What kind of language do students need to develop if they are to think and learn effectively as a team? This e-bulletin is the second Learning and Thinking Skills to focus on ‘Team Workers’

The Thinking Together Project

A team at the Open University, led by Professor Neil Mercer (now of Cambridge University), began investigating the nature and value of children’s collaborative talk in the late 1980s. The early research focused on talk during computer-based problem solving, but talk in other activities across several subjects including mathematics, science, English, citizenship, design and technology and geography has since also been studied.

The research initially found that much of the talk of children working in groups was not very productive. The talk observed in a sample of schools in five counties varied considerably, ranging from competitive argument to more friendly kinds of talk in which participants built on one another’s contributions. But it was rare to find children really engaging with ideas, sharing information well or reasoning about problems. However, when they did do so, group work could be seen to be very useful indeed for learning and developing communication skills. The project identified one way of talking, referred to as ‘exploratory talk’, as particularly valuable in joint problem solving. This was the sort of talk which the teachers involved in the research hoped would happen when they organised their classes into teams to work together.

Exploratory talk

Exploratory talk involves critical but constructive exchanges between speakers. Statements are offered with the expectation of challenge but challenges are justified and alternative ideas are offered. The competition is between ideas not individuals, so changes of mind do not mean loss of face. The chief characteristics of ‘exploratory talk’ are:

  • critical but constructive exchanges between speakers
  • longer exchanges
  • contributions build on previous comments
  • students give reasons for their views and seek them from others
  • speculation is evident in the talk.

The Open University research found that very little exploratory talk occurs naturally in classrooms when children work together in groups. Students do not tend to be very aware of how they talk; do not understand the value of this way of talking; and do not realise that this is how teachers expect them to talk in groups. These problems can be addressed by:

  • making explicit to students how we expect them to talk
  • making clear the importance of exploratory talk as a tool for thinking together
  • setting tasks that are both open-ended (giving students something to talk about) and engaging (giving students something that they are intrigued by and want to talk about).

Talk rules

Teachers can increase the incidence of exploratory talk by providing their classes with explicit coaching in the type of language required. Negotiating with learners a set of ‘ground rules for talk’ can be very helpful and can form the basis for future group activity.

‘Talk rules’ can easily be agreed by groups of students sorting a set of suggested rules under the headings ‘Yes’ (these would help us to think and learn together) ‘No’ (these would not be helpful), and ‘Maybe’ (these might possibly be helpful) and then agreeing on the final set as a whole class.

Such a set will include obviously helpful rules, eg ‘Keep to the agreed topic’ and ‘Only one person talks at a time’ as well as unhelpful ones, eg ‘Don’t get involved so you can’t be blamed if you are wrong’ and ‘Criticise people for making mistakes’.

The set should also include some examples from a ‘grey area’ where students will tend to disagree with each other, will have to justify their ideas, negotiate and reach a consensus. Examples here might include: ‘There should be a leader who makes the decisions’ or ‘Don’t listen to people if they are confusing you.’

A set of Talk Rules Cards that you could use to run this activity, can be downloaded here.

Prompts for questions

Exploratory talk can be further supported by using question prompts in the course of discussion. These can be provided as a set of prompt cards for example:

Encouraging the giving and seeking of reasons

  • What do you think?
  • What are your reasons?

Encouraging contributions that build on previous comments

  • I agree with you because
  • I disagree with you because

Encouraging speculation

  • Is there another way of looking at this?
  • What if…

Encouraging negotiation collaboration, and consensus

  • Have we considered all the factors?
  • What have we agreed?

A photocopiable set of Exploratory Talk Prompt Cards can be downloaded here.

For inexperienced learners, each student in the group can take it in turn to ask another student a question prompted by one or more of the cards. The whole group listens to the response. For example, when discussing a particular talk rule, each team member could take it in turns to ask a team mate two simple questions:

What do you think? (‘Yes’, ‘No’ or ‘Maybe’) and What are your reasons?

For more experienced learners, prompt questions can be presented on a ‘place mat’ that is placed on each table as a reminder. Alternatively, you could provide your students with an ever increasing set of phrases that will support their exploratory talk via wall displays. Phrases could be drawn from actual examples that you have heard your students using and/or other examples that you wish to encourage. Phrases might include:

  • I think…because…
  • I agree with…because…
  • I disagree with…because…
  • Another reason is…
  • This is the same/similar/different because…
  • This is as/less/more/most important because…
  • If…then…
  • First we…and then…and finally…
  • This is better/worse than… because…
  • An alternative might be…
  • The opposite view would be…

Thinking together – research findings

A programme of lessons explicitly designed to develop exploratory talk was found by the Open University researchers to develop children’s awareness of the importance of talk as a tool for thinking together, and improved the way they worked in joint activity. Subsequently, it was found that involvement in the programme also improved learners’ individual performance on a psychological test of reasoning. This was an exciting finding, as it demonstrated a link between learning ways of talking and the development of ‘thinking skills’. It seemed that children developed their powers of reasoning by internalising the ‘thinking aloud’ experience they had gained through the programme’s activities. Put simply, thinking together, helped these students become better at thinking alone.

More detailed information about this research, and the Thinking Together programme of lessons can be accessed through the Thinking Together website.

The site also provides further downloadable material for researchers and teachers, with links to useful books, research projects and other websites. Here is a link to one example activity ‘Talking points about group talk’ — a worksheet that can be used as the initial basis for an activity in which learners consider together how to make their talk in groups most effective.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in February 2009

About the author: Anne de A’Echevarria is the author of the award winning ‘Thinking Through School’. Previously a teacher, PGCE tutor and head of ‘Thinking for Learning’, a research and development team partnered with Newcastle University, she now works as a freelance education consultant and writer.