Teachers’ Perspectives On and Reported Use of Classroom Discussions

Grade 4 Talk Interviews 2011-2012

We interviewed nine teachers in Grade 4 across four schools upon their completion of the Inquiry Project curriculum to understand their use of whole group science discussions. Eight of the teachers had participated previously in the Talk Science professional development program during the 2010–2011 academic year, and were teaching the Inquiry Project curriculum for the second time in 2011–2012. One of the teachers in the sample was new to teaching Grade 4.

The interview questions were open–ended and prompted teachers to describe whole group discussions in their classroom and their facilitation of the discussions.

Findings from this analysis pertain to:

  1. teachers’ reported use of classroom science discussions;
  2. perceived benefits of whole group discussions;
  3. experiences teaching the Inquiry Project curriculum; and
  4. challenges in facilitating classroom discussions.

1. Reported Use of Classroom Science Discussions

Teachers’ responses reflected:

  1. a commitment to conducting classroom discussions;
  2. an awareness of the discussion component of the Inquiry Project curriculum;
  3. how the Inquiry Project discussions were different from those in their other science units; and
  4. evidence of changes in their discussion practices based on their experience with the curriculum.

All nine Grade 4 teachers reported doing discussions from the Inquiry Project curriculum. Further, all teachers reported doing discussions in other science units, primarily as a way to start and wrap up lessons. The frequency of wrap–up discussions varied for teachers, with some enacting discussions after every lesson and some at intervals throughout units.

All teachers reported having more frequent discussions in the Inquiry Project curriculum than with other science units. This was because the curriculum provided focus questions to guide the discussions. Three of the teachers explained that discussions in their other units focused more on “sharing-out”, such as designating one student from each small group to share the group’s findings. Two teachers described how they had modified other science units to include planned discussions like those in the Inquiry Project curriculum.

2. Perceived Benefits of Whole Group Discussions

Teachers’ commented that classroom discussions help improve students’ understanding. Noted benefits of discussion included: opportunity for students to share ideas with others, to resolve misconceptions, to answer questions or address confusions, and for students to hear their peers’ thinking. Teachers stressed the importance of students attending to their peers’ thinking, particularly to learn about alternative approaches and differing investigation results.

Teachers commonly talked about students’ sharing their individual thinking with peers, but didn’t explicitly describe students progressively building a shared, coherent argument together. There is only beginning evidence that teachers are using discussions as opportunities for students to “make meaning” in a more dialogic sense.

3. Experiences Teaching the Inquiry Project Curriculum

The eight Grade 4 teachers were teaching the Inquiry Project curriculum for a second time. They described having greater familiarity with the structure of the curriculum. They found it easier to set up the curriculum materials, and had better understanding of the goals of the curriculum.

Teachers found the discussions more feasible this time round. They identified the questions provided by the curriculum as particularly helpful in structuring and guiding student talk, and supporting students in responding to one another. They were more comfortable mediating discussions and more confident in their implementation of the curriculum.

4. Challenges Facilitating Classroom Discussions

Challenges described by teachers include: identifying when they should intervene and interject their opinions and when they should let the students carry on the discussion; difficulties ensuring equity in students’ participation; knowing the science well enough to facilitate the discussion and acknowledging gaps in their own understanding; the tension between responding to students’ misconceptions versus facilitating the discussion such that students resolve their own misconceptions.

Teachers seemed to have conceptualized their role as general facilitators helping students stay on topic and participate equitably. They less often described particular challenges of supporting science discussions, such as how to help students develop deeper science ideas through discussions.