Talk is important for learning for children and teachers

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This study will be based in C Infant School, a Leicester inner city school. Most of the observations will come from a year 2 class. This school is a very large infant school which is very culturally diverse, with vast differences in abilities amongst the children.  

Talk is considered to be crucial for learning, not only for children but for teachers also. 

This assignment will be looking at the importance of talk for children's understanding of the world and also the importance of talk for teachers to understand children. This assignment will look at what different theorists have to say about the role of talk for learning and then look at my study and findings to see if there are any links to the literature. 


Literature Review 


There is a range of evidence carried out by researchers which look at talk for learning. Myhill et al (2006) believes that the teacher- pupil talk enhances learning and children learn by being asked questions by their teachers. Their study focused on the issues surrounding questioning children and believed that this is the most significant role of talk for learning. This study was called the TALK project and this project looked into the different types of questioning. 

The teachers who participated in the TALK project saw questioning to be more about scaffolding learning and not so much about controlling the lesson content. They felt that questioning encouraged children and allowed teachers to monitor what children understood. It also gave opportunities to children to practise ideas and develop their thinking. The TALK project showed that teachers use different types of questioning strategies. The teachers key perspectives on questioning were that questioning is a way of involving children, open questions are superior to closed questions, good questions are the tools of the trade for effective teaching and the best questions facilitate learning and thinking (Myhill et al., 2006). Evidence from the TALK project showed that a single lesson might contain short bursts of factual questioning to start the session and then move on to asking questions to check understanding. Types of questioning differed depending on content, context and age of children. This project showed that comparing one type of question to another does not help judge how appropriate or effective the question may be in relation to the context, but raised the question that is factual questioning overused? Also, how teachers might use different types of questioning that extract more elaborate, developed and thoughtful responses from children.  

Also supporting Myhill et al is Tough (1977b as cited from Moyles, 1989). Tough stated that certain types of questioning is essential to promote children's thinking.  

Agreeing with Tough (1977b as cited from Moyles, 1989) is Aschner (1961 as cited in Gall, 1970) who claimed that asking questions is one of the basic ways by which the teacher stimulates an individual's thinking and learning. 

Barnes (2008) however, found questioning in teaching a two way process. He believed that in order to increase the use of learning, children should also be questioning their teacher as well as themselves. This sets ideas in their minds which are more likely to have a longer lasting effect on their memories. 

Wegerif and Dawes (2004) agreed that questioning was a good source for increasing talk. They found pupils thinking and learning was higher when it involved teachers encouraging discussion after every question. Mercer and Dawes (2008) believe that children are encouraged to talk and have more time to think about an answer before expressing it. Scrimshaw (1997) argued that children do not know how to carry on a discussion due to set ground rules (in Mercer and Dawes, 2008). 

There has been research which illustrates that talk differs in accordance to the area of curriculum being taught. In numeracy there is a greater chance of factual questions being asked, whereas in literacy there are more open questions which can be asked. This is because numeracy consists of a set answer. Nonetheless, in 1999 the DfEE found that talk can be encouraged in getting children to explain how they reached their answers in numeracy (Myhill et al, 2006). Keogh and Naylor (2007) found the best way of encouraging talk in science is through arguing, discussing and exploring, disregarding ground rules. Furthermore, it is important to have ground rules for talk because this maintains social order and the teachers' responsibility to keep talk "curriculum-relevant" (Mercer and Dawes, 2008). 

Alexander (2008) believes effective learning is achieved if teaching is linked to a child's society values and through forming relationships. Evidence on this research focused on talk for learning in different cultures and their different outcomes. According to Alexander, (2008) talk is a 'skill that the student acquires rather than something that students and teachers together do in order to learn'. It was made clear in this study that talk is not only just a conversation between two persons but also about human relations. Alexander (2008) suggests, if the relationship between teacher and students is too formal (teacher stands and student listens) this has an effect on classroom talk. Whereas, if a teacher sits with the children who are positioned in a way they can see each other, possibly arranging tables in a "horseshoe or square shape" then talk can be achieved more effectively. The children are then able to listen to each other as well as think from their peers views in relation to whole class learning. (Alexander, 2008) 

Piaget (1967) was a critique of many other theorists working in this field however, he agreed with Alexander (2008) to some extent. He argued that although children being directly involved with talk was important it was not central to his main findings. A child learns by observing, assimilating and constructing ideas about what they hear and visualise around them. This is more of a "constructive process" (Mercer and Littleton, 2008). He believed it is more effective for children to talk to each other in groups rather than an adult/teacher. This is due to feeling a sense of similarity and equality amongst other children, whereas, children might feel threatened to discuss their views with an authoritative/powerful figure such as an adult. 

