Why “Turn and Talk” Instead of “Pause and Think”?

A recent New York Times article describes a classroom observation in which a teacher supposedly made good transitions between “turn and talk” activities and lecturing. (She was criticized, though, for not asking more open-ended questions.)

I commented on this article, despite being unable to access it from my home computer (I’ve exceeded my limit of free NYT Digital articles) and having great trouble typing it out on my iPad’s touch keyboard, which seems to invite typos. I criticized this new evaluation system for being very much like previous ones—for emphasizing processes and activities over the content of the lesson. I asked, while I was at it, whether “turn and talk” was a worthwhile activity in the first place.

Of course its value depends on its relation to the lesson topic—and, to a large extent, on how it is conducted, if it absolutely must be conducted. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I’ll explain why I think “turn and talk” should cede at least some space to “pause and think.”

A “turn and talk” activity usually goes like this. A teacher poses a question of opinion or something else that’s easily answered. Then she says, “Turn to your partner and talk about it! Come on, let’s hear everyone talking!” Then she circulates to make sure they are “on task”—that is, talking about the subject. Within thirty seconds or so, she stops the discussion and maybe asks students to “share out.”

While the “turn and talk” is going on, the room is full of noise. You can’t hear yourself think. Also, you know that anything serious you begin to say will probably be cut off in midsentence. It is better not to bring up an idea that you care about. It’ll get lost in the rush and tumult.

Also, the chances are fairly high that your “turn and talk” partner won’t do anything to challenge you or push your argument a few steps further. The point is not to work with ideas, but to show that you’re talking, period. Supposedly talking is good, even if you aren’t saying much.

Then what? After a “share” or two, the whole discussion is swept under, as though it didn’t matter. The lesson moves on to the next activity.

“Turn and talk” is meant to draw out shyer students who wouldn’t necessarily speak out in class discussion. But is this hubbub an improvement? For some, it might be; others, however, might want to run out of the room. Proponents of “turn and talk” ignore the possibility that a student who stays silent in class discussion may actually be thinking.

Yes, it is possible to be intellectually active without saying a word out loud! In fact, whole-class discussions allow students and teachers many possibilities. A student might stay silent on some days and speak up on others; the teacher might leave her alone one day and call on her the next. Yes, some students may feel intimidated speaking up in front of the whole class—but if the focus is on the subject, and not on the social relationships, many students will participate. (I include silent participation in this.)

Why should anyone be forced to talk before he or she has something to say? A few years ago I audited a physics class; on the first or second day, the professor posed a question and had us talk to our neighbors about it. I knew that I didn’t know the answer to the question; it seemed my neighbor did, but the activity concluded before she could explain what she knew. I would have loved to listen to the professor’s explanation in that instance.

I favor whole-class discussions and lectures because they allow one to focus and build on an idea, and because they suit my subject matter (philosophy). It is true that other classes in other subjects (such as languages) might benefit a great deal from “turn and talk” and similar activities. It is also true that most subjects could use “turn and talk” sparingly. The problem arises when everyone is supposed to incorporate “talk activities” in the lesson (and this is a real problem).

Also, it does matter how the activity is conducted. At its best, “turn and talk” resembles the Jewish practice of hevruta, or studying religious texts with a partner. Such “turn and talk” is not frenetic or noisy; it allows for pauses and silence and lasts longer than thirty seconds. Hevruta has substance because it is about something substantial; the same could be said for a good “turn and talk” session. (If I were to try to institute good turning and talking, though, I’d give it as an assignment, so that the students could go off to a quiet place with their partners and discuss a topic without rush. But then, where is that quiet place, and when are the students not rushed?)

On the whole, I consider “turn and talk” activities painfully superficial and wasteful, but I recognize that they, like so many other oversold procedures, have a time and place.

Note: For the sake of consistency, I kept “turn and talk” unhyphenated throughout this piece. There’s a good argument for hyphenating it when it functions as an adjective, but that seemed too jittery.

The Great Sin of Introducing a Text

Yesterday I had some of the liveliest classes of the year. My eleventh-grade students are about to read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, an intensely beautiful and challenging philosophical essay. In preparation for this, I devoted a lesson to Mill’s life and thought.

