I have been developing the use of Exploratory Talk in my classroom over the last year or so and I feel that it is a powerful strategy which has had a tremendous impact on the achievement of pupils I teach. Through the training of pupils in how to use exploratory talk, a culture of high expectations and the willingness to try – take risks – develop ideas independently, has flourished and alongside it, pupils’ results. For example, 95% of my Y11 GCSE English Literature class are making expected progress (the 5% who are not, refers to one pupil who has never attended a lesson) and 86% more than expected progress. This class have target grades of D-B. I was asked to share my use of exploratory talk in a whole school CPD session in January and have subsequently written this up in the following blog.
Exploratory talk (ET) is not rocket science – it is essentially getting pupils to have high quality conversations where they are sharing ideas and interpretations, asking each other high quality questions and basically thinking out loud. I first heard about it under the ‘ET’ title when I attended some wonderful English and Media Centre training on KS3 and Ofsted, led by Martin Phillips. He showed us clips of pupils using ET and shared a case study where a new Head of English he had been working with, had embedded ET into her department’s curriculum and results (which had been very low) more than doubled. This piqued my interest and I started considering how I could develop the strategy in my classroom and department setting(s).
For more scientific data on the power of ET in transforming the learning in the classroom, I point you in the direction of an OU/ CREET publication: ‘Thinking Together in the Primary Classroom,’ www.thinkingtogether.educ.cam.ac.uk. This research initially focussed on pupils aged from 6-13 years old, later concentrating on a group aged 8-11 years. I am aware that this refers to primary aged pupils and my context is a secondary school one. In my view, the earlier pupils are trained in ET, the greater their capacity to develop their thinking skills and achieve – this is certainly the ideal on which we secondary schools could then build. I have found that introducing ET later, in secondary school is still tremendously valuable (as my opening paragraph illustrates). The OU/CREET research found that those groups of pupils who were using ET, solved problems more successfully due to, “the ‘visible reasoning’ of exploratory talk in their transcripts,” enabling them to do so. Most interesting in the findings, though, was that it was not just in joint problem solving that pupils were achieving more highly: “As a result of taking part in the group experience of explicit, rational, collaborative problem-solving [children] had improved their individual reasoning capabilities. […] Children may have improved their reasoning skills by internalising or appropriating the ground rules of exploratory talk, so that they become able to carry on a kind of silent rational dialogue with themselves.” The potential of ET to improve pupils’ thinking skills across all subjects and for their life beyond school is extremely exciting.
Phillips had used Socratic Questioning as the basis for producing prompt cards to enable pupils to ask each other questions in order to further their group discussion. I really liked this. I have always used group tasks with pupils and to some extent, there has been ET going on in these groups, but, if I am truly honest with myself, this had been a bit hit and miss. Some pupils are engaged and deepening their understanding, some are listening but not pushing themselves to really be involved and some pupils are actively disengaged with the task and chatting/ doodling/ building a tower out of glue sticks … When we use teacher-led probing questioning, we model how to use exploratory talk. Again, when I really think about what impact this is having on pupils’ learning, I have to be honest and say that the best case scenario is that everyone in the room has deepened their understanding and is thinking at a higher level and the worst case scenario is that it has just happened to the pupil I’m directing the question at. It’s most likely that it is somewhere between these two extremes, but, for me, that’s still not good enough – I want everyone to be engaged and learning all of the time. ET seemed to provide a way forward with this goal.
My first attempts with ET were polar opposites of each other. The first class I attempted to use it with were a Y11 MAP (middle ability pupil) class. We were working on GCSE English Literature and studying An Inspector Calls in preparation for controlled assessments. I was trying to get pupils to write developed evaluations of Mr Birling’s character. I needed to move them beyond brief and superficial comments to deeper, more complex interpretations. ET seemed to be the perfect method. I had had them selecting quotes that they thought were of interest in relation to Birling’s character, I then gave them a selection of Socratic questions from Phillip’s training. I used those which were to ‘probe and reason,’ plus ones to come up with ‘alternative interpretations’. I gave them a sample response and the mark scheme, asking them to grade it and use the questions to help them develop their discussion of why the candidate had got this grade, and then to look at their own quotes and use the questions to help them explore and develop their evaluations of them. Pupils were in groups of 6. The lesson built up to the different tasks – it wasn’t quite all at once, as this description might suggest, however, there were too many bits of paper and activities planned in. All I succeeded in doing was confusing everyone. Pupils then ignored the question prompts and had a go at the tasks without them with the usual varying levels of engagement and success. I learned a lot from this failure, however.
