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.

The Mayor’s Dream Dialogue

The New York State Legislature has passed a law prohibiting the publication of teachers’ test score ratings but allowing parents to view them.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg isn’t happy about this. He has decreed, therefore, that principals and assistant principals shall call all the parents to inform them of their right to see the scores.

Now, I am sure he has heard from many a reputable source about the problems with value-added ratings and the importance of regarding them skeptically. Yet he remains convinced that these ratings hold Truth.

But what makes him think principals agree with him? What makes him sure that they’ll say what he wants them to say on the phone? What does he hope they’ll say?

Perhaps he is hoping for a million conversations like this:

Principal: Hello, may I please speak with Leonora Thonge?

Ms. Thonge: Speaking.

Principal: Good morning, Ms. Thonge. This is Principal Eigenvalue of your son’s failing school P.S. 2345. I am calling to tell you that you may come to the school to view your teachers’ value-added ratings–that is, the ratings based on test score data.

Ms. Thonge: Oh, please tell me now! I have been desperate for the truth!

Principal: I would like to… but the ARIS database is down, and I am not allowed to give you the information over the phone. The union has my hands tied, you see. That’s one of many reasons why you should consider a charter school for Bernard.

Ms Thonge: I understand. I will be there shortly.

(Half an hour later, in the principal’s office.)

Ms. Thonge (weeping): His English and math teachers are both below average? And I thought they were so intelligent, so caring…

Principal (handing Ms. Thonge a box of tissues): There, now. It’s common for parents and students to think well of a teacher. That’s why we need the data to set the record straight.

Ms. Thonge: Are you sure these ratings are correct? I have heard that they are often wildly inaccurate.

Principal (in a confidential whisper): Don’t believe it. These are based on hard data and state-of-the-art formulas, and that’s as true as true can be.

Ms. Thonge: But what am I to do now? Where am I to take my Bernard, my poor little boy?

Principal: Well, as you may know, we’re a turnaround school. This means we will be firing half of the teachers soon. The ones we keep will be the ones with above-average ratings. I’m the Interim Turnaround Principal and won’t be here much longer myself. So you are welcome to wait it out. However, it’s a gorgeous day, and I suggest you go shopping!

Ms. Thonge: What do you take me for? Do you think I want to buy anything after hearing this shattering news?

Principal: No, no, I meant school-shopping! You can ask for their value-added scores and choose the school that promises the most growth for Bernard. I will recommend a few for you.

Ms. Thonge: Do they have a Shakespeare program, like this school does? Bernard loved the Shakespeare so much. He sometimes had the whole family act out scenes.

Principal: Shakespeare isn’t on the test. That’s part of what dragged  our school down: tearching things that weren’t on the test. The schools I’m recommending are completely test-aligned–or will be, once they start. They’re all brand-new. This will be good for your son. There won’t be any history to hold him back.

Ms. Thonge: Oh, thank you, thank you for putting my son first!

Principal: Thank the data. Without the data, none of this would be possible. We would all be trapped in our human ways.  In fact, I’m about to go to Data Mass, which starts at noon. You are most welcome to join me.

Ms. Thonge: Thank you! I will join you in adoring the data, from which all blessings derive, and then I will check out some schools. Oh, what a day of joy! Before we head over, do you mind if I ask you something off script?

Principal: Off script? I’m a figment of the mayor’s dream! I don’t know how to go off script.

Ms. Thonge: Let me put it this way. What do you really think about all this?

The principal flushes into life, and they end up talking for another hour. The mayor, still dreaming, waves his arms and shouts, “Cut! Cut!” but to no avail.

The End

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    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.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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