Translating Accountable Talk® Practices Between In-Person and Virtual Teaching

By Jazmin Rotger de Parra and Kristin Nuñez

Teaneck Public Schools

Like many of you, we are still navigating the world of remote instruction and virtual classrooms while wanting to stay focused on providing academically rigorous instruction and having high expectations for all students.

At the center of most of our decisions is the idea of instructional equity. Equity does not mean that every student should receive identical instruction. Instead, it demands that reasonable and appropriate accommodations be made as needed to promote access and attainment for all students (NCTM 2000)[i]. Up until now, the decisions that led to a greater degree of instructional equity largely occurred in schools and classrooms. But now we are having to apply all that we know about teaching and learning to maximize equitable opportunities for every one of our students in a world outside the school walls.

…we are having to apply all that we know about teaching and learning to maximize equitable opportunities for every one of our students in a world outside the school walls.

During the 2019-2020 school year, the use of Accountable Talk practices was a pedagogical foci for our Grades 3–5 mathematics classrooms. Through our work, we incorporated and refined our use of discourse and supported students as they engaged in verbal, visual, and written communication. We increased opportunities for students to learn from one another through the collaborative clarifying of ideas, unpacking misconceptions, and making connections across different ways of doing mathematics. Because of our focus on the use of Accountable Talk practices in the classroom, we know how important talk is to developing mathematical understanding. And even in the time of COVID we are continually trying and tweaking different ideas and approaches during online instruction to foster a learning community that engages in meaningful math discussions that advances student understanding.

Mrs. Nuñez is one of our third grade teachers, and she continues to reimagine instruction while holding students and the role of instructional conversation at the center of her efforts. Read on as she describes her first-hand experience with establishing Accountable Talk discussions in her classroom and then transitioning to accountable communication between and among her students and herself in an online world.

Why focus on talk, and specifically, the use of Accountable Talk practices?

From the moment a new group of learners come together, establishing community is vital for their academic success, and the foundation of the community is talk. Skillful teachers recognize the power in leveraging talk to guide understanding and collaboratively construct knowledge.

Building the community this year has been a bit different because we started the school year working online. For the first couple weeks of virtual learning, we engaged in many whole group conversations about respect, uniqueness, and culture. We centered our conversations around read alouds that focused on different social emotional skills. Over the course of a week, we developed class promises to hold each other accountable for our learning and make the most of our time together.

How have you been able to capitalize on the unique opportunity to build community from a distance while students are at home?

Even though I miss teaching in-person, one of the advantages of our current situation is that we have been able to truly expand the walls of the classroom to better encompass students’ lives at home. We unpacked and shared elements of our cultures to learn more about one another. From morning meetings and brain breaks to icebreakers and structured assignments, our classroom community is building a foundation of patience, perseverance, and celebration, which is integral to establishing community both virtually and in-person.

How did you start using Accountable Talk practices during instruction?

There is an assumption that students know how to talk about their thinking; however, this specific type of discourse needs to be explicitly modeled and practiced. Students need opportunities to engage in academic talk that leads to learning. Accountable Talk stems on charts or flip-rings can be used as scaffolded support and referred to during discussions. Similar approaches can be used when working online. Talk stems work because they provide students with diverse backgrounds a common language with a specific, intended conversational purpose to use during our discussions. As students take ownership of what it means to be accountable to their learning community, to accurate knowledge, and to rigorous thinking and truly internalize the expectations, academic conversations flourished, providing rich opportunities for students to build knowledge together and think deeply about content.

What conversation dynamics do you plan for during your instructional minutes?

At the beginning, we do a lot of partner and whole group discussion, and within that I balance student voices and keep mine to a minimum.

After routinely hearing and engaging in Accountable Talk discussions as a whole group, the students adopt the language practices and lead their own conversations—acknowledging and building on each other’s ideas, questioning one another, and supporting claims with evidence. The conversations can seem almost natural in small group discussions, partner conversations, and conferences with me.

