Do conversation-driven lessons make any sense?

The age of conversation | Photo on Flickr by Kris Hoet
The age of conversation | Photo on Flickr by Kris Hoet

The short answer to this question is a resounding ‘yes’, and I could base my answer on experience – mine and also the one’s from lots of colleagues. However, we should all be wary of such things as “it’s worked with all my groups,” or the converse “it didn’t work with any of my groups.” These comments per se should not be the sole reason for us to jump to a conclusion as we do not really understand what’s happened in each one of these experiences. This leads us to the step of reading and trying to understand a bit more about the things we end up doing as educators. I’ve come across the following passage from Cozolino’s The Social Neuroscience of Education, and I guess this will be a good starting point for us to analyse the success of conversation-driven lessons:

The interactions we have with others directly affect the receptivity of the brain to take in new experiences and learn from them. If we are not receptive, we cannot learn. (Cozolino)

Conversation-driven lessons facilitate bonding

We all like it when we are heard. It is actually of the sentences new teachers are likely to hear a lot in training sessions: you should ask genuine questions and be actually interested in the answer. If we look at a conversation-driven lesson, these genuine questions are likely to be the very trigger we need to teach something we had established as an aim for the day. Not only will your lesson be more meaningful to your learners because they might end up talking about something that came from them, but paying close attention to the opportunities these answers give teachers in class a chance to help students socialise and learn from each other.

The human brain is a social organ of adaptation. By an organ of adaptation, I mean that the brain has evolved to interact with and learn how to navigate its environment. And by a social organ, I mean that humans have evolved to be linked to and to learn from other brains in the context of emotionally significant relationships. Therefore, the brain has evolved to learn within a naturalistic setting in the context of meaningful group and interpersonal relationships. (Cozolino)

This certainly helps me understand the importance of having a real conversation with learners in the classroom and how it helps me build rapport. By being genuinely interested in what my learners have to say, I can come up with questions and comments of my own that might lead towards the learning objectives of the lesson. This certainly helps me with scaffolding, and it builds trust. We need to understand how important trust is if we expect learners to accept what we are telling them as something that is worth their attention and effort. We need to work hard in building rapport and creating relationships. As a matter of fact, one of the most important aspects in the teaching-learning environment, in my opinion, is rapport.

Relationships are our natural habitat. From birth until death, each of us needs others to seek us out, show interest in discovering who we are, and help us to feel safe. We all yearn to be understood, recognized, and appreciated. Regardless of age, it is vital for us to feel a part of, participate in, and contribute to our “tribe.” The inabilities to connect, contribute to others, love, and be loved result in anxiety, depression, and alienation. This is just as true for principals, teachers, and school board members as it is for our students. (Cozolino)

A conversation-driven lesson is not just a conversation

I’ve also constantly heard teachers saying that they enjoy teaching advanced groups because students are able to carry out a conversation. Even though this is true, we need to understand the differences between a conversation-driven lesson and a simple conversation among friends. Students don’t come to lessons because it’s pleasant and just because they like their teacher’s company. This might be one of the results of being able to successfully connect to your learners, but it is not the primary objective of a lesson. Suppose you yourself decide to enrol for a course. What would you like to have achieved at the end of the course?

a) a better understanding of what you applied yourself into learning; or

b) a new friend – your teacher – even though you haven’t really learnt much about the course’s objectives.

The social neuroscience of education

At the end of the day, it is our ability to focus on our aims that count. An aim may or may not be achieved in one lesson or two, but not in the whole course. The fact that students who are already advanced learners of the language are able to hold conversations does not mean that they should be there just to practise what they already know. In any course you take, there should be learning. Perhaps, it is our inability to realise that there is more to learn – even for quite fluent speakers – that blinds us to the problem that the plateau of upper-intermediate learners. This might lead us to yet another conundrum: who should set the final aims of a learning activity?

If someone has decided to enrol for a language course, they do so because they expect to go past their current level of understanding and production. And this is exactly where I take issue with the claim that what matters is your ability to communicate. Learners can communicate at an A2-level in the common European Framework, and they are considered independent user of the language at the B level. Perhaps what we should do more often is asking students exactly what their objectives are and help them visualise what they need to achieve them. This is why I believe we should focus on the words driven and lesson when  we think about conversation-driven lessons.

You can demand high and still build rapport – actually, you should!

If we understand that our role as a teacher is not one of either being too much content-oriented or being too focused on the affective part of learning, we’ll understand that balance between both is not only desirable – it is a requirement. You cannot expect learners to thrive in an environment of competitiveness and stress.

