How “Kid Talk” Can Change a Student’s Understanding

By Kathleen Cushman

kid talk

The teachers I know are always talking about kids in informal ways. They do it at the copy machine, at home, at social gatherings — anywhere they relax enough to answer the question “How’s it going?” And, like anyone whose vocation is to work with other people, their talk is full of stories. They tell of frustrating moments and of triumphant ones, of hilarious moments and heartbreaking ones. Listening, it’s so clear how much most teachers care what happens to their students, both inside and outside of the classroom.

But very few teachers have the time structured into their workday to turn that “kid talk” into a collaborative and productive professional discourse, which advances not only the teacher’s understanding but also that of students.

Kids’ stories matter to learning

Neuroscience tells us that all students come to us with existing knowledge, in the form of neuronal networks built up through their individual experiences. The information in those networks affects everything they know, think, feel, or do. So “what’s going on” with particular students matters enormously to their teachers on a biological level. It necessarily affects their learning process — their understandings or misunderstandings, their partial ideas, their developing skills, everything.

“We must let our students use the neuronal networks they already have,” writes James Zull in his wonderful 2002 book The Art of Changing the Brain:

We cannot create new ones out of thin air or by putting them on a blackboard. And we cannot excise old ones … Even the most focused of brains finds itself bouncing from neuronal network to neuronal network in a lecture or during a lesson. And the connections are totally unpredictable. A single word can send a mind off through a tangle of neuronal network underbrush.

The Motivation EquationDesigning a science unit on combustion in a Colorado middle school, John McKinney, a teacher-contributor to my book The Motivation Equation, asked his eighth graders about their own personal experiences of fire. Many brought up the terrifying wildfires that had recently raged through their state.

“I knew someone who’d been on fire before,” one kid said. Another called himself a “pyrotechnic,” saying, “The danger yet calmness of the flame interests me.” On the day that Mr. McKinney ignited a “turkey pan forest fire” in controlled conditions out on the school’s asphalt driveway, reactions from his class ranged from “Ooohh, you rock!” to cautious fascination.

Five months later, every single student could still explain with exceptional accuracy the central scientific concepts of combustion McKinney had targeted in his unit. No doubt the networks had altered for each student in very individual ways — but all had come away with substantive understanding built on the old ones.

How to use the stories

In schools that schedule regular “kid talk,” I have seen teachers working together in ways that acknowledge and make use of the individual experiences and mental models of their students. Together they look for ways to start their lessons with genuine inquiry. They don’t begin with what the teacher knows but rather with what learners already “know.” What personal stories, metaphors, images does each learner bring to his or her understanding of the world? The more teachers know about that, the better they can design lessons that race through their students’ neuronal networks’ underbrush and set their minds on fire.

Like McKinney, they may start with a powerful attention-grabber, then ask a question like “What does this make you think of?” What students come up with may be incorrect, but the artful teacher draws it out and builds on it, creating new concrete experiences that fill in the gaps, enriching and completing the ideas that kids arrive with.

Teachers cannot accomplish that without knowing their students: their histories and their hopes, their issues and their interests, the stories they carry inside their heads. That kind of knowing can’t just be shared with colleagues at the water-cooler. It deserves at least one schedule block a week in which teachers who share the same students (such as a grade-level team) come together to enrich each other’s understanding of who those learners really are. When thoughtfully put to use in lesson planning, the resulting information is worth its weight in gold.

What might this look like in your everyday practice?

  • Step 1. In class, ask pairs of students to take turns explaining to each other their previous experiences and ideas about the subject you’ll be teaching. (For example, “What do you already know or think about the rights that a citizen has under the U.S. Constitution?”) If possible, have them record each other’s responses on video or audio. Even in their roughest form, such clips provide valuable material—first for you in designing your lessons, and later for students as they reflect on how their understanding has grown.
  • Step 2. With colleagues, review what you’ve learned. What stories are your students carrying within their heads? What prior experiences or associations do they have with your material, either positive or negative? This tool (Tool,PlanningForMotivation) can help you make notes on both the value that students may already place on the material and their expectation of success in working with it further.
  • Step 3. Conduct a lesson study that focuses on designing tasks with student motivation in mind. Using this collegial protocol, Protocol_Designing for Motivation & Mastery, one teacher can describe to the group a lesson or unit in which students seemed especially motivated (or not). What were its learning goals? How did the teacher connect the task to what individual students valued? How did the teacher make sure that every student could expect to succeed at the goals? What input from students did the teacher have available?


For examples of what students are thinking about teaching and learning, check out these one-minute videos from the Just Listen series at What Kids Can Do.

WKCD’s 6-minute animated “Insider’s Guide to the Teenager’s Brain” now appears on Zaption in a self-paced guided video discussion version for teachers (free signup required).

Kathleen Cushman’s new multimedia e-book The Motivation Equation: Designing Lessons that Set Kids Minds on Fire is available free to educators on any web browser or iOS device.



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