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AfL in STEM Teaching MOOC- Week 2

Week 2
Intentional Dialogue

This week was all about ways of promoting active discussion and thinking as well as carefully planning questions to lead to effective learning. I’m thinking more and more that this MOOC would be useful for any educator, not just those of a STEM persuasion!

  • Carefully develop challenging questions based on misconceptions/areas of ambiguity in the subject.
  • Promote active discussion and thinking.
  • Write questions as part of your planning as forming them effectively within a busy lesson is a challenge.
  • Pre-empt students’ responses in advance so that you can decide what next steps might be.
  • The importance of planning

Eliciting what students know at the start of a topic is important but checking it throughout is important too.

KWL- Know at the start, Want to learn, Learnt
The WAY you use questioning is crucial. It’s not enough that you just do it.

Use questions for:

  • Addressing misconceptions
  • A better quality of answer
  • Combine open-ended questions and multiple choice.
  • Why do they have misconceptions and where have these come from?
  • Understand what’s in students heads deeply.
  • Not just what they know but what they understand and acting on this.
  • Using SOLO Taxonomy can help you to take learners further when they have a great deal of knowledge and understanding already.

Teach students the language of learning- areas of taxonomies, SOLO words, metacognition- they become independent this way.

We were asked to analyse 4 lesson transcripts and analyse each teacher’s areas for development.


Transcript 1

Teacher: A painter has difficulty trying to get the lid off a paint pot. Is it better for him to use a longer, shorter, wider or stronger screwdriver to prise the lid off? Hands up for longer? Shorter? Wider? Stronger? So most of you have gone for stronger or longer. Chris – why stronger?

Chris: Then he can push more and not worry about it breaking.

James: If it’s stronger it will make the force bigger.

Teacher: And the longer group?

Penny: Longer makes the force bigger.

My analysis: Hands up could have been replaced with whiteboards to avoid the learners just looking to one another and making their judgement, not through careful thought, but by following the majority or their best friend: giving the teacher an inaccurate picture of what’s inside the learners’ heads.

Instead of asking the majority why they had gone for what they did, the teacher should have asked the others too- so as to deal with all misunderstandings and ensure every student makes progress with their learning. Hearing why someone else is right, doesn’t always help with why the answer you have selected is wrong.

Probing questions were needed: How do you know that longer means the force will be bigger? How can you relate that to any of the experiments we’ve done so far? Can you draw an image that could help to explain that?


Transcript 2

Teacher: Is it always true that enzymes breakdown things? Chat and make some notes. Three minutes.

Teacher: Okay. Gail’s group. One idea please.

Gail: We thought it would depend on the type of enzyme. Lipase breaks down fats but it wouldn’t work on other things like starch. Teacher writes specificity on the board.

Teacher: Lee’s group?

Jack: We got that one and also the other conditions would need to be right. Teacher writes conditions on the board.

Teacher: Can you say a bit more about the conditions?

Jack: The temperature. pH.

Teacher: Janine – did your group get anything else?

Janine: We wrote denatured.

Teacher: Explain that one for me.

Janine: If the temperature gets too high, the protein structure of the enzyme unravels and then it won’t work.

Anna: Lock and key. Enzyme loses its shape and so won’t unlock it.

Teacher: All that you have said so far is right but I think you are only thinking about enzymes in the gut. Starch-amylase etcetera. Any of you thought about enzymes elsewhere? In the cell? In the mitochondria?

My analysis: ‘Chat and make some notes’ could have been more specific- talk it through with a partner and make notes about why it’s true plus any reasons for it being false… for instance.

The teacher asks ‘Gail’s group’ and then ‘Lee’s group’- it would be better to name the individual students as invariably, the same, more confident, students will likely answer (until you train them into other routines).

The teachers saves up valuable feedback until the end where they could have been used earlier to deal with misconceptions or misunderstandings more swiftly and generate learning.

Some of the answers appear to be surface level and potentially regurgitation of concepts they’ve been taught without any real understanding- for instance, ‘Lock and key.’ The teacher could have asked- What is that? What do you mean by that? How does that connect to everything else going on here? How do you know that’s the case?

Transcript 3

Teacher is about to shine a torch at an object, casting a shadow onto a screen, and then move the object closer to the screen and further from the torch.

Teacher: So we are going to ask Mr Clever, whether the shadow gets bigger or smaller, the closer you get to the screen? What do you think? Put a tick on the purple sheet if you think it gets bigger. If you think it gets smaller, put your tick on the yellow sheet.

Children line up besides the purple or yellow sheet on the board and draw their ticks.

Teacher: So 11 people think it gets bigger and 9 of you think it gets smaller. Let’s have a go now and see what we can find out.

My analysis: It would have been better for students to have done this task individually as the lining up part meant they could have been easily drawn to one or the other. Use of whiteboards could have helped here, or, time for everyone to write down what they think and then carry their post-it to one side or the other. In each of these cases, the learners are provided with a longer thinking time.

