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Behavior, Attention, and Emotional Regulation in Changing Teacher Talk Moves

December 11, 2017

Every time I visit new physics teachers, I am reminded of just how much skill goes into pulling it off. So this is just a ramble of some of what I was thinking about this weekend after a visit with some new physics teachers.

So, one of things we learn about in our learning assistant seminar regards different types of classroom discourse. We talk about IRE or triadic dialogue (Teacher Initiates with Question, Student responds with a short answer, and Teacher Evaluates the appropriateness of the answer). We also talk about alternative talk moves that can help move us toward more productive dialogue (e.g., probing, pressing, re-voicing, prompting for more participation, etc).

Behavior: What a Teacher Says

From a behavioral perspective, there are a few reflexive habits that can pull a teacher into an IRE type dialogue with a given student, even if it’s not necessarily their intent. One such reflex is to “praise” students. The student provides some answer which is deemed appropriate and a natural response can be to immediately say back “Great!”, “Good”, “Excellent!”. A desire to be encouraging combines with a lack of alternatives to create a strong pull into this type of discourse.

Knowing that new teachers are likely to have this habit, I find it important to have them practice and rehearse new talk moves, which can help override the praise reflex. I try to limit the new talk moves to 2 or 3 phrases that the teacher can over practice to the point of becoming habit. I usually pick variations of the following to start:

  • “Can you say more about that?” (probing)
  • “Can you tell everyone why that answer makes sense to you?” (pressing)
  • “So ___ seems to be  saying ____. Who would like to add on to what ___ said?” (re-voicing, and prompting for more participation).

Talk moves are important, as they provide model alternatives for students to practice. It gets them behaviorally orienting to a new way of responding. But behavior is not enough, because behavior is often driven by attention.

Attention: What a Teacher Listens For

Often what drives a teacher to enter in IRE dialogue is not just a reflex to some objective external stimuli, but rather it is a response based on how attentional resources are allocated.

For example, if a teacher is listening to student contributions by paying close attention to the correctness or appropriateness of the students’ responses, it is somewhat reasonable for the teacher to respond in a way that concerns its correctness. We might think of this as the teacher having some idealized response(s) in mind, and the teacher is listening to the students’ response to see how closely it matches these for not. If the response matches closely to the expected correct response, the teacher might say, “Great!”. If the response does not match, they might say, “Well, not quite,” or “That’s close, but…”. There are of course a variety of other more responses about appropriateness of the student responses that aim to be more or less encouraging,  more or less neutral, or  more or less discouraging.

From this perspective, it’s important to not just change the behavior of the teacher. What is important is to help them focus on different aspects of student talk. There are so many things a teacher can attend to in students responses, and I don’t want to get into all of them. For the very new (apprenticing) teacher, my goal is to help them listen to student contributions from the perspective of: “Do I understand what the student really means? Do I have a decent sense for what they are thinking? OR Did I not yet quite know what the student means, why they said what they did, and they are thinking?” Attending to student contributions from this perspective more naturally leads to following types of responses: If I don’t understand what the student means, I should ask them to either say more (e.g., probing) or ask them why they think that (e.g., pressing). If I do understand what the student means, I might test my hypothesis that I understand by re-voicing what they have said back to them. Of course, this way of attending to student thinking is inadequate for all the ways of a teacher must attend to student contributions, but it serves as the point, that how teachers are likely to respond is based on how attentional resources are allocated.

This requires a lot of practice and modeling–to help new teacher get a sense by what we even mean by “what the is student thinking”, and importantly what it feels like when you think you understand a students’ thinking.

Emotion: How a Teacher Feels About What They Hear

Attention is driven in part by emotional states. It is common for the new teacher to experience a pleasant emotional state when students say correct things and to experience some level of discomfort when students say incorrect things. If a new teacher’s own emotional state is strongly impacted by the correctness of student contributions, it makes sense to allocate attentional resources on the correctness of student thinking. If the contribution is correct, the reward center of the teacher’s brain is activated. If the contribution is incorrect, the teacher experiences activation in the pain center of their Brain, and they act to alleviate this pain by perhaps correcting or quickly leading the student to a correct answer.

A second layer that exists is this– students that are used to being immediately praised or corrected, feel discomfort when they are not immediately praised or corrected due to the fact that they don’t know where they stand. Teachers can pick up on their students’ discomfort and themselves feel uncomfortable about their students’ discomfort. The teacher and the student will act together to alleviate everyone’s discomfort. Thus, the teacher and the student may steer the Dialogue toward IRE as a quick way to alleviate each other’s internal suffering.

From this perspective, if we want to change the teacher’s attention (i.e., how they listen and what they listen for), we need to help the teacher change how they feel about student responses–how their own emotions are regulated when they hear students respond and to even change how and when the brain’s reward center get activated.

In order for the emotional states to act as an appropriate guide, we need the teacher to experience pleasant emotional states when they do understand what the students are thinking, and we need the teacher to experience mild discomfort when they don’t understand what the students are thinking (either because they have too little information or they don’t yet understand the meaning of the  information they do have). Again, this description is not the totality of what changes will be needed to emotional regulation, but it’s a decent first step.

Community: How a Community Shapes What a Teacher Values

I find myself now trying to work with new teachers at all three levels. Over-rehearsing new talk moves so as to break reflexive habits, modeling and practicing attending to student thinking, and providing experiences where getting access to student thinking is tied to activation of pleasant emotional states. I think at first I focused on the second (attending to student thinking), but didn’t emphasize enough the moves that make it possible. Later I focused more on the talk moves, thinking that it would generate attention on the right kinds of things. That doesn’t quite work either. My later efforts at combining training in the use of talk moves with training in attending to and interpreting student thinking were more successful, but still inadequate. Without attention to emotional regulation and positive emotional experiences with both the process and outcome of teaching this way, students were very vulnerable to relapse into unproductive dialogue. Put into the actual classroom, they would revert largely because the underlying emotional states that drive the unproductive behavior were likely to be triggered when they take on full responsibility for teaching a class by themselves (without enough support).

To a large degree, change at all three levels is only likely to happen when new teachers are entering a community in which these three are actually happening; there are

  • different ways of talking to students that are made visible and explicit,
  • practices of attending to student that are visible and explicit, and
  • varied opportunities exist to experience positive feelings associated with these two

Associating positive feelings can be worked at from a variety of vantage points. New teachers need to spent time in fun, exciting, challenging classrooms where students ideas are shared and valued creates pleasant experiences. The process of being in those classrooms can be stimulating and fun in a way that promotes change to emotional conditioning.  That said, since early teachers’s current reward centers are still tied to “correctness”, new teachers need to see how the visibility of student thinking in the classroom actually helps with learning.

I should add  it can be somewhat counterproductive when emotional associations are too strongly tying rewards to solely the visibility of student thinking. A classroom where student thinking is visible is necessary for this kind of teaching and learning to occur, but it is not the end goal in itself. I have made the error myself and witnessed teaching errors where a teacher can be too emotionally attached to the visbility student ideas, and as a result, student thinking isn’t leveraged meaningfully to make progress in learning. Of course, we want to the visibility of student thinking to be rewarding, but it should also feel disconcerting if that visibility of student thinking isn’t then being used to enhance learning. While early teachers’ understanding of learning outcomes may solely be tied to correctness, we can work on expanding their notion of learning later. For that reason, I want my earliest apprenticing students to experience these kinds of classroom, where they can see both the beginning process and ending products.

There’s lots more to say, but I’m done writing for now…

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