How do you talk with your learners?

Such a basic question – and yet as an informal educator I was never trained in it. Unfortunately, that means I started out my teaching career reproducing what I had experienced myself: lecture-style tours with a few minutes for questions at the end.

But there is another way:

Reflective dialogue.

(By the way… some people call it reflective discussion. Same diff.)

A Thought Experiment … About Whales

Imagine you get this question from a student, or else it represents a standard you want to convey:

“Why are whales so big?”

Why are whales big?

Whales are big because as homeothermic (a.k.a. “warm-blooded”) mammals they need to retain a lot of body heat in order to metabolize their food and, well, survive. Water removes body heat very efficiently, so marine mammals have to use fur, blubber, and other adaptations to protect themselves from freezing to death. The bigger the animal, the smaller its surface area relative to its volume, which means being larger is more efficient.

Also, ocean animals benefit from the buoyancy of a body in water, meaning they expend a lot less energy moving their mass around than a similarly-sized land animal would.

It’s a great question, and it has a relatively simple answer. (I’ve shoved one way of explaining it into the sidebar, if you’re interested.)

But in your class, at your museum exhibit, or in front of the aquarium tank: How should you answer it?

Option A: You could recite the answer in the sidebar, lecture-style. Maybe show a nice photo of a whale under an ice floe.

Option B: Reflective dialogue.

  1. Show the picture, perhaps next to a picture of a mouse.
  2. Observe that “the smallest mammals are way smaller than the smallest marine mammals, and the largest land mammals are way smaller than the largest marine mammals.” Then ask something like Now, how did things get that way?

Where would this discussion go? Here’s one possibility, drawn from my experience teaching this exact question.

“Marine mammals have to be big to avoid predators.”

  • Elicit through conversation – a.k.a. reflective dialogue – that there are plenty of predators on land.
  • Also, the ocean has plenty of hiding places for tiny animals like shrimp and fish. But there’s no marine mouse hiding in the kelp leaves with them.

At this point, the dialogue might dwindle, so you prompt with your ready question:

“What would be hard for you about living in the ocean?”

  • More conversation brings up some ideas: hard to find food and predators (again) – but all of these would have been challenges for our ancestors on land, too.
  • Eventually (with more prompting if necessary), the dialogue would hit upon the key idea: it would be too cold. Humans would freeze to death very quickly if they were fully ocean-dwelling.

That kind of discussion would take a lot longer than a simple lecture, but it increases knowledge transfer and also help students locate the new knowledge in the context of their everyday lives. Now you can introduce concepts like homeothermy and volume vs. surface area, too. The dialogue has primed your learners into a relational, receptive mode.

Reflective dialogues give students memory footholds that they can recall later. Dialogue increases knowledge acquisition because we learn best relationally – as part of a two-way learning street, not as mere receptacles of lectured knowledge.

How can you lead a reflective dialogue?

A yearbook-style picture of David J. Voelker
David J. Voelker
U. of Wisconsin Green Bay
  • First, wrap your discussion around an object – an artifact, a photograph, perhaps even a poem or brief video clip. (In the example above, the object is the picture of the whale and the mouse.) David Voelker of the University of Wisconsin suggests two guidelines for these objects: they should…
  1. Be thought-provoking and open to a variety of interpretations; and,
  2. Connects with some issue or value that your group has a shared interest in.
  • Second, step back. Be the facilitator of discussion – the voice that ensures everyone has voice, not the voice of authority. Perhaps reinforce an idea occasionally or pick up a thread. Realize that the participants might be extremely challenged by reflective dialogue, so you should be ready to jump in with follow-on prompts. Voelker calls this “unobtrusive guidance” and points out that “it’s harder than it seems!”

  • Third, don’t disappear. So often in discussions – especially online ones, these days – facilitators seem to think they need to stay entirely silent or risk overwhelming the conversation. You can allow silence – sometimes that’s really valuable for a discussion – but don’t allow disconnection or apathy to take over. Although you should strive to center learner voice over teacher voice, that doesn’t mean being absent altogether. You’re the guide, leading the discourse, eventually, to a discovery.

One last thing … Front-loading

In the example above, I eventually wanted to drop some vocabulary on the learners, like homeothermic. During the reflective dialogue itself, I would usually use the more common but not-very-correct synonym warm-blooded … then, at the end, we’d learn that the better term.

Here’s the trick with vocabulary that’s going to be unfamiliar to any of your learners: front-load it. I tend to be blatant about this: before I start the dialogue, I’ll just ask my learners to repeat the word – “Say warm-blooded. Say homeothermic.” – and move on. If I have emergent English learners, I might even try to link the word to the home language equivalent – “homeothermic, warm-blooded, de sangre caliente”. Classroom teachers sometimes balk at anything that smacks of bilingual instruction, but this isn’t that – this is throwing out a lifeline so that your learners have a chance at some knowledge acquisition.

Oh, and, whenever possible, front-load that vocabulary in a visual form as well. Bring a small whiteboard, have some pre-printed cards at a huge font size, whatever. Hey, as long as you’re at it, take a page from the total physical response and add an appropriate full-body gesture to the word.

Wrapping it Up

Reflective dialogue is one mode of communicating with students – certainly not the only one. The critical lesson for informal educators is this: whatever approach you use to get your lessons across, it should be intentional. Know how you’re communicating and why; don’t just lecture because that’s the easiest way to say all the words you’re supposed to say. You might get through a lesson that way, but you won’t transfer much of your knowledge and, worse yet, you won’t create an engaged and inspired audience.

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A monkey viewing its own reflection in a hand mirror.
A monkey viewing its own reflection in a hand mirror.


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