I plan for a combination of teacher to student(s) and student(s)-student(s) discussions.

What challenge(s) have you faced integrating Accountable Talk practices into instruction, in person and online? How have you met the challenge(s)?

Though the path to having a language-rich classroom sounds easy, it is not. Not all students are comfortable exposing their thinking, especially when they are aware of the expectation that thinking can (and should) be questioned and challenged. As an adult, it is hard to feel comfortable with the idea that after sharing my best thinking, I am going to have to explore it more deeply—and publicly.

It takes time and intention to create an instructional space where students feel safe enough to willingly take these risks. Since some students may feel more comfortable than others with this exploratory thinking and talking, I have to think critically about the ways in which equity and engagement intersect.

One of the ways I’ve met this challenge, both in person and online, is by establishing expectations for participation. Within the structure and routine of a lesson, I find a variety of ways for students to participate. Everyone gets time to work on and is responsible for working on the problem independently. When working in-person, I have them talk with a partner who works at a similar skill level and pace. Then I have two partner groups talk with each other before we have our grand conversation as a whole class.

When working online, the students share their thinking in a variety of ways. One low-risk way I got them started was by using polls. The polls let me do quick whole class snapshots, and, using follow up “why” questions, let me hear from individual students about their thinking. I also have them use a collaboration board to share their thinking with others after working independently. They use a shared white boards or Google slide in breakout groups. I’ve had students take pictures and send them to me to share with the group. These intentional decisions are the scaffolds for supporting students as they grow their own Accountable Talk practices. Through these efforts my students are more comfortable taking academic risks and have learned the value in hearing and seeing diverse ideas from all members of our classroom learning community.

Say more about how and why you used the collaboration board with students.

When we first started digital learning, I was losing students left and right. Students and families struggled with using the attachments in “order” or had difficulty toggling between multiple sources. I needed to regain control of the wheel, so I researched and experimented with different apps and resources to better guide students in their virtual learning spaces. I searched for digital ways to increase and improve collaborative interactions among the members of our learning community.

I embedded virtual drawing and collaboration boards to engage students in our learning community. Virtual drawing boards allowed students to share their processes and thinking. These boards gave me an opportunity to digitally “walk” through my classroom—to listen in on student conversations, provide feedback through assessing and advancing questions, and make adjustments to my instructional practice. Collaboration boards provided students the ability to respond to the content and each other.

What else did you consider when making decisions about platforms?

These instructional decisions empowered students and created space for them to use their voices. It was important that I strategically chose platforms where they could share their diverse ideas in this virtual space not just with me, the teacher, but also with each other.

Jazmin Rotger de Parra is the Supervisor of Instructional Programs – Mathematics and Kristin Nuñez is a Third Grade Teacher at Teaneck Public Schools.

IFL Step Back

Mrs. Nuñez’s story illustrates the art and science of teaching. She tried several small tests of change as she translated her Accountable Talk practices from in-person to online instruction.

  • Honor students for who they are and all that they bring to the classroom.
  • Make time for and expect talk from students.
  • Provide scaffolds for students to support them as they engage in learning discussions.
  • Allow for a range of communication dynamics.Plan and experiment with different ways of getting students to collaborate and communicate with each other using pictures, images, and written words in addition to spoken words.

Click here to tell us how you are translating Accountable Talk practices during your online, in-person, or hybrid teaching. We want to celebrate your successes and support you in facing the challenges.

[i] p. 12. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). (2000). Principles and standards for school mathematics. Reston, VA: Author.
Accountable Talk is a registered trademark of the University of Pittsburgh.

