Let’s converse…

| by Alan Howe |

I’ve been thinking about conversation. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines ‘conversation’ as: ‘informal exchange of ideas by spoken words’ from the Latin ‘conversari: to keep company with’ and ‘companio, one who eats bread [pane] with you’. Interesting: conversations as food for the mind.

The word ‘conversation’ itself is ubiquitous and used variously. Is conversation the same as chat, gossip, tête-à-tête, heart-to-heart, head-to-head, exchange, parley, consultation, conference? Are ‘conversation’ and ‘dialogue’ (about which much has already been written in previous blogs on this site) synonymous? Can you ‘converse’ only through talk, or does it also include written exchanges? Where do online ‘conversations’ via, for example, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp or WeChat fit in? Some would argue that the ‘heads down, thumbs up’ nature of online chat is destroying the art of face-to-face conversation (a question for another time).

Image: Pixabay

If ‘oracy’ is a flexible toolkit of skills, strategies and choices that enable a person to use talk to make sense of and get things done in the world, then ‘conversations’ must be at the very centre of this activity.

A friend recently gave me a copy of Theodore Zeldon’s little book: ‘Conversation: how talk can change your life’[1] Sometimes you read something that isn’t a revelation because it introduces completely new ideas, but by clarifying something you kind of already knew without knowing it precisely. That’s what this book did for me. It gave my vague thinking about conversations clarity and focus and led to a new train of thought. Here are a couple of quotations (the book is full of quotable gems):

‘Conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits. When minds meet, they don’t just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought.’

‘Real conversation catches fire…you emerge from a good conversation, or a series of conversations a slightly different person.’ 

As I read the book I found I was having a conversation with myself about the case Zeldin makes for ‘what conversation can do to your life’. I started to see how the different strands of activity that I am professionally caught up in could all be woven together as examples of ‘good conversations’:

  • Making the case for oracy (again!)
  • Arguing for the value of dialogic teaching and learning.
  • Promoting professional development that leads to lasting change.
  • Training teachers to be coaches with other teachers (and doing this in a culture and education system that is very different to where I have spent nearly all of my working life).

Paul Warwick makes a powerful case for the importance of dialogue in teaching and learning in his recent blog[2]:

‘…if there is a ‘holy grail’ of developing learners’ 21st Century skills – particularly collaboration and critical thinking skills, such as evaluating and integrating information, forming ideas, and justifying and communicating in and across knowledge domains – then dialogue lies at its heart. It seems that dialogue is therefore one central core to the development of wider oracy skills and capability, and it may be a good place for schools to start.’

Paul also cites ‘Lesson Study’ as a powerful way of supporting professional dialogue about effective teaching and learning. At the core of Lesson Study is the conversation that participating teachers have about the evidence in front of their own eyes.

Coaching Conversations

Recently I have been working in Brunei as part of a team that is helping the Brunei Ministry of Education to start a process of transforming the quality of literacy and mathematics teaching in Brunei state schools. The programme is based on building local capacity to effect and sustain change through training teacher coaches to work in every school with a focus on dialogic teaching and learning. Sixty International coaches started working in schools in January, and there is a parallel programme to train over a hundred local teachers as coaches over the next two years. At the heart of the training is the concept of a ‘coaching conversation’. Coach and coachee (in Brunei we use the title ‘learning partner’) engage in a series of sustained, focused conversations about teaching and learning, as part of a wider programme of support, involving lesson observations, modeling strategies, team teaching and engagement with training materials and resources.

The theory is that as a result positive changes will occur and are more likely to remain in place. Early evidence from the programme indicates that participating teachers have quickly trialled and adopted some core aspects of dialogic teaching. For example, Brunei classrooms typically are often characterised by lots of ‘chorusing’ – pupils responding en masse to a teacher’s question with a single repeated answer. Changing an ingrained habit like this can be frustratingly hard, but many coached teachers are now asking more open questions, with follow-up invitations to pupils to explain their thinking.

Brunei teacher coaches in training

Why might this change be the result of good coaching conversations?

  • A coaching conversation is different to staffroom chat, or department/phase meetings. It is more structured (in Brunei we are using an adapted form of the GROW model: Goal, Reality, Opportunities, What next?).
  • The participants are colleagues but the coach has the main (not sole) responsibility for the rhythm, flow and practical outcome of the conversation.
  • The emphasis is always on ‘drawing out’ ideas from the learning partner, based on a belief that teachers are able to identify and solve their own problems, or develop areas for improving their practice.
  • A coaching conversation is sustained (typically lasting at least 20 minutes, often longer, up to an hour in some instances) and uninterrupted.
  • A good coaching conversation can liberate a teacher from being stuck with the private interior monologue that many engage in as a way of thinking about what they do. You are no longer isolated in a private way of making sense of what you do; you can be brought to see your teaching, and pupils’ learning in a new light.
  • These conversations, if they start to ‘catch fire’, also have another outcome: they help to develop, for both coach and learning partner, a better professional language for describing the practical business of teaching and learning. They result in more precise and concrete ways of noticing, analyzing and explaining what happens in classrooms.
  • They are cumulative: building up over time both for the coach and learning partner, but also in the way that the ideas and accounts of lessons can spread across a school. They create a conversational momentum.

A good coaching conversation exemplifies another of Zeldin’s ground rules for conversations that ‘change how you see the world’:

‘There can be no satisfactory conversation without mutual respect.’

Respect! Let’s converse!

Image: Pixabay

[1] The Harvill Press, 1988.

[2] 18th May 2017: ‘Oracy and dialogue: is there a difference and does it matter?’

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