What Conversational Competence Is and How to Embed This in Your Classroom Culture

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda are authors, friends, and colleagues. They co-authored the 2017 book, Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind.

More and more frequently, our eyes are on a screen as we engage with a task at hand. Whether we are working independently to meet a challenge; catching up on personal, local, and global stories; or creating and sharing experiences that are part of your digital footprint—we are interacting with more people than ever before and yet often feel more isolated.

We are asking a critical question: how do we strengthen the interpersonal, relational skills necessary for deepening our learning? As is suggested in this newsletter, it starts by providing the time and opportunities for students to be invited to join and stay with meaningful conversations.

We hear from employers that there are fundamental conversation skills that need to be modeled, taught, and provide feedback on such as learning how to focus on another person’s concern, listening carefully to what another person is saying, and how to pose thoughtful questions to better understand a point of view. We see this as an opportunity to build relationships within the classroom and beyond the school walls that goes to the very heart of the four attributes that describe our vision of personalizing learning.

We provide opportunities in which students learn through reaching out to learn through social construction—finding the significance and expertise in what others have to offer—becomes the norm. Social construction occurs as students seek out information, ideas, and perspectives to guide task development by consulting experts or peers who have intimate knowledge of the topic and using others as a sounding board to work through ideas or roadblocks.

Many opportunities to hone interpersonal skills

Students share the results of their work—their creations, synthesis, and conclusions—to guide others, illustrate thinking, and offer perspectives. For example:

  • Developing a project—such as a podcast—to hone their approach and actions
  • Engaging in an interview to better understand and appreciate another perspective
  • Collaboratively working on solving a problem or making sense of a text

Instructional Strategies to Promote Conversational Competence

Creating a culture

The language that we use to invite and participate in conversations is critical. Equally important is the tone of voice that you use. For example, when we say something like “Who can tell me what they are thinking about…” we are implying that there is one person who can tell us. This immediately sets up the students to be sure that what they are thinking is worthy and should be shared. Another way to say this could be “As we consider this information, what are some of the ways that we respond to this thinking?” Notice using plurals implies that we will be hearing from more than one student. Our tone is invitational. If we are going to allow for more than one, we cannot be watching the clock and rushing the thinking.

When we are planning for an engaging conversation, we need to consider how to open it, how to engage with the students, and how to let them know that there is a time frame for when to close it and move on. This is as true for staff to student interactions as well as student to student.

  • Do the words you use invite others to join in and stay with the conversation?
  • Are the questions you pose open-ended so that others will need to think before they respond?
  • Do you slow down conversations to invite people to have process time before they contribute?

In addition, we are growing a culture that centers on positive presuppositions of one another—that we each have something to offer and when we think and converse together, we learn. This means that we can be more spontaneous in our responses. We often hear people say fearfully, “I am just thinking out loud.” One classroom teacher made a banner for this in her room that said, “Thinking aloud allowed.” It is likely we will ramble, struggle to be heard, speak with greater passion than we mean to express. When we reflect on the conversation, we may learn something more about ourselves and the impact our thinking has on our relationships. This self-discovery can significantly help us to grow our interpersonal skills.


These two protocols come from the National School Reform Faculty. The way they describe protocols on their website is:

“Protocols are structured processes and guidelines to promote meaningful, efficient communication, problem solving, and learning. Protocols give time for active listening and reflection, and ensure that all voices in the group are heard and honored. Using protocols appropriately in meetings with colleagues, students, parents, and others helps you build the skills and the culture necessary for productive collaborative work.”

Connections Protocol: Making connections helps us to activate our prior knowledge as well as synthesize our learning.

Making Meeting Protocol: Making meaning is at the heart of social construction. It is through the social conversation with peers, experts, others, that we strengthen our capacity to think interdependently.

Thinking Routines

These provide many good strategies for fostering conversations that intentionally are designed for social construction. For example, here is one from Project Zero’s Visible Thinking Routines for students to “Think, Puzzle, and Explore.” The power of this particular thinking routine is that it values student’s prior knowledge and personal experience as they are making sense of a new topic. The voice of students is now paired with the curricular topic that the teacher brings to the table as they design questions, pursue lines of thinking and/or develop creations that come from that interaction.

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