Classroom talk, participation, and learning: Is all talk good talk?

By Bronwyn Bevan - March 2011


Atwood, S., Turnbull, W., & Carpendale, J.I.M. (2010). The construction of knowledge in classroom talk. Journal of the Learning Sciences19(3), 358–402.

In this study, researchers investigated the nature of three different modes of classroom talk—cumulative, exploratory, and disputational—to determine how they supported engagement and participation of college-aged students in psychology courses. The article is relevant to ISE educators who design programs, such as science summer camps or afterschool programs, that promote conversation among participants as critical parts of children's engagement and meaning-making. The article raises questions about whether all talk has the same intended results. Do all forms of talk support learning? As the researchers note, "the type of talk that teachers use is indicative of an implicit theory of knowledge" (p. 362). This study investigated whether particular types of talk were more beneficial than others with respect to supporting learning.

The authors of this article drew on work of Piaget and Vygotsky to note that learning and development occur through opportunities to engage with the ideas and perspectives of others, often through conversation and social interaction. They drew on Mercer (2000, 2008) to identify three types of conversation. Cumulative conversation develops knowledge through mutual agreement, where students' statements are accepted based on levels of solidarity among participants rather than by reasoning. Cumulative talk may signal a learning environment where there is a high degree of power sharing between the adult leader and the students and among students, but may not be linked to opportunities for students to refine and deepen their understanding. It may suggest that students are not skilled in productively challenging one another's thoughts. Disputational conversation is characterized by people taking oppositional or unilateral positions where they do not seek to justify their statements, or to take up or come to understand the perspectives of others, but rather seek to limit engagement with the ideas. Such conversation often indicates a lack of balanced power in the classroom. Exploratory conversation, on the other hand, is characterized by reciprocal interactions in which students justify their statements, are open to questioning or expansion of assumptions and assertions, and work with each other's ideas, including the particulars of ideas, to co-construct and refine a shared understanding. Studies have shown that exploratory conversation is linked to enhanced learning outcomes at the elementary and secondary level. This article found that, at the college level, exploratory talk provided opportunities for students to develop greater clarity and coherence about their ideas. (They categorized the development of clarity and coherence as preconditions for learning; other researchers might have found that these developments represented acts of learning; e.g., see Bransford & Schwartz, 1999.)

In the article, the authors noted that, as teachers, we often slip into modes of discourse that are less progressive—more didactic or information transmission model—than we might have wanted or meant. They noted the value in occasionally audio- or videotaping one's self (in compliance with one's institutional review board's guidelines) to examine the nature of how one structures classroom interactions and conducts conversations, and how learners respond to and participate in conversation.

For further reading, see

Bransford, J. D., & Schwartz, D. L. (1999). Rethinking transfer: A simple proposal with multiple implications. Review of Research in Education, 24, 61–100.