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 with 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.

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.

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11 Comments

  1. Carol Jago

     /  December 24, 2013

    As usual, I completely agree with you, Diana.

    With very best wishes for the holidays to you and yours.

    Carol

    Reply
  2. Alice in PA

     /  December 24, 2013

    Fantastic! The idea that all of these techniques are universally applicable is absurd. Turn and talk is useful in some instances and not in others. It should not be expected that it is used in every class period. Also, some classes are chattier than others. I have had physics classes where every (and I mean every since I have charted it) voluntarily and spontaneously contributes to the conversation. There was no need for a constant partner share. We need to move away from a checklist/ bubble sheet approach to teaching and teacher evaluation. But of course that will take an administrator coming into a classroom several times along with an interesting and meaningful conversation afterwards (and maybe before).
    I also think the idea of some silent time in a class is a lost idea. Humans need time to think, especially if we are asking meaty questions. Recently I facilitated a teacher workshop and asked the participants to think quietly about their predictions and the procedures for an astronomy activity for about 5 minutes before I moved them into their groups. Several teachers thanked me for the silence!

    Reply
    • Thank you for these insights. Yes, I have been startled to hear educators talk about allowing a generous three seconds of “wait time” after posing a question. That may be appropriate for questions with simple answers–but there are times when a full minute (or more) is appropriate and needed. In my experience, once students know that they have time to think, they’re more likely to tackle difficult questions. (It doesn’t always work this way, of course, but it often does.)

      Reply
  3. I think the problem is not turn and talk, but rather the muleheaded insistence that this or any activity must be utilized. Classes are different, and teachers are different. The folks who get paid the big bucks to come up with a trendy cure-all every year, one that precludes last year’s trendy cure-all, just can’t get that through their heads. After all, if they did, they’d have to go out and find real jobs.

    Reply
    • Yes, that’s a good point. It’s a combination of the two things: trends being promoted dogmatically by people who haven’t thought too much about the matter, and that same dogma making the trends more crass than they would otherwise have to be.

      Reply
  4. Well said!

    My high school students HATE turn and talks, so I don’t do them (even though my evaluators repeatedly insist that this one tactic will be the sole factor that gets my students to a deeper level of understanding).

    I do believe that learning to discuss subjects with your peers is an important skill, but there are certainly more worthwhile ways of doing it. I like tactics such as presentations or critiques, where an in-depth discussion has time to flourish or the students have had time in which to prepare their thoughts or work.

    Reply
  5. Upon reading this, I turned and talked to my cat, who was the only sentient being available for a turn and talk at that moment. We reached a consensus that turn and talk is a silly pedagogic gimmick; I deduced this from the fact that as I was talking she leapt down from my lap and ambled off in the general direction of her litter box.

    Happy New Year, by the way.

    Reply
    • James,

      Thanks to you, I can now say that “research has shown” that turn-and-talk is a silly pedagogic gimmick!

      Happy New Year to you too.

      Reply
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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

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