#3. Getting started with Accountable Talk®

Posted on February 3rd, 2014

From the Institute for Learning, this is Pam Goldman.

The good news about getting started with Accountable Talk is that it's not so hard. You can start small. The results are still likely to be worthwhile.

Let's think about these tiny steps by considering two examples.

In the first, an elementary school health teacher asked her students, "When do you brush your teeth, before breakfast or after breakfast?" One boy answered, "Before." You can imagine the next step in a typical IRE scenario. The teacher would have to make sure the class learned that teeth should be brushed after eating either by providing the answer herself or by querying other students until she got the answer she was looking for. On this particular day, she tried something else. She used a simple Accountable Talk classroom move and asked the student to "say more." "Well," he said, "I brush my teeth at home and I eat breakfast at school." Hmmm. The student did not give a wrong answer. He described his life situation. There are some lessons here. Sometimes if you dig deeper you will learn that when a student gives an apparently wrong answer, something else is going on. A simple answer such as "before" or "after" in a typical IRE sequence is not likely to reveal this thinking. In our tooth-brushing example, the student’s answer provided the teacher with important information for that day's lesson. That information could also help her improve the lesson in the future.

In the second example, another teacher asked his class, "What is the square root of 25?" A student answered, "Twelve and a half." The teacher quickly assessed the source of the student's incorrect answer. It appeared that this student confused, or didn't know the difference between, dividing by two and finding the square root. On another day, the teacher might have proceeded by asking, "Who can help Stephen out?" This time, he decided to try out a different talk move and asked, "Who agrees with Stephen?" Eight students raised their hands. The teacher just learned that at least nine students seemed to have the same misconception. A quick formative assessment. So, the problem was a problem for at least nine students. Did they all have the same misconception? The teacher decided to try to find out on the spot and asked, "Of those of you who agreed with Stephen, who can explain how you got your answer?" As more student thinking was put on the table, the teacher better understood the problem and devised a corrective on the spot.

There are two simple and reassuring lessons here: First, you can start implementing Accountable Talk practices with baby steps. Second, by so doing you might learn what your students are thinking. The implications? Perhaps that wrong answer is not really wrong from the student's point of view. Or, you might be excited to learn that your students have interesting ideas and perspectives you never knew about. Or, you might learn that something went wrong with a lesson and be able to diagnose the problem on the spot. This is all good.

You don't have to use Accountable Talk all day everyday. Even little bits can be valuable. Once Accountable Talk works to reveal that students think in interesting ways, it’s a win for everyone. It’s proof for both teacher and students that academic talk can work in the classroom. It's motivation for everyone to keep going with Accountable Talk. Think about the win-win situation you can create by posing a few short questions.

Pam Goldman

Pam Goldman is the Institute for Learning (IFL) Instructional Design Fellow. In this role, she designs, authors, produces, and edits a series of learning tools for educators based on the Institute's theory of action and practice of district and school reform.

More information on Pam Goldman.