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You are here: Home > Online Articles > When Students Actually Build on One Another’s Ideas



When Students Actually Build on One Another’s Ideas

By Gordon Eldridge, TIE Columnist


We all recognize the most common pattern of student talk when a group of students is engaged in an academic conversation. Each student shares their idea but there is little or no evaluation of the ideas put forward. Most students are “listening to speak”—that is, while others are sharing ideas, they are mentally preparing what they want to say rather than truly listening to understand.

All ideas are treated relatively equally, and ideas are rarely built on or connected in meaningful ways. Mercer labels this “cumulative talk.” This kind of talk does not build shared understanding. So how can we get students to move beyond this?

Marc Clarà from the University of Lleida transcribed a series of whole-class discussions with a group of 8–10-year-olds led by a teacher highly skilled in facilitating academic conversation. He identified a potentially very productive conversation pattern with a series of stages that genuinely builds shared understanding.

What was the pattern he identified?

The pattern Clarà identified had a simple five-part structure. He labeled these parts: Direction, Inference, Observation, Consensus, Fixation.

Direction — generates the need to form a new inference. Most often this will begin with a question from the teacher. The direction must open up a gap in the understanding of the group that needs to be filled.

Inference — jumps beyond the observed facts to form a hypothesis that might fill the identified gap in understanding.

Observation — identifies the relevant facts and events of a situation.

Consensus — involves all participants agreeing on a final version of an inference.

Fixation — involves recording the final version of the inference in some way as an artifact that can then form the basis of future sequences of inference and observation.

The inference and observation stages are consistent with the two basic operations that Dewey claimed constituted inquiry. In an academic conversation that is a true inquiry, the conversation will move back and forth between these until there is sufficient consensus to fix the inference.

Some examples from Clarà’s classroom transcripts might make the stages clearer. The class was trying to figure out what causes tooth decay. This was the “direction,” or gap in collective understanding. At the end of a previous lesson, the discussion had “fixed” the proposition that little creatures in your mouth cause cavities so the teacher led them to recall what had been fixed. She then labeled the little creatures as bacteria and then created a new “direction” by asking what bacteria are like.

A student then made the inference that they are living beings. This led to observations of the facts surrounding living beings—that they move and eat. One student then connected these observations about movement and eating to the original “direction” and made the inference that bacteria eat the tooth. Consensus was reached on this inference and it was fixed by being written on the whiteboard.

The teacher then initiated a new direction by inviting the students to compare bacteria to another living being and a student suggested a dog. At this point, a student made the observation that dogs excrete. This led another student to make a further inference:

“Ah! That’s it! That’s how they eat away at the tooth!...They eat away at it when they poop.”

What might this mean for our classrooms?

Clarà discusses how this process progressively expands the stock of propositions accepted as valid by the group, which maximizes the base from which new thinking can proceed and new conclusions can be drawn. But how useful is the structure really?

In the class observed, the teacher played the role of setting direction and of inviting consensus and fixation. Thus, for whole-class discussion, an awareness of how this pattern can unfold may help us as teachers specifically set directions that open gaps in the understanding of the class, explicitly invite consensus, and explicitly “fix” the propositions that have achieved consensus in a public space so they can become the building blocks of further thinking.

This may be as far as we might get with younger students, but couldn’t we train older students to understand the pattern? If we set an initial direction for the conversation, could we train them to recognize an inference, to then stop and explore the fact base around that inference, allowing it to evolve as it is tested against facts. Then to explicitly check for consensus in the group on the final version of the inference before recording it together as the basis for further thinking?

Imagine how different group academic conversations could look if students explored each other’s inferences in this way. They could move from cumulative talk which Reznitskaya and Gregory have called pseudoinquiry to the meaningful construction of collective understanding.

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