Academic Discourse

Last weekend I was in Asilomar at the CMC-North conference. As it has been for the past three years, the conference was a great opportunity for me to catch up with former colleagues and hear some interesting ideas about teaching and math and about teaching math.

I was really impressed with the keynote speakers. Lucy West, who I had never heard of before, gave a talk Friday night about academic discourse. She was really good, and she was speaking about a topic near and dear to my heart. One of Lucy’s main points was that we as teachers cannot help our students become experts in academic discourse if we do not engage in the practice ourselves. She asked us to reflect on our own professional development sessions and on our collaborations with our colleagues to think about how often we as teachers engage in academic discourse.

I was happy to be able to say that I do engage in discourse on a fairly regular basis with my fellow teachers. This has not always been the case. In previous jobs the most regular comments I would make at faculty meetings would be snarky side remarks to my neighbor in the next seat. Nothing that even came close to the terms “academic” or “discourse”. I am glad that my environment has changed to a place where discussion is thoughtful and where I can recognize that my voice will be heard, even if not always acted upon.

My evidence to back up this claim is a recent discussion day that I had with a group of about 10 other teachers and administrators about homework. We really dug deep into the idea of homework, questioning not just how we assign homework and how much we should give, but whether or not we should even be giving it at all, and trying to identify and name its purpose. We demonstrated one of the key components Lucy West talked about in her definition of discourse: that “agreeing to disagree” is antithetical to the idea of discourse, rather that discourse is about changing your own and each others’ viewpoints to reach a common ground.

So, in this PD day (the hands-down, absolute best, most productive PD day I’ve ever attended), we read some thought-provoking articles about homework and discussed them as a group. Since we were a group of only about a dozen, and we were well able to carry on a respectful discussion where everyone was heard, we chose not to break into smaller groups. But that in and of itself was a concious decision, reached by consensus among the team. I won’t claim that we broke ground on writing the “golden rule” of homework, but we had an incredibly rich discussion.

Lucy’s talk got me noticing the types of moves speakers made at Asilomar that encouraged, or did not encourage, academic discourse. I have to say, the amount of discourse was slim to none. A couple of speakers had audience members do a “turn and talk”, though usually in these sorts of things I’m sitting next to someone I know (and generally tend to agree with) so the amount I learn from this is questionable. My last workshop on Saturday was actually the best example of “walking the talk”. We sat in small groups, we worked together on some problems and we shared out our ideas with the larger group. Not all types of presentations can follow this model, but I think it’s important to create time and space to let participants interact and respond to the presentation ideas. We all know that this helps our students learn. So the question is, why aren’t we doing it more ourselves?

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2 thoughts on “Academic Discourse

  1. Ha, I just wrote a blog post about this same topic today. I am very jealous that your school took the time for such an interesting homework discussion. If West’s ideas are true, I imagine your students also have long, interesting, productive decisions about math, even if they don’t come to a definite conclusion.

    As a side note, it was SO great to see you this weekend.

    • I know you did…I read it. Anyone else who wants to hear Geetha’s take (which is quite good) on Lucy West’s talk, go here: http://geethadownunder.blogspot.com/2010/12/asilomar-reflections-lucy-clark.html. No, seriously, go. I insist.

      I really liked your reminder about how student conversations mirror adult conversations. And I think you’re right on in your assessment about students at my school having interesting productive discussions about math that don’t necessarily get neatly tied up. That was my other “take-away” from Asilomar: the reminder that, “Oh, yeah. I should probably try to do some closure activities every now and again.”

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