In the first blog post in this series I introduced Ritchhart’s Chapter on Language: Appreciating Its Subtle Yet Profound Power from his text: Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools (2015).

The first post from this Language Chapter focused on The Language of Thinking, one of 7 kinds of languages.  In this post, I’m going to begin a series that brings together, The Language of Listening, The Language of Community, and ideas from his Chapter on “Interactions: Forging Relationships That Empower Learners.”

The Language of Listening

In this section, the author highlights the power of being a good listener.  “Good” doesn’t mean agreeing with everything others say, it does mean engaging in a dialogue that includes clarification, making connections, building coherence (of ideas) and challenging…”not in terms of correctness or accuracy, but in the exploratory sense.”

Ritchhart says, “Good listeners ask authentic questions to clarify points, unearth any assumptions they may be bringing to the situation, and be sure of the speaker’s intent. To verify their understanding, good listeners paraphrase what speakers have said and ask speakers to verify that they have correctly represented their ideas.” (p. 83)

With clarity established [at least temporarily], a whole range of moves is possible, “depending on the context and goals.”  Clarity allows the participants (teacher, leader, students) to make connections among speakers’ contributions, thereby threading ideas together with the intent to creating a coherent dialogue.  If we then challenge ideas being presented, there is an opportunity to extend the conversation.  Learners can explore how these ideas might or might not apply in other contexts, to their own unarticulated ideas, to implications of the ideas and to other connections.

Listening, in classrooms, happens in a community of learners.  In Chapter 3’s discussion of the Language of Community, Ritchhart’s focus is on language that we use to show that we are part of a group.  Pronouns, in particular, are highlighted.  He points out the difference when a teacher uses “you…(are going to) vs. we (are going to).”  “We’re going to identify connections,” which indicates that the teacher is thinking and learning with the group.  In terms of creating a community of learners, the “we” must include the teacher not only as the director of the activity but also as a participant in the learning process of that activity.” (p. 72)

The second point of interest in this chapter is the use of “I”.  “…he (Pennebaker) has found that in reviewing email exchanges the person with less power is apt to use the pronoun “I” with greater frequency that the more powerful individual in the relationship.”  So, we might say that our use of pronouns can give insight into our sense of self, and our priorities, beliefs, and intentions.

A third point in this section on the Language of Community addresses the question of who is a member of the community.  As his example, he cites the question teachers might ask:  “What kind of answer are they looking for in this problem?”, bringing in the anonymous outsider to the task, situating the authority outside of the classroom. (p. 73).  The issue here is having students connect with authorities in a (the) field:  “It is harder to build an affinity with the discipline of study if one sits outside it and doesn’t even know the major figures who have contributed to it.” (p. 73)  Don’t we want students to become members of a discipline, to become mathematicians, scientists, historians?

The 3rd segment of Ritchhart’s text that is very specific to language use in his chapter on Interactions (Chapter 8).  I can’t and don’t intend to try to do it justice here (I really recommend buying this book), but there are a few ideas that are particularly relevant to listening and community: giving students roles to play in conversation, providing students with conversational routines to use, and establishing “rules” for interaction.

Ritchhart goes into great detail to describe the teaching and interactions in the 7th grade class of students with special needs, whom he refers to as “disenfranchised learners.”  He describes a “game” (Enbrighten) in which students take on particular roles to develop reading comprehension and language skills. The roles are summarizer, visualizer, vocab master, connector, questioner, clarifier, or predictor.  “Students then read a text together and complete their assigned roles in preparation for the class discussion which might be led or facilitated by the teacher of one of the students.” (p. 205) These roles are carried out with the scaffolding, support, and modeling that each student needs.

The author next describes a pattern of interaction (routine) that allows students to build on one another’s ideas.  In contrast to the QRE routine (teacher question, student responds, teacher evaluates), which he describes as “ping pong”, a basketball metaphor is suggested as a preferred pattern of interaction.  In the basketball routine, the “ball” (question) is passed around and ideas are bounced off one another.  Ritchhart then describes several multi step routines that engage students in thinking, sharing and reflecting.  They start with a free write, move into 3 person discussions, whole class sharing and then a Generate-Sort-Connect-Elaborate routine.

One final point from this chapter that I would like to highlight here: rules for interacting.  We might call these “educational ground rules.”  One set of suggested rules comes from the work of Herrenkohl and Marion Guerra (l998):

Contribute to group work and help others contribute

Support ideas by offering reasons

Work to understand others’ ideas

Build on one another’s ideas.