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Accountable Talk: Instructional dialogue that builds the mind ( Educational Practices Series 29 )


When we think about talk in the classroom, most of us picture the same thing. The teacher stands at the front of the room, posing questions, asking students for brief answers, and evaluating their responses. This form of classroom dialogue, known as recitation, allows teachers to transmit facts and effectively manage large groups of learners. The assumption underlying recitation is that school is where children learn to repeat what others have deemed to be important knowledge.

However, we can and should set higher goals for all students. We can use the opportunity of classroom talk to teach students to think—to make knowledge. The time now devoted to the recall of facts can instead be devoted to helping students grapple with complicated questions, puzzle through new kinds of problems, and interpret complex texts. Rather than passively absorbing the small body of knowledge the teacher is able to transmit, students can learn reasoning skills by talking and arguing their way through problems to conclusions and solutions.

We and others call this type of structured discussion that supports learning “Accountable Talk” (2010). The differences between recitation and Accountable Talk go far beyond who is speaking and when. The nature and quality of talk, how teachers set up discussions and invite students to participate, students’ motivation to learn, teachers’ expectations of students, and students’ expectations of one another and of themselves are all affected. Often, when teachers begin to use Accountable Talk, the change in the classroom is palpable.

So, what is this special kind of talk? It begins with students thinking out loud about a complex problem that requires collaboration: noticing something about the problem, questioning a surprising finding, or articulating, explaining, and reflecting upon their own reasoning. The teacher works to elicit a range of ideas, which may be incomplete. With teacher guidance, other students take up their classmates’ statements: building on, challenging, or clarifying a claim (including a teacher’s claim); posing questions; reasoning about a proposed solution; or offering a counter claim or an alternate explanation. There are clear standards for what counts as a good discussion, often described as the “three accountabilities:” accountability to knowledge (getting the facts right even if it is a struggle to find the right wording), accountability to reasoning (providing a rational justification for a claim), and accountability to community (showing respect for the ideas and feelings of classmates). Overall, the teacher’s goal is to sustain a teacher-led but student-owned process of shared reasoning that ultimately leads to a more fully developed, evidence-backed conclusion, solution, or explanation.

A common objection to Accountable Talk from educators is, “Our students don’t know enough to have a meaningful discussion.” Some educators believe they should structure lessons according to Bloom’s taxonomy (1956), which orders cognitive skills on a hierarchy. If one sees lower-order skills as prerequisites for higher-order skills, then discussion opportunities could only benefit students who have progressed beyond the basics. However, research on discussion-based learning, recently assembled in Resnick, Asterhan, and Clarke (2015), does not support this view. Studies show that students in average and low-performing schools not only were able to participate in discussions, but they also significantly improved their general learning abilities, compared to peers who were not taught through a discussion method.

This booklet presents eight principles that address the “why” and the “how” of Accountable Talk 1 . While it is only an outline, we hope it persuades readers that talk can be a thinking process. We as educators can, and should, ask more of students than merely the right answer.