Tagged with: Accountable Talk® Discussions, Agency and Voice, Equitable Instruction, High-Leverage Teaching Practices, Math, Online Instruction, Partner Spotlight, Principles of Learning

A New Take on the Learning Walk® Routine to Get Smarter About Teaching and Learning in the Cloud

Many school districts have moved to virtual or hybrid models of instruction and we recognize that using the typical Learning Walk routine, which asks district and school leaders to visit classrooms and provide targeted feedback, doesn’t quite fit in a virtual space. However, we also recognize the need to continue to support district leaders in helping teachers provide high-quality instruction to every student. We’ve modified our signature Learning Walk routine for virtual use to observe synchronous online instruction. Our modifications allow schools committed to improvement to continue to study how an instructional practice moves student learning forward, how that practice can be made more powerful, or if the practice needs to be abandoned. We rooted the Cloud Learning Walk routine in what we know works from using the original Learning Walk routine on the ground in schools. The routines guide teachers and school administrators to collect evidence about how students learn and teachers teach and consider how the teacher’s work impacts student learning as they observe multiple classrooms for short periods of time.

So, why engage in the Cloud Learning Walk routine?

Given the high novelty of virtual instruction, teachers and school leaders need a non-evaluative learning space centered in the realities of their virtual classrooms. When districts use the Cloud Learning Walk routine with integrity, it has the potential to build new or improve understandings of what effective instruction looks like in virtual spaces. The Cloud Learning Walk routine, more importantly, situates the process in a culture of continuous professional learning and improvement.

Based on what we have learned so far, here are five reasons and some tips for engaging in the Cloud Learning Walk routine.


Given what districts are facing today, we tried the Cloud Learning Walk routine under different instructional modalities. We explored having observers use the Learning Walk routine to view

  • virtual classes in live-time;
  • short video segments of the lessons that were uploaded by the teachers, and
  • live lessons in a brick-and-mortar school virtually.

In each case, the routine and goals are consistent.

Tips for Observing In and From Virtual Spaces

  • Know the platform being used for instruction: Each school in the district could be using a different platform for instruction (e.g. Google Classroom, Zoom, etc.). This might mean that district administrators (as well as the fellows from IFL) have to spend some time getting oriented to the platform. Spending time getting to know the platform will ensure that each walker is able to participate fully in the walk and prevent unnecessary disruptions or delays.
  • Ask about and prepare for the method of observing: Different levels of planning and preparation are needed for observation of live instruction than that of pre-recorded instruction. These methods of observation also offer different opportunities for reflection.
If observing the lesson in live-time: If observing a previously recorded lesson:
  • Each walker has to have the appropriate permissions to enter a virtual classroom. Are there any restrictions that might prevent walkers from entering the virtual space? Anticipating and addressing these restrictions ahead of time, allows walkers to engage fully in the observation.
  • Timekeeping is vital to ensure that multiple classrooms are visited, so identify someone responsible for keeping walkers moving to the next classroom every 10-15 minutes.
  • Walkers should enter virtual lessons with microphones and cameras off to limit the disruption to the lesson. Teachers and students should not be distracted by unexpected sounds and unfamiliar faces. 
  • Teachers need to record a 10-15 minute segment of the instruction on which they would like feedback.
  • Samples of student work from the lesson can be shared along with the video, which is a benefit to observing after the lesson was taught.
  • Walkers can watch and rewatch the segments, which provides a wealth of opportunities for cycles of reflection; however, walkers miss out on observing the student to student conversation the occurs in the chat or in small groups.
  • Record observations of the lesson immediately: Each walker fills out the observation form, including noticings and wonderings that relate to the focus provided by the teachers, immediately after the classroom visit. Walkers make observations that are not evaluative or for auditing, and so the noticings and wondering should be rooted in the teacher’s focus and evidence from the classroom and be void of praise or correction.


Though equitable instruction has always been an aspect of the Learning Walk routine, the move to online instruction made salient the need to sharpen focus on equitable practice. This move also created opportunities to amplify the lens of equitable instruction in the Cloud Learning Walk routine.  One important revision to the routine calls specifically for walkers who specialize in services for designated student populations, such as emergent multilingual students or special education students, to be active participants in the walk. During the walk, those specialists observe through their unique lens of understanding. The intent is to help teachers and school leaders highlight how instruction invites every student into the content and learning at a high level.