Doise at al (1981) had similar findings which show group work being more effective than individual work. When children come into contact with other children with different views this allows and encourages the children to re-examine their own initial ideas. This can then lead to possible recognition of a higher order solution that resolves the conflict (in Mercer and Littleton, 2008). Furthermore, Geekie et al (1999) found that as well as children being directly involved with more knowledgeable individuals, these individuals should act as role models. They should think aloud when talking to children to help enhances their learning (in Waugh and Jolliffe, 2008).      

Although Vygotsky (1978) agreed on Piaget's view of learning being a constructive process he gave more emphasis to social interaction and acknowledged this as being the "core development process" (Mercer and Littleton, 2008). His theory explained that all individuals have a Zone of Proximal Development which describes the difference between what a child can attain and when their learning is supported and also what they can attain when learning independently. According to Paiget talk for learning was more effective during peer interaction between children of a similar ZPD. However, Vygotsky argued that the interaction between the "more and less knowledgeable" encouraged the role of talking. (Mercer and Littleton, 2008). 

A study by Barnes (2008) found that the most important aspect of a child's ability to learn through talk is by constructing new ideas in relation to what they already know. By "trying out" new ways through talk often builds on children's understanding of the world (Barnes, 2008). This links to what Bruner (1961) believed which is children learn through discovering things for themselves. Although Bruner thought active dialogue is an important part of learning he focused more on the use of memory. Children are able to acquire new knowledge and understanding with the help of previous knowledge stored in their memories. In order for children to absorb information their learning should be simplified which they can remember and recall when obtaining new knowledge. This is what Bruner referred to as the conservation of memory. Bruner believed the role of talk for learning was an important dependant on children's accessibility for language used in the classroom, which would later decide on their conservation of memory. 


 Methods and procedure 


To begin with I felt it was important to observe how my mentor facilitates talk in the classroom in order for me to do the same. I decided to observe my mentor in both literacy and maths to see the different ways my mentor facilitated talk.  

Across two literacy sessions (appendix 1), my mentor asked the children many open questions, but instead of answering straight away they were told to 'talk to your partner...' to discuss what the possible answers could be. There was a lot of paired talk during the whole class introduction which mainly occurred after my mentor asked a question. During the main activity the children were given questions to discuss and talk about and were informed to talk to their peers on their table to discuss and share their ideas with each other. They were also told that at the end my mentor would go around and listen to what ideas each group has come up with to share with the class as a whole. During the main activity my mentor went around the small groups just listening to discussions and only intervened to extend their thoughts and answers.  

Having observed those two sessions it was clear to see that my mentor facilitated talk a lot throughout the lessons, giving time for children to discuss ideas and answers. This was done in many ways from discussing questions and answers in pairs, small groups and as a whole class. It is important to say that talk was always encouraged after asking a question (usually open). This was also the case in the two maths sessions I observed (appendix 2).  

My mentor asked questions which could only have one correct answer but still encouraged the children to work with their partners to work out the answers. Open questions were also asked to see how children work out the answers, 'what do I need to do?' 

It was also important to observe my two focus children, Dylan and Dhrumil to see how they interact during paired talk, small group discussions and whole class discussions.  

While I was sharing a book with Dylan (appendix 3) I found he tended to relate parts of the story to his personal experiences and talked a lot about his personal experiences. When I asked some closed questions Dylan would reply with a yes or no but always extended the answers by telling me why. 

During an R.E session (appendix 4) I asked the class a question, 'what is your special place?' and each child had to tell me what their special place was. I found that Dhrumil answered with just stating a place and Dylan stated his special place and also said why. 

After observing both children it became clear that although Dylan was able to answer questions and extend them by giving details and stating why, Dhrumil would tend to give an answer without extending it. Therefore, this led me to ask more open questions or ask further questions in the lessons I planned and taught in order to learn more about him and his understanding. 

The observations of my mentor's teaching and planning helped me to write up my own plans. Differentiated activities according to group abilities, making lessons as active as possible and encouraging children's thinking through questioning were all taken into consideration. I wanted to try facilitating more detailed talk and discussions as this was more fruitful knowledge to help me understand the child and their thinking. As a result, I made sure I asked a lot of open ended questions and always asked questions to extend their ideas and thoughts. I decided to do this in the same method as my mentor, having children work in pairs, groups and whole class. 

Although I did this for most sessions I decided to concentrate on facilitating talk during the maths sessions. I asked a lot of questions to find out what they initially know (appendix 5), 'how could we measure...? I asked questions to see what they understood (appendix 6 and 7), 'what have you found out? Why have you put this object in this part of the diagram?' I asked many different types of questions during the maths sessions, as usually mathematical questions tend to have one straight factual answer. I asked different types of questions as it would help me understand what the children already know, why they have done something, how they worked the answer out. It also helps me to establish any misconceptions the children may have and helps me to identify children who have grasped a concept and those who may not have. Furthermore it helps me to assess the children's knowledge and understanding and this information is crucial is this will guide me to plan according to children's learning. 


