by Dr James Mannion
This is the second in a series of six extracts from Fear is the Mind Killer: Why Learning to Learn deserves lesson time – and how to make it work for your pupils.
Here are all the posts in this series:
- Part 1: A rationale for oracy
- Part 2: Talk rules
- Part 3: Collaboration and complexity
- Part 4: Debating
- Part 5: Presentational talk
- Part 6: Philosophy for Children
This post is about the importance of talk rules – the single most impactful practice I ever implemented as a teacher.
Rationale for talk rules
The importance of talk rules came to light through a study that Neil Mercer and colleagues carried out in the early 1990s, called SLANT (Spoken Language and New Technology).  At this time, computers were starting to appear in schools, but there weren’t enough for the children to have one each and so they tended to be used in small groups. For researchers wanting to investigate the use of computers in schools, this was quite handy: ‘the observable model for computer use is not the creative engagement of individual and machine… but a pair or small group of children talking and interacting with each other as they share the machine’. 
As every teacher knows all too well, not all pupil talk is educationally desirable, and so the researchers wanted to explore whether ‘there might be ways of using the computer to encourage certain kinds of talk which had particular educational value’.  They recorded many hours of extended group discussions by primary school children grouped at computers, transcribed the conversations and set about coding the data.
The research team identified three broad categories of classroom talk – disputational, cumulative and exploratory – which have been described as ‘social modes of thinking’.  The three categories are not mutually exclusive, and a single conversation can include features of all three kinds of talk. But they provide us with a useful model for thinking about the kinds of talk we want to see less of, and what we would like to see more of.
As the name would suggest, disputational talk is characterised by disagreement. Here, we see lots of interactions of the ‘Yes it is/No it’s not’ variety. The atmosphere is competitive rather than collaborative, and participants are more concerned with point-scoring than they are in engaging critically with one another’s ideas, or getting to the truth of the matter. We often see disputational talk in public life as well as in schools, In things like Prime Ministers Questions and combative political interviews. For example, Person A might say: ‘We have an unprecedented recruitment and retention crisis in nursing. This is a stain on this government. When are you going to resign?’ To this, Person B might reply: ‘I don’t know what figures the right honourable member is referring to. We have put record investment into the recruitment of nursing. Numbers now are at an all-time high!’ As an observer, you think, helplessly: ‘This is ridiculous! How many nurses are there? Has the number gone up or down?’ But you never find out, because in disputational talk, there is rarely any critical engagement through evidence or reasoning, or any attempt to reach a shared understanding. Disputational talk might make for entertaining (if maddening) political theatre, but it is extremely unhelpful from an educational standpoint.
At its most basic level, cumulative talk is essentially what happens when people just wait for their interlocutor to stop talking so they can say their thing. A typical example might be a PSHE lesson on road safety. All the children’s hands go up because they all want to share a story about how their best mate’s next-door-neighbour’s cat nearly got run over by a milk float. In more sophisticated forms of cumulative talk, people may listen intently to one another and they may even build on one another’s ideas – but again, there’s a lack of critical engagement. As a basis for pooling ideas and creative ideation, cumulative talk can be useful, but it’s not where it’s at. Very few people change their mind as a result of cumulative talk.
When the SLANT researchers were coding the data, they found that the majority of interactions were either disputational or cumulative, and it was all a bit depressing because it didn’t seem that children were able to talk together in educationally productive ways. But then they started to see glimpses of more productive interactions, and this developed into a third category – exploratory talk. By coincidence, similar research was taking place in the United States around the same time and they called it accountable talk, but it’s basically the same thing.  This is not a comprehensive list, but exploratory talk is characterised by the following features:
- Everyone is encouraged to contribute
- Everyone listens actively
- People ask questions
- People share relevant information
- Ideas and opinions are treated with respect
- There is an atmosphere of trust
- There is a sense of shared purpose
- Contributions build on what has gone before
- People give reasons for their thinking
- Ideas may be challenged
- The group seeks agreement for joint decisions 
In exploratory talk, the thinking, reasoning and critical engagement is tangible. The group interacts as a well-oiled unit, engaging in collaborative group discussion that is greater than the sum of its parts – like a ‘hive mind’. Clearly, it is exploratory talk that is of most interest to teachers wishing to help their students learn to think together in more productive ways. The question is, how do we get children to engage in exploratory talk more? And the answer is surprisingly simple: talk rules. Hands down, developing and embedding the use of talk rules was the most powerful, transformative thing I ever did as a teacher.
What do talk rules look like in practice?
The first thing to understand is that we are all guided by rules all the time – they’re just usually invisible, implicit, and unspoken. These are the habitual rules of thumb that govern the way we behave in different contexts. Often, these are cultural norms that can vary from one country to another. In the UK, this includes things like not jumping the queue in the supermarket, trying to catch the waiter’s eye in a restaurant rather than clicking your fingers, and understanding that if there’s only one passenger on the bus, it’s not OK to go and sit next to them.
Such rules may go unspoken, but you will soon see how seriously people take them if you transgress them. In school, an example might be that at the start of a lesson, the children sit down at desks while the teacher remains standing. This rule makes practical sense – the teacher can see all their students and vice versa. If a student remained standing, or if the teacher sat on the floor facing the wall, it would be weird and people would say something.