Dr. Andrea Fontañez, Director of Bilingual and ESL programming at New Brunswick Public Schools (NBPS), where Cloud Learning Walk routine was tested, says, “The online Learning Walk was a very enlightening experience as we were able to learn what to look for during an online lesson. We were able to look for evidence of effective e-learning practices and to identify needs for professional development. The online Learning Walk confirmed that online lessons can still have the same high-level tasks and Accountable Talk® components for English Language learners as in-person lessons.”

Tip Related to Recognizing Equitable Instruction

Include walkers who have diverse perspectives in addition to those who support specialized services. The more diverse the perspective of the walkers, the more likely it is to find evidence of and frame wonderings around what constitutes equitable (or more equitable) instructional practice.

“…The online Learning Walk confirmed that online lessons can still have the same high-level tasks and Accountable Talk components for English Language learners as in-person lessons.”

~ Dr. Andrea Fontañez, Director of Bilingual and ESL programming at NBPS


An administrator from the building where the Cloud Learning Walk routine will be used meets with the teacher(s) who will be visited. During this meeting, the teachers get to set the focus of the walk as related to professional development that has been received. The administrator and teachers then work together to craft an inquiry around the focus. The inquiry sets the lens for the evidence that will be collected during the walk. For example: In what ways am I

  • pressing students for evidence and elaborated responses during the Accountable Talk whole group discussion?
  • using the moves that will support students to deepen their understanding of the text or concept?
  • allowing multiple students to respond to the same question and build on each other’s responses before we agree on the most plausible response?
  • providing Emergent Multilingual students sufficient opportunities and scaffolds to explain how they solved their math problem?
Tip About What Needs to Come Before Using the Routine

There are critical elements that must be addressed within the school or district before using the Cloud Learning Walk routine.

  • Establish at least the beginnings of a robust learning community.
  • Ensure that the host school plus and those involved in using the Cloud Learning Walk routine are all versed in
    • effort-based learning and intelligence,
    • the Cloud Learning Walk routine and norms for collaborative study, and
    • the requirements of the platform used in schools to allow non-district participants into the virtual classrooms.
  • Ensure that teachers have engaged in professional development before the Cloud Learning Walk routine is implemented at a school and that classroom visits are related to that professional development.


The research tells us that there is little to gain from classroom visits unless they are followed by coaching and professional development.[i] The goal of the Cloud Learning Walk routine is to provide feedback to the teacher that will move their practice forward. This means the feedback provided should come from a coaching stance, the feedback process should be interactive, and the teacher should participate in designing the next steps.

Tip for Providing Effective Feedback

Because the inquiries for and insights gained from using Cloud Learning Walk routine should align to professional development (PD) opportunities, it is important to identify evidence of the uptake of practice studied in PD and acknowledge the impact of teacher practice. In the IFL’s Content-Focused Coaching model, one of the coaching moves is “Mark Progress” which serves to draw attention to and reinforce the use of a move the teacher made that positively impacted student learning. If we want teachers to press forward in the implementation of effective practice, sharing noticings from the walk around what was done by the teacher and its impact on student learning helps to ensure the practice will be used again!


As district teams composed of teachers and district leaders look across the classrooms visited during Cloud LWs, they can mark trends about what is works (the assets) and areas for further attention (the needs), and decide on the professional support that can move practice forward. 

Tip for Making the Most Out of Next Steps

Next steps apply to everyone up and down the line of educator stakeholders, from teacher to superintendent. The IFL calls this two-way accountability up and down the nested learning community. Each person involved in using the Learning Walk routine needs to believe that the next steps apply to their own practice.

