The power of a conversation
Schools are busy places. Classrooms are even busier places; it is all too easy to get through a day without having an informal/non-subject-focused conversation with a student. Sure, we may talk to them (and don’t get me wrong most teachers I speak with say that they feel like they talk all day) but have we really stopped and had a conversation with our learners? A conversation – where people listen and talk in equal degrees. We know the importance of conversations focused on learning, progress, and achievement and the value these hold in empowering and engaging the learner. However, in this blog I wanted to focus on the value of an informal conversation with learners.
Before I go any further, please let me clarify what I mean by informal conversations – I am meaning conversations focused on the student’s wider world – their hobbies, sports practices, weekend events, or music they enjoy. I don’t want to call them non-learning focused conversations because I believe they are strongly learning-focused.
When teachers are planning their lessons and considering the what, why and how (clarity) of the new learning often the information gleaned from the informal conversations a teacher has had with students can provide the context for the learning. For example, when chatting away to one student about the various languages he spoke, he mentioned he was really keen to learn more colloquial language and useful everyday phrases in Māori. The next teo reo Māori lesson I took I mentioned the conversation (having checked with the student prior) as part of my introduction to the lesson, sharing with the group the relevance for why we were learning what we were learning in that session.
As a facilitator, I’ve been in a privileged position to see other examples of informal conversations empowering student-centered and student-led learning. One notable example springs to mind. A teacher was sitting talking with a Year 8 student who was animatedly chatting away about braiding hair. She had been watching short video clips on how to complete different braids and then trying them on her friends at her church.
This student was a reluctant writer but through the power of this conversation the teacher thought “I am going to teach her some of the skills she needs to learn in writing by getting her to write instructions for the different braids she has mastered”. The learning that unfolded was impressive - not only did the student write a fantastic series of instructions on how to complete various braids but she went on to illustrate these in art lessons and furthermore film herself braiding people’s hair which she proudly shared as part of the classroom learning stories in assembly.
Before long, students were hooked on fishtail braids and they were being proudly worn throughout the senior school. This highlighted to me the power of co-constructing the contexts for the learning and using information to support learning. For the student it empowered her to share more freely with her teachers as a way of designing her own learning.
I guess the most powerful thing about conversation is that the students feel like you know them, care for them, and take an interest in their lives outside of the classroom. Although a learning-focused relationship is central to effective learning it is also important to focus on the haoura (well-being) of a learner. Not only this but as the teacher you learn so much about a student from what they talk to you about. I always enjoyed learning new things from my students, learning their ‘lingo’ and keeping up to date with what children do these days.
As schools across the country focus on designing their local curriculum it is being encouraged that schools “be responsive to the needs, identity, language, culture, interests, strengths and aspirations of your learners and their families"[i]. These informal conversations I have been writing about have the potential to play an important part in schools designing their local curriculum.
Conversing freely with your students allows lines of communication to open. In turn this will mean that your students will see you as someone they can come to when they want to share something, someone who is invested in them, someone who allows them to co-construct the learning, someone who is professionally curious.
I encourage you to plan out those informal conversations and reap the rewards of a stronger relationship between you and the learners.
[i] Ministry of Education (2019, January 21) Leading Local Curriculum Guide Series, retrieved 20.05.19 from http://nzcurriculum.tki.org.nz/Reviewing-your-curriculum/Leading-Local-Curriculum-Guide-series/Local-curriculum