Laura Varlas

Core Criteria for Collaborative Conversations

The Common Core Speaking and Listening Standards have drawn new attention to how these skills are developed across curriculum and across grade bands. In their 2014 ASCD Annual Conference session, "Collaborative Conversations: Meeting Anchor Standard 1 in Speaking and Listening," authors Nancy Frey and Doug Fisher were enthusiastic about the potential within these curricular shifts. "Our world will be different when adolescents are prepared for and participating in collaborative discussions with diverse partners, building on others' ideas, and expressing their own clearly and persuasively," noted Fisher.

Consider how your classroom has changed since 2010, asked Frey. She related that, in her own practice, the word "evidence" never appeared on a language chart used in her classroom. "It just wasn't on our radar." Now, kids are supporting their opinions with evidence in classroom discussions.

Fisher and Frey shared some criteria to distinguish between tasks that would be considered basic group work and those that would be considered productive group work, in tune with the objectives of Common Core Speaking and Listening Standards.

Task Criteria Basic Group Work Productive Group Work
Interactive   X   X
Requires presence and use of academic language   X   X
Requires clarifying beliefs, values, or ideas   X  
Goal is sharing   X  
Goal is problem-solving     X
Group accountability or no accountability   X  
Individual accountability     X

Discussion strategies that facilitate basic group work include things like gallery walks, opinion stations, and think-pair-share. These can feed into or help students for prepare for more rigorous productive group work configurations like conversation roundtable, creating a collaborative poster, jigsaw, reciprocal teaching, and numbered heads together. Frey clarified that these are considered productive group work models because they all feature individual accountability, and the goal is for students to solve problems through discussion, not just share information.

Any teacher that has seen a discussion quickly fizzle knows that a hidden criterion for classroom discussions is that they are both interactive and engaging. "We are so obsessed with evidence of behavioral engagement," Fisher remarked, "but what we really need to think about is cognitive engagement." To do this, he provided some guideposts:

  • To have a collaborative conversation, students need enough background knowledge to have something to say.
  • Students need enough language support (through sentence frames or peer-to-peer supports) to know how to say what they want to say.
  • The topic has to be interesting enough so that students will talk.
  • Students need an authentic reason (directly connected to what they're learning, and why they're learning it) to interact.
  • There are expectations of and accountability for interaction
  • Discussion has to happen within an established community of learners that encourage and support each other. (Frey noted that group work can be an opportunity for bullying.)
  • Students must understand the task, not just the content.

Fisher noted that it's a common mistake to simplify discussion tasks. "If the task isn't appropriately rigorous, students will divide and conquer it," instead of working together to solve it, he warned. "Bring the task difficulty up, give chances for productive failure, and make the group members depend on each other to complete the task," he advised. Our goal is to get kids talking to each other, making claims, and backing them up with evidence, he concluded.

Register today for the 70th ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show, March 21–23, 2015, in Houston, Texas. Learn how to create, share, and experience vibrant learning ecosystems that address global challenges and be part of the age ruled by innovation!


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