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Talking to Learn in the 21st Century: A National Study of Digital and Face-to-face Talk in K-12 Classrooms


Research has established the central role of high quality discussion in the developing understandings of readers and writers (e.g., Applebee, 1994; Freedman & Delp, 2007; Nystrand, 1997). Studies particularly have focused on the promise of dialogic teaching, or instruction that provides students with ongoing opportunities to engage in “talking to learn” (Britton, 1989). With the increasing popularity of collaborative digital technologies in K-12 spaces, classroom talk has expanded into digital settings. However, the relation between learning and digital talk—what I refer to as the interactive written communication via signs and symbols that occurs in networked online spaces—is less clear. On one hand, research suggests that digitally mediated discussion in K-12 classrooms fosters critical thinking, collaboration, and new spaces for productive dialogue. Yet, there is also substantial evidence that teachers struggle to use collaborative digital tools in ways that support student interaction and learning.

This study works at the intersection of these tensions to provide what is, to my knowledge, the first scholarly examination of digital talk as a learning resource in and across K-12 classrooms nationwide. Drawing on sociocultural frameworks (Bakhtin, 1981, 1986; Engeström, 1987; Vygotsky, 1978), it uses mixed methods to examine classroom uses of Subtext, a popular e-reader that supports discussion inside e-texts, as a case to reveal issues related to digital talk. It aims to shed light on (a) discourse features of classroom digital talk, (b) the social and cultural contexts that mediate it, (c) online and offline practices that influence it, and (d) relationships between types of digital talk and types of learning.

The study integrates multiple levels of analysis, including survey and design-based classroom research. Data include survey responses completed by 451 K-12 Subtext teacher-users and systematically collected records from design experiments with an elementary school teacher and a high school teacher who worked with me to design and implement instructional practices aimed at encouraging dialogic student talk across face-to-face and digital learning contexts.

A central finding from the survey is that while nearly 83% of the participating teachers viewed digital talk as a tool that offered more opportunities for student voice, the top reported uses of Subtext indicate a disconnect between teachers’ reasons for using the app and their actual use of the app with their students. Most participants reported using digital talk as a teacher tool for teacher-initiated communication rather than as a student tool for student-posed questions and student-led engagement with peers. The gap between teachers’ uses of Subtext and their perceptions of its affordances and constraints suggests a tension between the intended learning opportunities associated with digital talk and the reality of implementing digital talk with students.

Findings from the design collaborations highlight how talking to learn in the 21st century happens in and across complex social ecologies. The elementary school teacher and I explored how her fourth- and fifth-grade students’ interactions in Subtext might support their developing understandings of the concepts of main idea, voice, and theme. Over the course of four iterative design and reflection cycles, the following “humble theories” (Cobb et al., 2003) emerged about digital talk that supports the learning of disciplinary knowledge: (a) student-to-student digital talk can help mediate a sophisticated understanding of disciplinary knowledge (e.g., the literary concept of theme) if a teacher organizes learning in ways that establish a strong conceptual foundation and explicit interactional expectations, and (b) digital talk can afford a transparent tracking of students’ developing conceptual understandings, making it possible for teachers to make accurate adjustments aligned with learning needs. Over the course of two cycles of iterative design and reflection with the high school teacher to shift digital talk practices, the following theories of learning emerged about digital talk in the classroom: (a) learning opportunities mediated by digital talk depend on how practices around it are socially organized, and (b) in order to support dialogic digital talk, organization of learning must account for the mutually influential nature of digital talk and face-to-face talk. Additionally, my design work with the high school teacher revealed that he felt most comfortable implementing instructional innovations with which he already had some familiarity and positive association.

The findings from this study have implications for research and practice. From a methodological standpoint, they highlight the necessity of researchers engaging in true partnership with teachers when designing “in the crucible of the classroom.” Design collaborations are always “contested terrains, full of resistance” (Engeström, 2011, p. 3). It may be tempting for some design researchers to define what knowledge means and the kinds of change that are valued and implemented, but engaging in authentic partnership, I would posit, means that “what works” in the classroom cannot be determined without a teacher’s co-participation and co-design. With regard to practical implications, recognizing the fluidity and reciprocal nature of digital and nondigital practices may help practitioners leverage the available tools and identify possibilities for learning. Furthermore, the dialogic nature of digital and face-to-face talk suggested by this study’s findings calls for increased attention to the education of in-service and pre-service teachers regarding classroom talk. With more talk opportunities available in face-to-face and digital settings, teachers need robust, ongoing supports to prepare their students to participate in dialogic learning. These include lenses to critically evaluate tool affordances and constraints relative to their pedagogical goals, explicit training in learning theories to ground dialogic planning and instruction, and access to practical tools that bring those theories to life in ways that account for teachers’ experiences and for the local contexts in which they teach.

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