Brains grow best in the context of supportive relationships, low levels of stress, and through the creative use of stories. While teachers may focus on what they are teaching, evolutionary history and current neuroscience suggest that it is who they are and the emotional environment in the classroom they are able to create that are the fundamental regulators of neuroplasticity. Secure relationships not only trigger brain growth, but also serve emotional regulation that enhances learning. […] The activation of both emotional and cognitive circuits allows executive brain systems to coordinate both right and left hemispheres in support of learning, affect regulation, and emotional intelligence. (Cozolino)

It is, then, a matter of finding the right balance between how much you should demand from your learners and how you do it. As Brown argued, the very first feedback we give our learners is the affective feedback. If we send them a negative message, they’ll simply block your cognitive feedback. However, if we do not give them any kind of cognitive feedback, they’ll fail to see that they aren’t really learning what they should be and mistakes will be fossilised.

A conversation-driven lesson might be just the key that is missing if we are to strike this balance. Instead of coming up with a whole bunch of tasks or content-oriented questions, how about developing your ability to actually listening to your learners and mastering the art of adapting your questions or being able to pinpoint elements that will be useful in your lesson’s objectives?


The Social Neuroscience of Education

Principles of Language Learning and Teaching

11 thoughts on “Do conversation-driven lessons make any sense?

  1. Conversation, communicative based lessons can bring the real world into the classroom. The points made here about building learner confidence and developing a comfortable group environment are also critical to encouraging learning. Conversation is challenging for the learner and the teacher, and I like the admonition that teacher should not give up to easily on this demanding, but rewarding task.

    1. It takes a teacher to understand how rewarding our job is! But it’s only rewarding when we do everything we are able to do so that our learners develop – and each teacher can contribute to their learners growth in a very unique way. Thanks for the comment, Dave!

  2. “….how about developing your ability to actually listening to your learners and mastering the art of adapting your questions…” Brilliant insight, Henrick (one of many in this great post).

    The concept of ‘adapativity’ is dear to my heart at the moment, as I participate in a discussion about ‘adaptive learning software here:

    As I wrote there: ‘The so-called ‘adaptivity’ of such programs is solely data-driven, not learning-driven. Learning, at least in Vygotskian terms, is a synchronized, interactive, co-constructed and social process, involving not only adaptation, but co-adaptation. As Diane Larsen-Freeman puts it, ‘Language development … occurs in social context. From a complexity theory perspective, such context contributes significantly to language development by affording possibilities for co-adaptation between interlocutors. As a learner interacts with another individual, their language resources are dynamically altered, as each adapts to the other – a mimetic process’’

    1. Hi Scott!

      I’ve been trying to follow the discussion on Philip’s blog – and it’s just impossible to go through the posts without reading the comments – but I must confess I’m a bit behind my reading. I guess one of the problems is that those who are making the interventions in education aren’t exactly teachers, but scientists. If there’s one other passage I can quote from Cozolino’s book, it’d be this:

      What successful teachers do to stimulate minds and brains to learn is more important than scientific findings from laboratories. Teachers are the expert in this domain and scientists should pay attention to their work, figure out why they are successful and explore what their successes tell us about how brains learn.

      Gathering and analysing data may be extremely important, but there’s a lot more adaptation that is needed than the mere adaptation of bits and pieces of content. Having said that, I’ll try to get up to speed on the posts and comments at Philip’s blog.

      Cheers and thanks for the contribution to the post! 🙂

  3. Great post! Some years ago I proposed that all it took to have a successful, demand high lesson was the ability to listen to the students and ask the right questions – neither of which is an easy thing to do, but as you say, most the most rewarding. A real interest in the student and his or her life is what defines a teacher, I believe, and that makes a conversation- driven classroom the teaching gold mine that it can be.

    1. Hi Candy!

      I agree with you. However, what seems to be really hard is understanding the subtle difference between teaching them through a conversation-driven class and simply having a conversation with them. As you said, it’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s got to be done anyway. As Anthony (if I’m not mistaken) asked a week or so ago, where are the Dogme teacher-trainers? If newcomers to the profession are just exposed to a whole bunch of rules, it’ll be even harder for them to break away from the model they might have been exposed to when they learned the language. And it’s not just Dogme, how about some of the points brought about in the Lexical Approach? And yes, we shouldn’t neglect grammar, but we also need to cover pronunciation. My point is that it’s now too easy to sit in your comfort zone and stop learning about different ways to teach. To my mind, teachers have to be resourceful, especially if we agree that people learn differently. I’m not so sure about your context, but in Brazil all it takes for you to have a job (fortunately not a good one – YET) is being able to speak the language at a B2 level – if so. It takes a lot of effort to show teachers what teaching should really be.

      Thanks for you comments! 🙂

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