Aubrey Johnson, Superintendent of NBPS, has conducted many on-the-ground walks using our Learning Walk routine with IFL Fellows. Dr. Johnson and his team have built a learning community among the district’s administrators and teachers, and their conversation during Learning Walks are laser focused on student and teacher learning. The district and school leaders understand that the next steps apply to them. As a team, the leaders and teachers understand that the student’s work is a mirror of the teacher’s work, the teacher’s work is a mirror of the principal’s work and the principal’s work is a mirror of the superintendent’s work. Dr. Johnson has said that he and his team look forward to using the Cloud Learning Walk routine to provide them with the evidence they need to advance the practice of teachers and the learning of students.

We think that when the Cloud Learning Walk routine is implemented with integrity, it will be the transformative tool that the original Learning Walk routine has been to on-the-ground work in schools. We invite you to use this non-evaluative tool. For more on this new tool, email us at

[i] Grissom, J. A., Loeb, S., & Master, B. (2013). Effective Instructional Time Use for School Leaders: Longitudinal Evidence from Observations of Principals. Educational Researcher, 42(8), 433-444.
Accountable Talk and Learning Walk are registered trademarks of the University of Pittsburgh.
Tagged with: Continuous Improvement, Equitable Instruction, High-Leverage Teaching Practices, Instructional Leadership, Online Instruction, Partner Spotlight

Every Student Needs High Cognitive Demand Instruction

By Rosita Apodaca

IFL Executive Director

Peter Compitello

Project Manager

Disrupting inequitable practices, examining biases, creating inclusive and sustainable school environments for students, and finding and cultivating the assets and interest that every student brings to school are part of what is needed for all students to develop to their full potential in and out of school. Lauren Resnick, cognitive psychologist and founder of the Institute for Learning (IFL), believes we can teach all students to reach or exceed world-class standards.

Resnick knows that, in practice, it is proving hard to meet the twin goals of equity and higher achievement. This is because schools are trapped in a set of beliefs about the nature of ability and aptitude that makes it hard to evoke rigorous academic effort from students and educators.

Students who have not been taught a demanding, challenging, thinking curriculum do poorly on tests of reasoning or problem solving, confirming many people’s original suspicions that they lack the talent for high-level thinking.

Students cannot learn what they are not taught, and depriving them of high-cognitive-demand curriculum and instruction is not an equitable education.

For decades, Resnick and others have advocated for thinking and problem solving to be the “new basics” of the 21st century. Still, the common idea that we can teach thinking without a solid foundation of knowledge had to be abandoned, as does the idea that we can teach knowledge without engaging students in thinking. Knowledge and thinking must be intimately joined. This implies a curriculum organized around major concepts in each discipline that students are expected to know deeply. In short, in every subject, at every grade level, the curriculum has to include a commitment to a knowledge core, high-thinking demand, and active use of knowledge.

Despite widespread support for disciplinary literacy, not all students have been given opportunities to achieve this high standard. Ramón Antonio Martínez (2019) believes that building on the assets students bring to school can support them in accessing and participating in a high-cognitive-demand curriculum. Changing how we view learners is also critical to improving the educational experience of students of color and those who are labeled upon their entry in school. When we view students as struggling or “at risk,” we make assumptions that they are students in need of remediation. When we begin to see students’ multilingualism as an asset and their use of multiple languages as tools to help them access high-cognitive-demand work, we can turn the dime on its head and make small modifications in learning plans that will enable emergent multilingual students to access complex text and engage in high-cognitive-demand activities.

Practitioners have made arguments that mediating instruction does not need to be labor-intensive; it is about making decisions while teaching a well-designed lesson. Teachers focus on the goal of the lesson and find ways for every student to meet that goal. Knowing and building on the students’ assets should serve as a guide to making the small modifications to support students. Simple supports, such as offering a student the text in a language the student understands or allowing a student to write the argument about something familiar, are ways to make modifications that allow for access. We can begin by abandoning deficit thinking and keeping our minds open to see our students’ situations as opportunities to try ways that will support them where they are and enable movement toward the goal.

