• by Paula Johnson, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • May 2015 •

The Challenge

Paula JohnsonAlthough teachers may be proficient in their subject area knowledge, many do not employ instructional strategies that engage students in academic discourse. Research by Schoen, et al. (2003) stresses the need for professional development that guides teachers and, in turn, students in redefining their roles in the development of knowledge. Providing teachers with professional learning in the use of instructional conversations and higher-order questioning is a critical element in laying the foundation for meaningful learning.

How do peer conversations about a student’s approach to a problem or conjecture regarding an idea develop critical thinking skills? What constitutes meaningful discourse? Is it possible to effectively increase understanding and engagement by delivering instruction through a student-centered dialogue model? In this article we will investigate the role that conversation plays throughout instruction toward building teacher capacity and student self-efficacy in subject matter knowledge.

Research supports the premise that in order to meet the challenges of an increasingly diverse population of learners, we must employ a student-centered approach to teaching and learning that not only relays instructional content, but also engages students in authentic activities that elicit disciplinary discourse (Lampert, 2004).

For example, defined as an inherently social activity by Schoenfeld (1992), mathematics is described as a set of rules that must be learned by students. Once learned, these rules have the ability to empower students as they move beyond the basic concepts to explore new understandings as they are developed. Schoenfeld further asserts that this requires both curricular and instructional transformation. These types of student experiences can only occur once students have learned to communicate with each other and their instructor, using the language of mathematics.

Van Hiele (2004) proposed that a student who only knows what has been taught to him, without any relevant connections or meaning, will not have the capacity to apply what he has learned in new situations. This transfer of knowledge is what has been lacking for far too long in the areas of comprehension and retention. Carpenter, et al.’s (2004) experimental study found that teacher’s awareness of students’ knowledge can more thoroughly support meaningful learning and critical thinking.

Unfortunately, in the traditional classroom, students are not linguistically involved in the lesson. They are the receivers of information, rarely producing opinions or suppositions. Without student voice, teachers cannot readily assess their level of understanding.

The Process

Instructional conversations are a form of discussion-based lessons that develop students’ conceptual and linguistic skills through guided discourse. Students engage in exchanges with their peers and instructor to communicate their personal understandings and negotiate meaning of content on various levels (Goldenberg, 1991). Providing students with multiple opportunities to discuss ideas with fellow students promotes peer-supported strategic thinking. Finding the “right” answer becomes secondary to discovering the process or reasoning behind a concept. The integration of this method of instruction with academically rich vocabulary and higher-order questioning is especially effective with language-minority students (Goldenberg, 1991).

Providing students with numerous opportunities to contribute to thought-provoking discussions surrounding content increases student participation and willingness to present their ideas related to topics of instruction. Moreover, as teachers improve their capacity for utilizing higher-order questions to guide student discourse, they also are able to more readily perceive student misconceptions and redirect students with questions that help them to revisit their thinking, dialogue with their peers, and choose a more sensible approach or conclusion (Johnson, el al., 2013).

IDRA developed a synthesis of effective teaching strategies guide that states: “Substantive conversations require considerable interaction that is on task and involves higher order thinking processes during the negotiation process (i.e., drawing conclusions, challenging ideas, asking questions). The discussion can have guidance but is not completely scripted or controlled by the teacher. It requires students to generate authentic discourse in a coherent manner to promote an improved collective understanding of the content (Newmann & Wehlage, 1993). It provides learning opportunities for students to interact with the content and each other through authentic dialogue guided by an essential question or learning outcome.” (Johnson, et al., 2013)

The guide (Johnson, et al., 2013) gives examples of what substantive conversation is not:

  • Lecture-heavy teaching where students are recipients of facts and information that is copied into a notebook or journal,
  • Just reading about a topic or discussing factual results of an activity (i.e., lab investigation) in small groups or partners,
  • The teacher providing lists of questions on a worksheet,
  • Asking close-ended questions with one word responses or questions where the teacher self-answers, or
  • Copying definitions out of the book as a vocabulary building exercise.

“Substantive conversations are critical for English language learners because…they provide specific opportunities to practice and build on listening and speaking skills using academic language that coincides with language learning standards and converges common core state standards.” (Johnson, et al., 2013)

The Results

Teachers using substantive conversations encourage students to bring to mind their own ideas and views of a topic, then engage in rich dialogue with their peers to identify common understandings, key information, and address any confusion about the problem. This method of inquiry allows students to collectively think through a problem before actually beginning to solve it. For example, a pair of chemistry students might hypothesize possible outcomes of an investigation before conducting the experiment. They scrutinize the problem as a doctor might examine a patient before determining treatment. Students learn to look for clues regarding how to approach a task or problem. They are able to view the work before them from a situational perspective, considering the academic vocabulary involved and calling on prior experiences to generate solutions.

Conversation plays a vital role in the modern cycle of instruction. In order for students to begin thinking like scholars, they must be placed in an environment that supports a community of practice that operates according to scholarly behaviors. This alternate base of engagement provides opportunities for discussions using academic vocabulary, high level questioning, and rich conversations. Students negotiate meaning through a structure that shifts the responsibility of learning from teachers to the students.


Carpenter, T.P., E. Fennema, P.L. Peterson, C. Chiang, M.  Loef. “Using Knowledge of Children’s Mathematics Thinking in Classroom Teaching: An Experimental Study,” in T.P. Carpenter, & J.A. Dossey, J.L. Koehler (Eds.), Classics in Mathematics Education Research (Reston, Va.: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2004) pp. 134-151.

Goldenberg, C. “Instructional Conversations and their Classroom Applications,” NCRCDSLL Educational Practice Reports (Berkeley, Calif.: National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning, 1991).

Johnson, P. “Building Critical Thinking through Visual Literacy,” IDRA Classnotes Podcast (May 2014).

Johnson, P., & V. Betancourt, A. Villarreal, R. Rodriguez. Synthesis of Effective Teaching Strategies and Practices – A Handbook for Secondary Mathematics and Science Teachers (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2013).

Lampert, M. “When the Problem is Not the Question and the Solution is Not the Answer: Mathematical Knowing and Teaching,” in T.P. Carpenter, & J.A. Dossey, J.L. Koehler (Eds.), Classics in Mathematics Education Research (Reston, Va.: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2004).

Newmann, F.M. & G.G. Wehlage. “Five Standards of Authentic Instruction,” Educational Leadership (1993) 50(7), p 8-12.

Schoen, H.L., & K.J. Cebulla, K.F. Finn, C. Fi. “Teacher Variables that Relate to Student Achievement When Using Standards-Based Curriculum,” Journal for Research in Mathematics Education (2003). 34(3), 228-259.

Schoenfeld, A.H. “Learning to Think Mathematically: Problem Solving, Metacognition, and Sense-Making in Mathematics,” in D. Grouws (Ed.) (Tran.) Handbook for Research on Mathematics Teaching and Learning (New York: MacMillan, 1992) pp. 334-370.

Van Hiele, P.M. (2004). “The Child’s Thought and Geometry,” in T.P. Carpenter, & J.A. Dossey, J.L. Koehler (Eds.), Classics in Mathematics Education Research (Reston, Va.: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2004) pp. 60-67.

Paula Johnson, M.A., is an education associate in IDRA’s Education Transformation and Innovation Department. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at paula.johnson@idra.org.

[©2015, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 2015 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]