Later that week, I tried again. I was working on Romeo and Juliet with a high ability Y9 class. This time I selected a couple of questions to serve as prompts for discussing what they learned about a key character (for my middle ability pupils, within the context of the group) from a speech in the text and for a key theme for the more able in the group, from a different section of the same scene. They had an overarching question of exploring what they learned about the character/ theme and the prompt cards were there for them to use to develop their ET if they needed them. The higher ability pupils (within the context of the class) had a couple of prompts to do with alternative viewpoints to encourage a range of interpretations too. There was one task and the questions were chosen carefully. Pupils then had plenty of time to explore and develop their ideas collaboratively. The work fed into independent analytical writing in the subsequent lesson, with pleasing results. I now knew that there was mileage in the strategy for my pupils.
I find that it is best to use groupings of 2-4 pupils ideally. With my Y7 group of lower ability pupils, I find pairs is the best way to go. If there are more pupils in the group then there is more chance that one of them won’t be involved as they can hide behind listening to the others. No doubt they could still pick things up from listening. Responding to and asking each other questions, however, is what is crucial to pupils embedding the ET skills and developing the way they think and learn independently too. Within my classes, I have found that putting the highest ability pupils (within the context of the group) and those with a high target grade, who may be under-performing, together in one or two groups and then using mixed ability groups across the rest of the class is most successful. An example of work done on Macbeth with my Y7 group, using ET: In pairs, pupils were given between 2-4 lines from 1,1 or 1,3 from the play. My ‘more challenge’ group were given 8 lines. All pupils were given the overarching question of, ‘why are the Witches in the play?’ and then were given the prompts of, ‘what is happening?’ ‘Why are the Witches saying/ doing this?’. The more able pair were also asked, ‘are there any words you think are interesting?’ and ‘what does it make you think about Macbeth at this point in the play?’. What was interesting, however, was that most pairs began to focus on specific words as they talked anyway. Pupils went from notes before working through this task, where they were saying the Witches were scary, to really close analysis, “I think the Witches are evil. They are, ‘wild,’ which makes me think of a wild animal. They make predictions to Macbeth and I think they are not to be trusted.”. I’ll just throw into the mix here that this pupil arrived in September working below level 3 from the Y6 reading SAT. Here, they are making some obvious points perhaps, but this is pinned to language analysis and interpretation. They would not have got there without having the analysis broken down in this ET task and being given the space to try out interpretations – having their view valued and feeling safe to say what comes to mind and then talk about why and try to link it to the play’s plot. In the past, I would probably have read the scenes with a low ability class, asking questions and interpreting out loud myself. This is good modelling, but there needs to be a point where you let go – pupils need to approach analysis/ evaluation of texts independently in order to have the confidence and the skills to do so at GCSE.
With my high ability Y11 class, who I tend to group in 3s or 4s, I have used ET since Martin Phillips’ training and so they have had about 18 months of working in this way. I began by using the Socratic prompt questions – having learnt from my earlier mistakes, I kept these slimmed down to only 2 or 3 at a time, often giving higher ability groupings (within the context of the class) 2/3 questions and my mixed ability groups 1/2. I often look at the key assessment criteria which we are trying to build skills for and build this into the prompt questions. What I have found with this group now though, is, I only need to give them a general focus – ‘What do we learn about the character here?’ (this could refer to a very focussed passage or entire chapter/ section of a text) and they are so well used to probing and interrogating, that they will just get exploring and come up with all sorts of fabulous and intelligent ideas. These pupils have embedded the skills. They make copious notes as they talk, so they can refer back to their ideas. Whilst these pupils are a high ability class, they are the fourth set out of eight and they do not have A/A* target grades. Several pupils are on track to achieve these though. The moment when the success of the ET strategy with this Y11 class really hit home to me, was when a pupil who I had regularly spoken to about brushing her hair/ applying make-up/ getting her phone out, in the first month or so of our time working together, had a few minutes to spare having completed what I had asked everyone to do, said, “Miss, I just had a few minutes there, so I had a little think”. She proceeded to show me the notes she had made as she had come up with a theory about Jekyll and Hyde which demonstrated the ‘perceptive evaluation’ required of the mark scheme.
I have used ET with groups to explore their writing too – trying out different pieces of punctuation and evaluating the reasons for their choices and the effects. It is not solely a tool for textual analysis. Indeed, I really believe that it has the potential to transform learning across the curriculum. As my examples show, as long as it is planned carefully, it has impact with all abilities of pupil. Following my initial success with ET, it is widely used across our English department and the strategy has now been shared in a CPD session with the wider school.