Martínez (2018) argues that for emergent multilinguals, we may have to “learn to see students anew—to imagine them as competent readers and writers and to treat them accordingly.” The labels students are given in school, more often than not, are not helpful. Martínez thinks that for us to “recognize the richness of bi/multilingual students’ linguistic repertoires requires that we think beyond the convenient labels that serve to mask their brilliance, their competence, and their tremendous potential.” Martínez’s recommendation may serve us well once we decide that high-cognitive-demand work will be made available to every student.

In a similar vein to Gutiérrrez and Martínez, Dr. David E. Kirkland reminds us “rigor in education cannot be about broken students but about supporting students who are vulnerable to broken systems.” Before we can address the systems that support inequitable practices, we have to acknowledge systemic root causes: “Rigor often codes a set of hierarchal social and cultural values that reinforces a narrow concept of learning and achievement. Too often, rigor is about who is recognized and who is not. By flattening rigor in the image of the seen, a narrow version of us gets baked into educational success—a version that is incomplete, favoring an intersection of cis, heteronormative, White, abled, English-speaking, monied, and Judeo-Christian—or put simply, privileged—identities. I’ve learned the farther away students are from this identity, the less likely they are seen to be ‘rigorous;’ the less likely the classroom works for them.”

While being keenly aware of systemic disparities in equity and rigor, Kirkland aims for a hopeful solution: “…teaching and learning must be about preservation—the incredible acts that help people preserve our languages and cultures, to tell history on our terms, to preserve it too, to preserve ourselves by preserving the congregation of ideas that will make the world better, that will free our bodies and heal our souls. Thus, academic rigor comes close to equity when it connects teaching and learning to acts that are meant to sustain us.”

Tagged with: Academic Rigor, Equitable Instruction, High-Level Tasks / Curriculum, Multi-Lingual Learner Instruction

Weighing Teacher Choices to Maximize Student Contribution

By Kristin Klingensmith

IFL Mathematics fellow

Accountable Talk® discussions are discussions that promote learning. They are discussions that have evidence of accountability to the learning community, accurate knowledge, and rigorous thinking.

Engaging in Accountable Talk discussions requires that students listen and respond constructively to others’ ideas and exert effort to explain their thinking with evidence in order to make progress in solving a challenging problem. As a matter of equity, every student in every classroom has the right to engage in Accountable Talk discussions.

Growing and refining the pedagogical practice of facilitating Accountable Talk discussions takes intention, time, and effort. To facilitate such discussions, the teacher must have an understanding of the content being studied, and student thinking related to the content. They must have a learning goal in mind. The teacher must also value the students who make up the learning community and believe that they have worthwhile and relevant thoughts to contribute to the discussion.

Facilitating an Accountable Talk discussion is a bit like a choose-your-own-adventure story where every decision changes the path of the conversation. Regardless of the pathway chosen, though, by the end of the “story” every student has had access to a rigorous discussion through which their understanding has advanced.

Sounds easy, right? We wish. In reality, it is quite complex. So let’s look at classroom scenarios and consider some ways a teacher might respond and the impact of those responses on the discussion.

A fifth grade class is engaging with a high-level task involving grams of sugar and cans of soda. The task is intentionally designed for students to create their own inquiry based on a series of observations and wonderings.

Michael is sitting at a desk positioned away from the rest of the class. He has recorded observations and wonderings. He says quietly to one of the adults in the room, “I wonder if the pack holds 12 or 24 cans?” The adult smiles and says that it is a great wondering and to write it down. He records “12 cans? 24 cans?” on his paper.

A while later, students share their observations and wonderings. They know that one can of soda contains 4.6 grams of sugar and that there is a whole pack of soda. The class establishes their inquiry, “How much sugar is in a pack of soda?” Then one of Michael’s classmates says that there are 12 cans in the pack. Michael calls out, “What? I didn’t see that anywhere. It could be 12 or 24.”