I began by asking my students whether happiness could be measured, and, if so, how. (Many students jumped into the discussion.) Then I told them about Mill’s life—his upbringing, early work in utilitarianism, intellectual crisis, emergence from the crisis, relationship and collaboration with Harriet Taylor, and more. I brought in excerpts from his Autobiography and the first three stanzas of Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” (which he had read during his crisis). I asked them to consider what Mill might have found in this particular poem. At the end of the lesson, I posed the question: if there were a mean between utilitarianism and romanticism, what might it be? Throughout the lesson, hands were flying up and dialogues mounting.

Under the Common Core, teachers are admonished against providing background for a text before the students actually read it. The rationale is that background information can interfere with the students’ direct reading and interpretation of the work. Supposedly, if you tell them too much up front, they will rely on what you told them instead of focusing on what the text actually says.

I understand this concern–but it doesn’t hold in all cases. For instance, nothing I told my students, and no ideas I drew out of them, will help them comprehend and interpret the following:

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant—society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it—its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life and enslaving the soul itself.

When reading this passage, we will focus on the words and phrases and their logical interrelation. We will examine the contrast Mill draws between social tyranny and tyranny at the hands of government. We will discuss the very concept of the tyranny of the majority—and ask why Mill considers it so insidious, pervasive, and dangerous. Almost all of the discussion will focus directly on the text—but we will draw important ideas and questions out of it.

Why, then, would I introduce students to Mill’s life in the first place, if there’s so much to be found in the text itself? Am I not wasting precious instructional time?

I would say no, for several reasons. First, Mill’s life is downright interesting—his strict classical education, his contact with Jeremy Bentham, his early work in utilitarianism, his crisis, his ultimate synthesis of utilitarianism and romanticism, his relationship and collaboration with Harriet Taylor, and much more.  Why shouldn’t students learn about something as intriguing as this? His intellectual crisis and emergence are intriguing in themselves—especially for teenagers, who may have experienced crises of their own.

Second, David Bromwich refers to Mill (in his essay “The Life and Thought of Mill,” which appears in the Yale University Press edition of On Liberty) as “the thinker of all the nineteenth century in whom romanticism and utilitarianism were most nearly joined.” It’s a great philosophical exercise to imagine how romanticism and utilitarianism might be joined—and that’s part of what we did yesterday. (One student suggested, strikingly, that they could be joined in optimism.) Later, after they have read On Liberty (or most of it), we can reread certain passages, and consider how they might contain a synthesis of romanticism and utilitarianism. That will come after students have seen and discussed what’s actually in the text, and it just might bring things around full circle (though it won’t be complete, as there will still be open questions).

Third, this is not a literacy class, but a philosophy course. Its content includes texts, ideas, and some intellectual history. I don’t think anyone would fault my course for lack of complex texts or careful textual analysis—we have spent entire lessons working through Locke’s syntax, for instance—but the course holds more than that. This is normal for a course in a subject; it needs no special justification. College courses focus on subject matter. Professors present and interpret the subject, and students must still read and think a great deal on their own. If part of the goal of the Common Core is to prepare students for college-level work, shouldn’t there be room to teach a subject?

Third, part of the point of education is to foster the exercise of good judgment. How do we show students how to exercise good judgment, unless we ourselves strive for the same?

Teaching in Vastness

I am ambivalent about Parker J. Palmer’s 1998 book The Courage to Teach, but I return to it as I assemble thoughts on teaching. I treasure passages in this book and admire its durability overall. Palmer makes a vitally important argument: that good teaching comes from the teacher’s identity and integrity. There is no single “successful” pedagogical style; one teacher may teach through lecture and another through dialogue, but if both are deeply connected to the subject and aware of themselves and their students, they can both do powerful work.

A teacher, says Palmer, works on the border between the public and the private—“dealing with the thundering flow of traffic at an intersection where ‘weaving a web of connectedness’ feels more like crossing a freeway on foot. As we try to connect ourselves and our subjects with our students, we make ourselves, as well as our subjects, vulnerable to indifference, judgment, and ridicule” (18). To ward off this danger, according to Palmer, we tend to disconnect—and this disconnectedness hurts education and those involved in it.

