Meaningful Noise

By Karen Hurley and Amy Marcoullier, PCR Principal and Assistant Principal

When you think about it, classroom noise can actually be a good thing. Stepping into a classroom and being welcomed by a productive hum among students looks and feels very different than casual student conversation.  This hum, driven by student engagement, leads to deeper conceptual understanding and student collaboration.

Academic discourse is a structured form of discussion focused on a learning goal. It is the hum that engages students in purposeful discussion to process concepts and ideas at a deeper level. Students also hone critical thinking skills as they work in peer groups, as a whole-class, or through writing to utilize academic vocabulary in their explanations of key ideas.  

Academic discourse supports all students and works across all subject areas. Targeted prompts facilitate meaningful discussion among students and solidify conceptual understanding.  Consider the mathematical problem: 2 divided by 1/7. Like us, you probably learned the steps to successfully solve this problem, which starts by converting the division sign to multiplication and finding the reciprocal of the fraction.  While we arrive at the correct answer, do we really know why we execute these steps?  Here is a small excerpt of the same mathematical problem, approached utilizing mathematical discourse.

T:  Did anyone do anything different to figure out how many 1/7 are in 2?

S: What I did was I knew I had 7 groups (of 1/7). So if 1 has 7 groups then 2 has 14   

   groups (of 1/7).

T:  So you used this knowledge (teacher circles applicable fractions on the top of a   

   reference poster).

T:  So she doubled her answer (7) to get another whole.

T:  What if I were to ask how many groups of 1/7 are in 3?

The conversation continued with another student offering her reasoning and how it was both similar to and different from the first student.  Students were able to then agree that they were solving a division problem and students continued to discuss how the whole was divided into parts as well as the value of each part.

The above is an example of accountable talk, an effective way to elicit academic discourse in the classroom to push student thinking and solidify conceptual knowledge.  Other strategies of accountable talk include asking students to justify their reasoning as well as posing a counterexample. Possible questions the teacher might ask students include, “How did you arrive at that answer?” “Is this always true? or “Can you think of any other examples?  Strategic questioning can help students uncover the mathematical thinking behind the answers, encourage student collaboration, and increase cognitive demand among students.

While we explored an example of academic discourse present in a math lesson, effective curricular discussion is present in all subject areas.  In English Language Arts, students might respond to a prompt asking them to analyze a specific passage in order to draw upon various connections. There are three types of connections students might make with the text.  Text to self-connection questions include: How does this text relate to me? Have I experienced something like this? Text to text connections ask how two passages relate to one another.  Text to world connections address linkages to larger societal themes and cross-curricular concepts linked to social studies through prompts such as: How does this text relate to history?  How is this text relevant to something that has or is happening in the world today?

In science, students may engage in exploratory investigations and discuss prompts related to what they are observing.  They may also utilize evidence and details they researched to explain a scientific process or idea.  While the activities may look or sound different, they all promote complex thinking process and push students to co-facilitate the conversations.  

Meaningful noise in the classroom means students are engaged in purposeful discourse across curricular areas to not only arrive at a correct answer, but also be able to explain their thinking and engage in discussion with those who may have differing perspectives.  Academic discourse is meaningful noise that deepens students’ understanding of the world around them.  While it is important to understand procedures/algorithms, it is equally important to be able to communicate big ideas and apply learning to real-world situations.