Let’s pause here. There are many ways that a teacher may respond to Michael in this scenario, but let’s focus on just three possible responses and their potential impact on the discussion.

#1 – The teacher corrects Michael for not raising his hand and waiting to be called on before speaking.

While rules like “raise your hand before talking,” and “wait to be called on” are prevalent in classrooms and well intentioned, instructional conversations do not always fit into such constructs. By choosing to correct the way Michael contributed, the value of his contribution is missed. During instructional conversations, teachers must often balance the need to follow the “rules” with the importance of honoring excitement and genuine inquiry.

#2 – The teacher takes up Michael’s comment and turns it back to the student who made the observation that there were 12 cans in the pack.

This move messages that Michael’s contribution is valued and that observations can be questioned. The move also allows the two students to support their observations by removing the teacher as the authority.

#3 – The teacher asks the class, “I wonder how the sugar in 12 cans will compare to the sugar in 24 cans of soda?” and records “12 cans? 24 cans?” on the board.

This combination of moves validates Michael’s wondering while setting up a new mathematical inquiry into the relationship between the sugar in 12 cans of soda and the sugar in 24 cans of soda. When comparing the two solution paths below, students can reason about why the product, the total grams of sugar, doubles when one factor, the number of cans, doubles.

Of these three responses, only #2 and #3 align with features of Accountable Talk discussions, and only #3 illustrates how a student’s contribution can be recognized and leveraged to create opportunities for rigorous thinking about a mathematical relationship for everyone in the community.

When we consider the impact a response to a student contribution has on the discussion, we can gain insight into the complexity of facilitating Accountable Talk discussions. When thinking about and reflecting on the “in the moment” decisions during classroom discussions, it is helpful to consider if the move provides students greater entry into the discussion, holds them to accuracy of their claims and thinking, and/or sets up opportunities to discuss mathematical relationships. Because there is no one way of facilitating an Accountable Talk discussion, it is incumbent upon all of us to be critical friends and colleagues. Through collaborative and engaged discussions with colleagues about our pedagogical choices, and with honest self-reflection, we can move toward providing more rigorous and equitable learning environments and instruction for every student.

Tagged with: Accountable Talk® Discussions, Equitable Instruction, High-Leverage Teaching Practices, Math, Principles of Learning

Using Accountable Talk® Practices to Build the Mind

Rosa Apodaca

Executive director, IFL

Tabetha Bernstein Danis

Assistant professor, Kutztown University

Lauren Resnick

Founder, IFL

Children are born with the innate capacity to reason beginning at a very young age (Carey, 2009; Gopnik and Wellman, 2012; Spelke and Kinzler, 2007). Very young children build explanatory systems—implicit theories—that organize their knowledge. These theories enable children to predict, explain, and reason about relevant phenomena and, in some cases, intervene to change them. For over 20 years, the Institute for Learning (IFL) has championed that the process of socializing intelligence takes place in and through talk. The IFL defines intelligence as much more than an innate ability to think quickly and stockpile bits of information. We believe intelligence is a set of problem-solving and reasoning capabilities, along with the habits of thinking that lead one to use those capabilities regularly. It is also a set of beliefs about one’s right and obligation to understand and make sense of the world and one’s capacity to figure things out over time (Resnick, 2010). Intelligent habits of mind are learned through daily expectations placed on the learner. By calling on students to use the skills of intelligent thinking, and by holding them responsible for doing so, educators can help develop students’ minds.

With this kind of robust evidence, it seems obvious that schools and school districts would foster the type of talk that promotes problem solving and reasoning. When educators set higher goals for every student, they can use classroom talk to teach students to think and make knowledge. The IFL uses the term Accountable Talk® practices for this kind of discourse. Using Accountable Talk practices with integrity for at least 90 minutes a week can produce powerful learning resulting in growth in demanding accountability systems (Resnick, 2019).