Sometimes however, there are implicit rules in play that are unhelpful. For example, in group discussions, children are often guided by the following, unspoken rules:
- If you have a good idea, keep it to yourself.
- Don’t disagree with your friends – back them up, come what may.
- Let the most confident person dominate the discussion.
- It’s unwise to challenge the most popular group member.
- Don’t speak if you aren’t 100% sure about what you want to say.
Such implicit rules of thumb can lead to groupthink, the widespread phenomenon whereby people make bad decisions because of dysfunctional group dynamics.  In schools, it is the final entry in the list above – enshrined in the adage ‘it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt’ – that is the most common and the most insidious. If we can’t create a classroom culture where all young people feel safe to articulate their emerging thoughts and views without fear of ridicule, then it’s going to be a lot harder for them to develop those thoughts and views and therefore to learn and grow as people. 
So, the first thing to do is to talk with your pupils about how invisible rules govern our behaviour in all kinds of settings. Help them understand that people follow unspoken rules like these all the time, often without even realising it. Talk through the consequences of pupils following unhelpful rules such as those listed above in class discussions – and then set about creating a better set of explicit talk rules. There are also some excellent resources to help you do this on the University of Cambridge Thinking Together website.  You can also use the ‘hat method’, a simple approach that I explained in the video at the start of this series. In secondary schools, you can establish a set of talk rules easily within the space of a single lesson; with younger children, it can take a bit longer. The Thinking Together website contains some excellent resources for teachers, including three lessons that you can run through to establish talk rules with younger children.
It is important that the class goes through the process of co-creating a set of talk rules, rather than having them imposed by the teacher. The teacher can contribute to the process, but should not control it completely. Co-construction means that the pupils are invested in the process and feel a sense of ownership over the rules they come up with. It’s a good idea to aim for around 5 to 7 talk rules, and to phrase them positively (dos, rather than don’ts). A typical set of ‘child-friendly’ talk rules usually looks something like the following:
- We will share what we know with each other.
- We will ask everyone to say what they think.
- Everyone will listen carefully to others and consider what we hear.
- We will give reasons for what we say.
- We will pay attention and try to think of good ideas.
- We will decide what to do only when everyone has said all they want.
- We will try to agree about what we think. 
Talk rules like these are useful for guiding group discussions, but they don’t cover all aspects of group work. For group work, you might also want to include a rule like ‘Everyone should contribute equally to the group goal’. Once agreed, the talk rules should be displayed on the wall in such a way that they can be seen from every seat in the room.
You can use talk rules in a range of ways. Before any talk or group task, remind your pupils of the talk rules. If it’s a while since you last revisited them, you may wish to ask a different pupil to read each one aloud, and to check that the students understand what each one looks like in practice. If time allows, it’s also a good idea to ask pupils to use the talk rules to set themselves a target for the lesson: ‘I will make sure everyone gets the chance to speak’, ‘I will give reasons for my thinking’, or ‘I will try to speak less today, to give others a chance to speak’. It’s also a good idea to refer back to the guidelines after a talk task, or at the end of a lesson. ‘How easy did we find it to work toward agreement today?’, ‘Was everybody able to contribute to the discussion?’, ‘What can we do to make sure our discussions are even better in the future?’ – and so on.
The message from the research is simple. If you want your students to work productively in groups, you have to teach them how to do so. No teacher would say ‘today Year 7, we’re doing literacy – now off you go!’ They would model some aspect of literacy, explain it, break it down, give the students opportunities to practice, provide them with feedback and so on. So with group work. Using talk rules transforms the quality of group work. But it does so much more than that. Changing the way children speak, listen and interact in groups changes their understanding of themselves and of one another. It helps them learn to get along with one another better, and it can also help them learn knowledge and skills more effectively. It is to this question of ‘learning to get along with one another’ that I will turn in the next post in this series.
 Mercer, Neil & Phillips, T. & Somekh, B.. (2008). Research note, spoken language and new technology (SLANT). Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 7, 195 – 202.
 Mercer, N. (1994). The quality of talk in children’s joint activity at the computer. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 10, p24.
 Mercer, N. (1995). The Guided Construction of Knowledge: talk amongst teachers and learners. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, p104.
 e.g. see Michaels, S., O’Connor, C. & Resnick, L. (2008). Deliberative Discourse Idealized and Realized: Accountable Talk in the Classroom and in Civic Life. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 27 (4), 283-297.
 Mercer, N. (2008). Three Kinds of Talk. University of Cambridge: Thinking Together, p1. Available at: thinkingtogether.educ.cam.ac.uk/resources/5_examples_of_talk_in_groups.pdf.
 Janis, Irving L. (1972). Victims of groupthink; a psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascos. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin.
 This, of course, is very different from the specious argument that schools and universities should be ‘safe spaces’ where young people have the right to be protected from information they find challenging, or from views that differ from their own.
 Thinking Together (2019) Ground Rules for Exploratory Talk. Available at: https://thinkingtogether.educ.cam.ac.uk/resources/Ground_rules_for_Exploratory_Talk.pdf