Analysis and interpretation of evidence 


After looking at different theorists' stance on talk for learning and my own findings, it is clear to see that questioning plays a key role in teachers/adults learning and understanding of children. This is evident in two of my numeracy lesson evaluations (appendix 9). In both these evaluations it states how questioning helped me to identify children who had difficulties and children who were more than able. It is also evident to see that questioning plays a key role in children's learning and understanding (appendix 10). In this evaluation it states that questioning helped develop the children's ideas. Therefore, this links and supports Myhill et al's (2006) belief that the teacher- pupil talk enhances learning and children learn by being asked questions by their teachers furthermore that questioning children is significant in the role of talk for learning. 

To promote talk in the class I was based in, I made sure I asked questions which helped me understand what the children have done, how they have done it and why. This is evident in the maths and literacy sessions (see appendix 5, 6, 7 and 8). I asked different types of questions during the session, questions which required recall of the previous sessions, questions to find out what they thought and their own views, questions which required them to give opinions and sate why and questions to extend their thinking. All these different types of questions were asked so I could understand the children better. Learn more about them as individuals and also see them develop new ideas. Once one child gives a response to a question it usually stimulated others to give their ideas including new ideas. This was good as it promoted creative thinking, thus linking with Aschner (1961 as cited in Gall, 1970), who claimed that asking questions is one of the basic ways by which the teacher stimulates an individual's thinking and learning. 

Furthermore, as these were usually open questions the children had the freedom to say what they wanted without the fear of giving a wrong answer. Normally when children are asked questions which require straight answers, I found that in some cases they would either be reluctant to answer, which could suggest fear of being wrong or they would just take random guesses. This then links in well with many of the theorists, Tough (1977 as cited from Moyles, 1989) who said about certain types of questioning being essential for children's learning.  

It was important to promote talk to evaluate and assess them as individuals and also plan for progression. Although open questions were useful in getting a range of different ideas and answers, sometimes I needed to ask questions which required a correct answer, so a specific answer. This was the case in certain maths sessions (appendix 5 and 6). Asking closed questions helped me understand if the children understood or knew the answer. If an incorrect answer was given I found asking how they worked the answer out helped in identifying if their methods were incorrect which in turn resulted in the wrong answer or if their methods were right but the answer was incorrect due to little mistakes and errors. Therefore asking both opened and closed questions are very important as it would only make me more aware of what the child understands, what they are struggling with, what misconceptions they have and overall help me understand the child. Therefore, also resulting in me reflecting on my own practice too see what I may be doing wrong, what other strategies I could use to help individuals, how I can extend their learning and so on. Thus, supporting Myhill et al's (2006) findings from the TALK project how teachers might use different types of questioning that extract more elaborate, developed and thoughtful responses from children. 

Furthermore evidence obtained from observations of my mentors questioning style (appendix 1 and 2), encouraging talk and discussion after every question, supports Wegerif and Dawes (2004) that questioning is a good source for increasing talk and that pupils thinking and learning is higher when it involved teachers encouraging discussion after every question. 

After looking at my evidence most of them relate to the idea of questioning being a key point in talk for learning. This is also evident in my literature review. Questioning is seen to be crucial for children's learning, understanding and thinking also questioning is crucial for adults/teachers to understand children. 


Conclusion (a) 


The main findings from all the research studies are that most of the theorists believe that learning is an active process, through interaction with peers and adults. Underlying all their theories and strategies is talk, as talk is required for interaction.  

Most of the research I looked at stated questioning to be the most significant factor in talk for learning. Most importantly teachers' need to consider the type of questions they ask, questions which will not only promote talk but help teachers understand children.  

To conclude I found that talk does help children's learning, understanding and thinking. This is through questioning and interaction between others. What makes it more effective is varied questioning and guided or supported interaction. 

I have learned that factual questions are just as good as open questions, but they are only effective when used in the right contexts, for the right content and for the right ages. However, it is most likely to be more effective when a variety of questions are asked in a single lesson. This would benefit me and others as I will be making sure to ask varied questions to help me develop as a teacher and help develop children's learning also. 


Conclusion (b) 


I found that talk is crucial for children's learning as hearing others views and ideas helps flourish their own views and ideas. But most importantly I found that teachers need to promote talk more by the types of questions they ask. I found that asking different types of question not only helps me as a teacher but the children also. It helps me understand what the children know, their previous knowledge and also how that knowledge has grown over time. It helps me assess children's knowledge of subjects, makes it more visible to see which children are struggling and which are advancing; therefore, it makes me more aware of what I need to do in order to help individuals to move them forward.  

Before I conducted this study I held the belief that children talking was important for us as teachers to know what they understand but did not see the importance of teachers talking as well, but most importantly teachers providing the opportunity for talk. But after having looked at other research and having experienced it myself I believe that in order for children to talk teachers need to provide the opportunity for talk especially after questioning, giving children time to discuss and develop ideas, whether this is in pairs, small groups or as a whole class.