Dyan Branstetter | January 2018
Using the Conferring Technique to Nudge Students Success
If you’re a teacher, “having conversations with kids” is probably something you are an expert at doing. Personally, sometimes it’s easier for me to chat with a 9-year-old than it is to converse with an adult, most likely because I spend 7 hours a day with the tween crowd. What if I told you that through these conversations, we could raise the rigor in our classrooms? Aside from designing challenging tasks for students, conferring is one of the main ways we can challenge students to think deeply while personalizing learning.
I know rigor is a buzzword that makes some of us cringe. This is the definition that I like: “Pushing yourself beyond what is easy.” This is our goal as we teach our students. We know that growth is in the challenge, thanks to Carol Dweck’s research in Growth Mindset. Our job is to create experiences for students that are challenging enough to push them, but not frustrate them to the point of shutdown. Conferring can take us beyond the chat to help students reach their potential.
What is conferring?
Conferring is what takes us beyond a “chat” with students and leaves them with something to chew on. It is an informal check-in with a student or group of students. Yet, in your “teacher-mind”, it should be thought of as a slightly formal conversation. To me, it is different than conferencing with a student, which tends to be planned ahead of time by the teacher. When conferring, a teacher is determining the course of conversation based on observations combined with strategic questioning. When exploring this in educational articles, I learned that the two terms are used interchangeably in some resources.
The General Steps to Conferring with Students:
Step 1: “Research”
Approach student or group and get to their physical level. Observe what the student is trying to do. Try to determine what the student knows and what he is thinking. Say something general such as, “Tell me about what you are working on.” (even if you already know) or ask “Can you tell me more about that?” While the student is sharing, silently select one thing, one method, or one strategy that would benefit this student to help move them forward.
Step 2: “Coach”
Acknowledge something skill-based that the student is already demonstrating. Ask a deeper, probing question to require the student to think deeply. These questions are not always at the tip of our tongues, which is why it is helpful to prepare some ahead of time. Utilizing question probes from Webb’s Depth of Knowledge is a great place to start when preparing these questions. (There is nothing wrong with carrying them around on an index card while conferring as a reminder until they become part of your routine!) This printable resource from Erik M. Francis’ book Now That’s a Good Question! How to Promote Cognitive Rigor Through Classroom Questioning shows different levels of questions that could be helpful for this purpose:
This conversation should guide you to determine what this student needs. Nudge the learner forward by sharing one specific point of instruction. Discuss which tool or model might help students the most, and give them tips or encouragement to help them persevere. Resist the temptation to give answers or even direct students towards answers. Scaffold student independence as necessary, and whenever possible, ask questions to guide students to their own discoveries. Your goal is to leave them with something to think about or a new direction to explore, not to give answers. These question-stems make all the difference in increasing rigor versus just managing students.
This document is a great comparison of traditional “helping” and the idea of conferring. It comes from the book Minds on Mathematics by Wendy Ward Hoffer, which has an entire chapter devoted to conferring. Regardless of the subject you teach, the ideas presented in the chapter can easily cross disciplines, benefitting all who utilize the technique.
Step 3: “Reflect and Record”
Ask the student what she now understands as a result of your interaction. Briefly, document your conversation, and explain that you will check back next time to see how it went. The next time you circle around to that student or group, make sure to follow up. This not only holds students accountable, but it shows that you were actively listening and that you have a vested interest in their success.
Conferring Should Be Quick
When written out, conferring looks like a lengthy, laborious process. However, most of what is written is the teacher’s thinking process. The actual conversation time with students is rather short. This allows you to continue to circulate, stopping briefly at certain students and diving in a little deeper with others. When you visit students where they are instead of calling them over to your desk or table, it keeps your proximity close to students, which indirectly helps with behavior management. It also allows other students or groups to eavesdrop on your conversation which in turn could move them forward in their thinking.
When Do You Confer with Students?
Once teachers assign students a task, whether it is independent work, group work, or partner work, we have a tendency to focus on behavior management. This may mean circulating to make sure everyone is on task or troubleshooting squabbles amongst peers. as soon as students are generally on task, seize the opportunity to confer with students or pull small groups. If everyone appears to be on task, some teachers take this opportunity to check email, grade papers, or do classroom tasks. I know there are situations when this is unavoidable (we’ve all been there!) but when students are present, the majority of our time should consist of maximizing every possible opportunity for instruction.
Conferring is Not Meant to Be a “Gotcha”
Students will look forward to your conversations if you make sure to approach them as a coach. Your goal is not to catch and point out what students are doing incorrectly, but instead to notice it and guide them in a different direction. It’s important that you are coming across as a partner sharing knowledge. The phrase “teach the writer, not fix the writing,” can remind us of our goal when conversing with students. I believe we can apply this to any subject. It’s vital that you are providing specific, descriptive feedback of what the student has done well and guide him to realize what he may want to reconsider. As it is stated in the blog post “Conferencing During Math Workshop“, It’s not a tutoring session but more about giving students that little nudge to work at a higher level.