Tom Hierck has been an educator since 1983 in a career that has spanned all grade levels. He has been a teacher, an administrator, a district leader, a department of education project leader, and an executive director.

A Beautiful Noise: Productive Student Talk Time

It’s a beautiful noise
And it’s a sound that I love
And it makes me feel good
—Neil Diamond

I’ve been working a lot lately with educators in developing curricular units of study and the corresponding assessments while talking about the learning skills necessary for students to experience success. As an aside, I’ve deliberately not used the label “21st Century” in front of “learning skills” as I think we all understand in 2017 that we are in the 21st century. It’s lost its cache or novelty. I don’t recall having a constant reference to 20th century learning skills when I was a student. I know that the learning skills necessary for students today are certainly different and, as a result, the teaching practices to support those skills also need to be different. How we use the evidence gathered from high-quality assessment is a key component to furthering and deepening the work.

It’s fair to say that we need to deepen the critical thinking skills of our students. It’s also important that we shift to conceptual understanding and away from understanding by an algorithm or rule. Both of these shifts will require more student “talk” time. As an offshoot of the advances in technology, it’s been suggested that kids today communicate more. While that may be true, I think it’s equally true to claim they actually talk less. They can spend an hour with a peer the previous night on their devices, but barely muster a hello the next day at school when they pass each other in the hallway. Teachers will need to provide the time to have students explain not only their answers but also their thinking as they developed those answers.

Asking students to explain their solutions (not just the why but also the how) may be foreign to some. They might be used to simply providing a response as a regurgitation of a fact or a basic manipulation of information—a level 1 or 2 response on Webb’s depth of knowledge. Critical thinking will require levels 3 and 4 on Webb’s or the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.

Ultimately this will mean less teacher talk time (think of five minutes as your maximum before turning it over to your students) and more collaboration between students. This will require a shift from what I call the right/wrong dichotomy that many of us experienced in our school careers. There was one answer—the right answer- and everything else was, therefore, wrong.

I’ll never forget the first time I was asked to explain a poem. I gave what I thought was a well-reasoned answer, but because it didn’t match the teacher’s preferred response, I was told I was wrong. You can imagine how many poems I wanted to read after that. Clearly I did not “get” poetry. Or did I? Imagine how the situation could have turned out differently had I been given the opportunity to explain my answer. I knew why the poem struck me that way, but the right/wrong dichotomy meant there was no opportunity for discussion or dialogue.

Using the evidence gathered from assessments and using the assessments as formative, will result in a shift in the dialogue occurring in classrooms today. It will mean more of the “beautiful noise” that is evidenced in classrooms where students are highly engaged and deeply involved in their learning, and their teachers are interested in hearing about that learning. It will mean a shift to what was once valued and haled as the most productive classroom—the one where silence was golden and reigned supreme. Educators know the difference between disruptive, non-productive noise and this beautiful noise. I know I’m enjoying the visits to the learning environments where there is that highly productive hum. It really is a sound that I love.

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