to connection.

Yet a friend of mine was recently surprised when I credited a conversation that we had for re-activating my inner basketball fan. It was this simple act of connection, of engaging in a conversation, that reminded me of a pastime I hadn´t engaged in for years. I signed up for a league pass that evening.

So what does watching a few basketball matches have to do with the serious business of learning?

The power of conversation

This moment of discovery got me thinking about the power of conversations. They impact our individual and collective development throughout our whole lives. And these aha moments are often unplanned.

We have a general trust and acknowledgment that during early childhood, children will learn language, make discoveries about the world and develop a sense of themselves through play and many informal conversations.

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.

Redefining learning conversations

Learning conversations often describe a specialised and formal conversation involving 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. These are indeed important. Though there are other layers involved alongside any conversational element. And there is often some sort of particular learning agenda.

I believe that, if used as a title, learning conversations could be applied at a broader level to encompass a diversity of conversation formats.

Educators are particularly skilled at building learning opportunities into casual conversations. We use literature to engage learners in ideas about the world and about the complex nature of being human. When problematic behaviours arise, we don't scold - we spark conversations that model curiosity and compassion about the behaviour and the emotions behind them.

Our discipline was really just conversation.

- Marian Robinson (mother of Michelle Obama)

Learning conversations in the maths classroom

Many acknowledge the importance of mathematical dialogue in the classroom. Student 'talk' is seen as beneficial in various ways. For instance, it:

  • indicates students are engaged in the task

  • allows learners to share, clarify and develop their own ideas

  • gives teachers insight into how students are thinking, and what they do and don't know

Observations and casual conversations have become my favourite way to assess where students are at. There are numerous formats this can take. And as a holistic educator, I subscribe to a lot. But one that I love, for its consistency and in the way it brings people together, is the maths talk.

Maths talks are a pedagogical approach that brings regular conversations about number and other concepts to the classroom. They're a little more planned than a casual chat (the teacher selects a prompt to spark discussion) but they look, sound and feel rather different from what most of us think of as a maths lesson. They're more casual, playful even - making it safe to share ideas without fear of judgment.

Maths talks can be intentional - they can nudge learners towards certain understandings. But an idea is never forced. They´re a gentle approach that honours and values the individuality in any group in a way where the group benefits from that diversity of ideas and ways of thinking.

A maths talk looks, sounds and feels rather different to what most of us think of as a maths lesson. For one, it's absent of pencil and paper freeing our bodies up to ponder, truly listen and discuss each others' ideas. To connect, and make connections.

There are different maths talks. There are vastly open-ended ones (like Notice & Wonder) where 'slow looking' is encouraged and no idea is outside the realm of discussion. All while making mathematical observations.

There are several that require exercising our compare and contrast muscle. My favourite of these (to date) is Which one doesn't belong? a playful conversation with no definitive answer - rather a playful space for mathematical argumentation to occur.

Then there are those where this is a definitive answer, but the emphasis is placed on the various strategies for reaching that answer. Number talks, for instance, are transforming the way many students (and teachers!) approach and experience number problems. The habit of reasoning involved literally brought enjoyment when approaching everyday calculations.

In this Number Talk, learners explain different ways of seeing a set of dots. The teacher records the thinking.

I have found that the positive norms, protocols, and ideas that number talks (and other maths talks) bring to the learning space spread to other areas of maths learning and teaching.

I enjoy thinking about the role that approaches like maths talks and other opportunities to converse and collaborate have on our learning and growth as ever-developing individuals.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you have a story that opened your eyes to the power of conversations in learning?

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