We need to make clear that most classrooms still use recitation where students learn to repeat what others have decided is important to know. The teacher asks the question, the student responds, and the teacher acknowledges whether the response is right or wrong. Often this type of instruction is accompanied by sets of questions aligned with Bloom’s taxonomy. This approach requires that students acquire lower-order skills before being allowed to grapple with higher-order skills. Current research does not support this view. Studies show that students in average and low-performing schools were not only able to participate in high-level discussions, but their progress was also greater compared to peers who were not taught this discussion method (Resnick, et al., 2015).

Accountable Talk practices, when carried out with integrity, include every student in the class and do not exclude English learners or students in special education. In fact, these students show the greatest progress in learning and achievement when they participate in discussions using high-leverage practices that include Accountable Talk practices (Matsumura, Garnier, & Spybrook, 2013).

So let’s get down to the serious question of what it really means to implement Accountable Talk practices with integrity. In classrooms where Accountable Talk practices are evident, every learner has a right and an obligation to participate in advancing the learning of others. Students wrestle with ideas and move back and forth through the learning process. Students freely explore ideas and express their understanding using their own language. “Ultimately, through participating in Accountable Talk, students learn to reason their way toward understanding. Reasoning—processing, interpreting, and being able to do something new with information—is the way we solve problems in the adult world. Instead of passively allowing some students to learn these skills by accident, schools can teach them deliberately, by changing the way talk occurs in the classroom.” (Resnick, Asterhan, and Clarke, 2018)

Below are a few brief ideas that can get talk started at the beginning of the year. For a deeper discussion of Accountable Talk practices, we encourage all to read “Accountable Talk: Instructional dialogue that builds the mind” by Resnick, Asterhan, and Clarke (2018). Take a look at an Accountable Talk discussion in action.

If you’re interested in producing robust learning in content and in argumentation, don’t leave the students’ potential to grow on your list of things to do when you have time. Spend at least 90 minutes a week growing your practice to orchestrate classroom discussions where every student can maximize potential. It’s their right and necessary to bring equity to the education of every student.

Setting Norms for Talk

Accountable Talk practices are not just about being civil. They are about knowing how to respond when there is disagreement. They require returning to texts repeatedly to find evidence to support claims and the ability to be unsure but willing to talk through uncertainty. Educators foster these skills by asking students to explain how they arrived at conclusions, provide evidence from texts for their responses, and ask one another to defend their responses. Educators need to explicitly set norms that make it not only acceptable but also expected for students to debate one another. Students should expect others to ask them how they arrived at answers and why they came to particular conclusions.

Including Everyone

Some students may struggle in making their explanations, and others may even need to make some of the explanations in a language other than English. It is the quality of the argument that is important, not the form used to express the thinking. This is important to remember if equity is a goal for your teaching. Be prepared to scaffold without diminishing the rigor of the discussion.

Designing Cognitively Demanding Tasks and Selecting Complex Texts

Tasks need to be designed to ask students to reason, explain, and elaborate on their thinking—the cognitive processes that support knowledge building. If educators want students to grapple with challenging ideas, those ideas have to be present in the text. Texts without them are not worthy of the kinds of robust discussions at the center of Accountable Talk practices. Educators need the opportunity to select complex, culturally relevant texts and to analyze and discuss them with colleagues so students have access to materials critical to building new ideas and think through authentic problems.

Writing Questions That Invite Talk

Questions that involve simple recall and have only one right answer don’t lead to deeply engaged discussions. Educators need to develop questions that allow students to explore a variety of ideas and possible solutions. This may take time and can sometimes be frustrating for students and teachers alike. It helps for educators to try to answer their own questions prior to inviting students to respond. If the educator cannot think of more than two or three possible responses to a question, that’s a sign that the question should be adjusted to allow for more ideas and multiple possible correct answers.

Tagged with: Accountable Talk® Discussions, Equitable Instruction, High-Leverage Teaching Practices