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Stanford Online course to help teachers promote classroom chatter

October 4, 2013
By Mandy Erickson
Talking students
Student collaboration and conversation is a key part of learning to think critically.
A new MOOC, offered by Kenji Hakuta and colleagues, aims to improve K12 instruction to meet new Common Core standards. Class starts Oct. 21.

Students often don’t remember what their teachers say as they stand lecturing in front of the classroom. They are more likely to remember their discussions with classmates. They are also more likely to remember when the class demands that they join in creative thinking with others.

“There’s a lot of energy around that,” said Jeff Zwiers, a senior researcher at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. “It sticks.”

Zwiers and GSE colleagues would like to help teachers around the world get better at harnessing that energy. Toward that end, they are offering a massive open online course, or MOOC, that shows teachers how to get students of all ages talking to each other and learning.

Constructive Classroom Conversations: Mastering the Language for the Common Core State Standards will be offered from Oct. 21 through Dec. 9 through the NovoEd platform on Stanford Online. It’s intended for working teachers who can practice with their students and collect examples of conversations and administrators and others who are able to observe teachers in their classrooms.

The class is free, and registration is now available. GSE Professor Kenji Hakuta and postdoctoral scholar Sara Rutherford-Quach will join Zwiers in teaching the course.

“Teachers learn the most by observing and working with their own students,” Rutherford-Quach said.

The course was designed to help teachers meet the new Common Core standards, which are being adopted by the vast majority of states. These standards require that in all subjects students be able to construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of their peers.

The MOOC, for instance, will have teachers pair students rather than divide them into larger groups. “We chose pairs because in groups of four, for example, two or even three students often check out,” Zwiers said. “In a pair, you’re forced to listen and respond.”

The course will then guide teachers on what material is best for this technique. “You don’t want them discussing everything,” Hakuta said.

There’s also an art to devising prompts that get students talking. Teachers will learn how to find the happy medium between questions that can be answered with a single word and instructions that are so broad (“Analyze this argument”) that students don’t know where to begin.

“There’s a balance,” Rutherford-Quach said.

Finally, teachers will learn how to nurture students’ conversations by asking leading questions and encouraging students to respond to their partners.

The MOOC instructors believe that these teaching methods will be especially helpful for English language learners.

“They’re often left out, and they need it the most,” Hakuta said.

As of Sept. 30, more than 2,000 people had signed up for the MOOC. Participants can expect to devote two to three hours a week to learning and applying the material. The course will feature videos of students in conversation, educators discussing techniques on a panel and PowerPoint lectures. The course will also have reading assignments.

Teachers who are enrolled in the MOOC will have the opportunity to share online written transcripts and audio of the discussions among their students, which were prompted by conversation-generating techniques the teachers have learned in the MOOC. They will also be able to rate discussions other teachers have posted.

Teachers will not receive credit for the course but they will receive a certificate and may be able to apply the hours toward career advancement.

Because the course is fairly short and the work is minimal, Rutherford-Quach said, “We don’t expect anyone to go from beginner to expert.”

Rather, the instructors are hoping the course will be a pilot that will spawn more specific courses on subject matters and age groups. They will offer the course again during the winter quarter, refining it as they receive feedback from participants and as they judge how well the teachers are rating each other’s posted discussions.

They also hope the teachers will provide enough student discussion examples to form a database that teachers anywhere can access and apply to their classrooms.

Whether the students are children in a classroom or teachers participating in a MOOC, Hakuta said, “We believe the best learning comes from your peers.”

To learn about two other recent MOOCs offered by GSE professors, please visit:

New online course: Learning to love math (Professor Jo Boaler)

Online course attracts 40,000 participants — and questions from GSE students (Associate professor Dan McFarland)

Mandy Erickson writes frequently for the Stanford Graduate School of Education.