Why is talk important for learning? It helps us articulate what we know and believe and gives us the chance to try out different ideas to see if they have credibility under scrutiny from others. If we can learn to listen to others and really hear their arguments, we can then reflect on how they coincide with our own thinking and beliefs and refine our own thinking.
The challenge for middle grades teachers is: In our subject areas, with our content standards, how can we best help our students move from the concrete thinking of their elementary days to an ever-increasing analytical, complex way of thinking? How will we develop their thinking and communicating with others so they become successful adults capable of thoughtful contributions to their communities at large?
The adolescent brain is developing in areas of reasoning/problem solving, decision making/hypothetical situations, processing information/efficiency, expertise/use of experience, and moral reasoning/social cognition. Our challenge is to support and encourage our students in all these areas so that they can reach their goals.
Is it easy? No. Is it doable? Yes. So, why make this a priority?
Research on adolescent development shows that middle grades students learn best through social interaction and active learning. As educators, we can’t overestimate the effect that class discussions can have on young adolescents’ identity development and social and cognitive connections.
The strength of our democracy lies in its citizens having the ability to productively engage in civil discourse. Some suggest that one of the main priorities of schooling should be preparing students to be active participants in our democratic society by critically analyzing and reflecting on topics and issues. Teachers have the opportunity to use class discussions as a tool not only to teach content, but also to teach the skills necessary to participate in civil discourse.
We know that the future employers of our present middle schoolers highly prioritize communication and collaboration skills. Research shows that people with strong verbal skills have more success both professionally and socially because they can communicate clearly, avoid misunderstandings, and have power in persuading others to adopt their points of view. When teachers use class discussions as a pedagogical tool, they are helping to prepare their students to be successful in the workforce.
Comprehension and Collaboration Standards
The vast majority of states have adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which include a focus on speaking, listening, and using textual information to support claims. For example, in students are asked to, “Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.”
So, let’s get real about what happens when you tell a room full of middle level students to talk. They do. The trick is to get them talking in a purposeful way. Though I can’t give you a magic formula for keeping your students on target, I share in the book, Getting Them to Talk: A Guide to Leading Discussions in Middle Grades Classrooms, workable strategies I have collected over many years that will engage your students in conversations about your content.
I also hope you will feel empowered to use that natural inclination middle level students have to talk with each other as leverage to get them to engage with your content at a deeper level.
Excerpted from Getting Them to Talk: A Guide to Leading Discussions in Middle Grades Classrooms. This book provides you the tools to help your students meet the comprehension and collaboration standards and shows you how to create questions that help students in their intellectual development. It offers strategies, background, and advice on the mechanics of class discussions that could open up the world to them.
Dr. Susan Edwards is an assistant professor at Georgia Regents University in Augusta, Georgia, where she teaches middle grades education courses and is the middle grades program coordinator.