Accountable Talk–it’s a thing

When I started working in whole school design reform, I learned a lot about how to get students connected to their own learning. I focused mainly on reading and writing, but also consulted for our science and math divisions. I worked for a company called the National Center for Education and the Economy out of DC. One of our partners was New Standards.

Fascinating stuff. We had standards, rubrics, exemplars (samples of great student work), and accountable talk was vital to it all.

The core concept was that if students didn’t know why they were doing it, what was the point? I mean, we all know the brain-as-vessel or banking method isn’t all that great at moving students up the taxonomy of learning (

Before you read on, please spend a few minutes with the Revised Taxonomy. Roll your mouse over every square. Think about what this means in your life as a learner, as a professional. It’s vitally important to understand Bloom’s (Revised) as a jumping off point to share with students about expectations for their learning. They are used to working in just the first few boxes. AND they frequently want to know how to get an A–just tell them what to remember, they beg, and when to regurgitate that information. Not okay. When you show them this dynamic chart, they can see where they are operating and what it might be like to learn information and translate it into knowledge, from remembering information to applying it to creating new knowledge. (The thing, BTW, that the university is all about after undergrad education, right?)

Back to the accountable talk thing again…

Basically: students and teachers need maps to know where they are going and why they are going there and what it means when they’ve gotten there–and they need to be able to talk about it together. Education maps. EduMaps. Standards/outcomes/rubrics. Keys to success. BUT ya gotta be able to talk about those things, too.

Talk, talk, talk. Super important.

Back in the day, we used extensive standards for writing and reading (my part of the R&D division of the company). These were created for K-12 and substantial with samples of great to fair writing and reading responses (New Standards mentioned above). These were not unlike the Common Core Standards and were widely adopted across the country well before No Child Left Behind and CCS. These were highly successful, and our company secured a LOT of grant money to implement in schools and train teachers–I worked on 13 million of grant money alone. I loved it. Standards for grade level writing and reading (for pre-K, too, which btw I used on my kid to teach him literacies early–from infancy); rubrics and criteria were transparent; students knew the standards and made rubrics for assignments with the teachers, and they each made it clear what work they did and how it met the standards. Standards were displayed everywhere in a classroom; everyone knew what they were (including parents); so unlike the mysterious educational system that molds us instead of moving us to be creative and critical thinkers, this system show everyone where to go and how to get there and helped them make sense of the journey.

And how to we learn from each other: talking. It’s one way, we learn from each other and from teachers, and a most effective way. But it’s talking WITH, not talking AT.

Learning through talking with one another works. You know this is true. When you talk through an idea, you learn. What have you done in FB but talk in order to: 1) articulate what you think; 2) learn new perspectives or approaches; 3) be not afraid?

That’s it. Be not afraid to speak, but have some guidelines for it–learn what you want to say that matters to you and then learn from what others are thinking. “Accountable Talk.” It is a thing. One of our intellectual leaders was Lauren Resnick who knocked it out of the park with literacies and standards, but that wasn’t her only accomplishment:

Accountable Talk at the Institute for Learning:

This is NOT intuitive stuff, but it does teach us what we’d all like our students to be able to do in small group or paired conversation, or even when you are guiding a discussion. You know when we are putting people in groups how some won’t talk? You know. Well, most students don’t much know how to do this talking business; they are insanely afraid to speak to one another; accountable talk principles help them find a way to speak (there are stems to help them find the right words to hook onto their thinking). Be not afraid. It should be easy by grad school, but sometimes it’s not. Right? Right. SO. Who needs to teach this? Every teacher ever in every subject. Right? Right.

This isn’t something you can pick up and teach in one class–this needs to be a philosophical base for your life. But I can tell you, it’s worth the effort. In the 1990s, New Standards and Accountable Talk changed my life. In fact, it was my work in educational publishing that made it possible for me to come back to teaching after I started and HATED it so much. I loved teaching after I learned all this stuff for K-12 kids. Actually, I worked mostly with K-9 and ELL (English Language Learners). And I loved teaching college when I came back to it. I applied all I learned and it was lovely. I get distracted sometimes now, by admin things, but the core of what I learned about getting students to talk and know what they should be doing buoys me up like a life-safer is rough seas, because, let’s face it, teaching is like jumping overboard every single term. Technique and strategies are what keep you afloat.

I believe Accountable Talk is worth learning more about. It will make you not just a better teacher, but a better facilitator of meetings, of small groups, of teams, of family members. (I still use a lot of these strategies on my son when he’s not looking.)

Here are some things to see/think about, but you could have stopped at the Institute for Learning’s site and be fine.

Video of a fishbowl demonstration: teacher and students work together to figure out how to show accountable talk or how they learn collaboratively. Amazing. Young folks can do this. College students can do this. BUT they all needed to be trained. AND the teacher needed to get it and make it happen. And demo it, and make it matter, and reinforce it, and over again, and over again. It needs to be part of every part of the course, every day. It’s how learning happens in the class, how collaboration is done, and then becomes part of the culture.

Another one showing accountable talk with kids: doing math! What matters: teachers who learn how to do this and then teach in small groups. Where are the other kids in the class? Music class? Art class? One can dream.

Teacher talks about accountable talk: not bad. This is all about little kids, but seriously, if kids can do this, anyone can. College students need to be TAUGHT this, esp. in BW. Heck, grown ups could use some training in this.