Their answers should also have been probed- Why do you think bigger? Why do you think smaller? This means that a high level of useful information is being gathered before the activity begins that can be used later on. Did it grow bigger or smaller? So, Simon, you initially thought it would get bigger and it actually got smaller. Why do you think that was? etc.


Transcript 4

Teacher: So let’s see what you found out from making your circuits. What happened when you increased the number of bulbs in the series circuit? Jason?

Jason: With two lights it got dimmer and then with three they didn’t light.

Teacher: Anyone get three to light? No. So three bulbs looks like too big a resistance for the circuit.

Teacher: So what about when you arranged the bulbs in parallel? Did the bulbs get dimmer this time?

Lola: A bit but not as much as.

Hannah: One of the bulbs got dimmer but the other one didn’t.

Teacher: Mmmm sometimes that happens because the bulbs vary a bit. How did the bulbs compare when you had two in series compared to two in parallel?

Hannah: It was dimmer.

Teacher: Which was dimmer – the series or the parallel?

Hannah: Both bulbs got dimmer in the series one but only one did with the parallel.

My analysis: This teacher was to quick to provide responses.
‘So three bulbs looks like too big a resistance for the circuit’, could have been replaced by- ‘So why was it not possible for more bulbs to light up?’

And again- ‘Mmmm sometimes that happens because the bulbs vary a bit’, could have been- so why do you think that was? What might have caused that to happen?’

The teacher could also have bounced the questions around more to get a wider number of views from the learners to ensure every one of their understanding was secure.

We were then provided with 6 videos to comment on the teacher’s successful techniques.



1- He repeated key aspects of vocabulary, nominated students and returned to concepts frequently- rephrasing to ensure it was clear. A little too much repetition- where he could have bounced questions around the room instead.

2- There was a great deal of collaboration because challenge was high and the teacher engaged them in discussion and solving their issues.

3- Random selection of students from a pot lead to all students being ready with a response but knowing who would be picked. She poses additional questions to clarify understanding based on misconceptions she’d clearly planned for.

4- She acknowledged that she knows 1 girl knows the answer but makes it clear that she’s going to ask someone else. She has a masterful questioning technique in knowing the students will pre-empt her next question so chooses to pose a new one- building on Joel’s idea… She also asks one student to whisper her idea to another student- so she still gets to answer but the other student, who was struggling, can feel pride too.

5&6- The students get a free choice, without prompt from the teacher, to experiment with the right tool for the job. Learning from their mistakes and discussing their choices.


Intentional dialogue is more than just talk:

  • Help reveal explicit thinking.
  • It requires time and a change in pace to allow it to happen.
  • Teacher says less and students say more.
  • Prevent ourselves from jumping in too early with a correct answer.
  • Give chance for students to build their confidence through approaches like think, pair, share.
  • Groups can raise their answers for comment.
  • Teacher voice can dominate and close down dialogue in lessons- limit it


It is not always easy to set up with all classes. Good classroom talk requires teachers to:

  • produce good questions that spark off ideas;
  • group students in a way that encourages them to share ideas;
  • listen in to student discussion, noting strengths and weaknesses;
  • make decisions about which student ideas to feedback to the whole class.


What difficulties might there be in creating good classroom talk?

Quiet students. Small class. Large class. Students have got into routines of dominating and/or not participating in discussions previously/in other classes.

What strategies do you use to help you create good classroom talk?

I don’t echo student responses by repeating them back to the class- My general response is ‘ok’ with then a further question to bounce it to others. I’ve also made space for completely student-lead seminars, with me as an observer- there only towards the end to pose further questions and highlight aspects that weren’t covered.

Explain whether you think it is more important to focus on mistakes or correct answers in classroom talk.

Focussing on mistakes is more important than correct answers as it allows us to surface students’ misunderstandings/misconceptions about topics. We can probe these to unearth the truth beneath them. This isn’t possible with correct answers.

If a colleague asked you to advise on how they might improve classroom talk in their classroom, what would you look for when you observed their lesson?

If a colleague asked me to advise them on how they might improve classroom talk in their classroom, I would consider their part in discussions- how much were they contributing and in what way. I’d consider how they modelled thinking and questioning themselves and how this was influencing the students’ use of thinking and questioning when left to it. I’d consider how questions and groupings had been planned.


Final thoughts

Intentional dialogue demands that the teacher plans questions in advance. From what learners say and do, the teachers can the decide on what next steps might scaffold and support further learning. The process will be quite different for small group as opposed to whole class dialogue.

  • the importance of deciding on questions at the planning stage;
  • the way in which questioning can make students think, challenge their understanding, and give teachers insights into students’ thinking.

Click here to read Week 1 Reflections

My writing commitment: I’m learning to honour my thoughts. I’m learning that my words can be shared before I’ve connected all the dots or learned everything there is to know. My writing can be a snapshot of a single moment in continually-evolving time.

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