All true—but when I read Palmer’s words, and continue to read, I get restless for something more. (He recognizes the danger of sounding pat–but falls into that trap repeatedly.) Yes, identity and integrity are essential to teaching, but there’s something beyond both of them. To have identity and integrity, you must go into something larger than yourself. To hold up at the intersection between public and private, you must be aware of something beyond public and private, something that transcends the two.

Or maybe this is not necessary for all; I have no way of knowing. What is it, though? What is this space or sound or presence that can shape a teacher’s work?

Every day in the classroom, I run up against my own imperfections: I make a mistake, misunderstand something that a student said, get slighly irritated, answer a question too quickly, or find myself combating something internal—an area of ignorance, an excess, a sadness, even a rampant joy. In the moment, there’s nothing much that I can do beyond using my best judgment, which is far from perfect. Then, later, when I sort through the events of the day, something else happens.

I don’t just “reflect” on what went right or wrong. That’s an important (and much touted) part of teaching, but only a part. Reflections, after all, must be informed—and where does that form come from? First, it comes from immersion in subjects—any subjects. I learn as much about teaching philosophy when immersed in Russian or Hebrew as I do when reading Machiavelli. Learning to consider the sounds, shapes, roots, and different meanings of words—learning their tones, weights, and connections—all of helps the teaching. Also, when I study anything beautiful or important, I find out, all over again, what education means and how it happens. That said, there are special reasons to immerse myself in the specific subject I teach—to read and reread Machiavelli, Locke, etc. I find out, over and over again, that there’s far more than I presented or even suggested in the lesson. New lesson plans light up in my mind.

There’s still another kind of immersion. When I go through the events of the day, I find myself in a silent, private dialogue—not with myself, really, or with God (I don’t claim such direct access), but with something a little beyond myself. I am able to sort out not only the practical aspects of what I did that day, not only the ethical aspects, but something else, something that puts the events in their proper place, a place I wouldn’t have seen on my own. Without this, I would lose perspective and become overwhelmed.

For example, last week, in one of my classes, I found myself telling my students about a dream in which one of the assistant principals appeared. (The subject came up because had just popped in the classroom a moment earlier, and a student had mentioned having a dream about him.) My dream was strange and brief, with no embarrassing events. It wasn’t too far off topic, since we were discussing Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, which is filled with dreams of a kind.  Still, I felt a bit off kilter after telling it. I didn’t know whether I had done the right or wrong thing.

From a practical standpoint, it was a bit of a digression, but it didn’t do any harm. From an ethical standpoint, it was mostly harmless, though it feels “gossipy” to tell about a dream that involves a colleague, even though the person isn’t really involved at all. That said, there was nothing gossipy about the dream, in which I was the conductor of a mostly empty train, and he was giving me driving advice (I think).

But there’s something else to reckon with, beyond practical and ethical matters. I recognized, as I went into rumbling thought, that I was feeling unwell on that day and that my gauges were a little off. I also saw that I was starting, in general, to relax around my students and tell them stories now and then—and figuring out when and when not to do so. There would never be a final, fixed answer, but I was finding my way. This meant that there would be errors, or semi-errors, or things that seemed like errors. It is an important question, when and when not to tell a story, since we are made of stories. I loved the stories that my teachers and professors told me over the years. They didn’t distract from the subject; rather, they made things more vivid overall.

How is this different from “identity and integrity”? It differs from them only insofar as it is their source. I find, again and again, that I am up against immensity, or maybe not up against it at all, but walking and thinking in it—and that this is the honor of teaching. Those running the system ask us to show results, to show that the students have moved from point A to point D. That is a reasonable request, if put in its proper place. Palmer would add that a teacher should teach from the self–a self that inhabits the subject. Yes, I grant that as well. But there is something beyond the self, an invisible teacher without lessons, maybe, who shakes me out of my limited senses and points out signs of life.

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