Exploring 6 Powerful Teacher Moves for Enhancing Dialogue in Digital Exchange Programs on Out of Eden Learn and Beyond

Devon Wilson is a Research Assistant at Project Zero, where he works on the Out of Eden Learn project and the ID Global project. This blog post reflects work that Devon undertook in collaboration with Carrie James.

Author’s note: In this piece, I describe insights from a series of interviews with educators who creatively utilize the Dialogue Toolkit to support thoughtful dialogue amongst students. I identify six powerful teacher moves and provide more details about how these moves are enacted in these teachers’ classrooms and contexts. For a distilled version of the six powerful teacher moves, click here.

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It can be easy for students to like something on social media or digital learning platforms, but how can we encourage students to expand their repertoire of skills for online commenting and exchange?

The Dialogue Toolkit (DTK) was designed to promote thoughtful commenting and meaningful discussions in online learning communities (including Out of Eden Learn (OOEL), the digital exchange program for which the DTK was originally designed). By highlighting specific moves that students can use in their comments, the DTK aims to slow down the process of responding and exchanging ideas with online peers. It also helps direct students’ thinking, and ideas for comments, in different directions in order to support a higher quality of exchange and mutual understanding between students.

Even with the Dialogue Toolkit as a resource, without teacher support, many students may still rely primarily on “liking” an online post or providing quick comments that do not move the conversation forward. The following strategies for enhancing student dialogue, using and extending the Dialogue Toolkit, emerged from a series of interviews with educators. In these teacher’s classrooms, we observed students using the Dialogue Toolkit effectively and seeing the value of using the Toolkit’s moves to support thoughtful dialogue. Specifically, in these teacher’s classrooms, we observed one or more of the following moves:

1. Model and Practice Different Dialogue Toolkit Moves 
2. Reinforce Physical & Electronic Presence of the Toolkit
3. Coach and Provide Feedback on an Individual Basis
4. Connect to In-Person Communication Strategies
5. Use DTK Moves in Delivering Feedback on Student Work
6. Discuss the Purpose and Value of Thoughtful Dialogue in Digital Exchange and Beyond

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1. Model and Practice Different Dialogue Toolkit Moves 

In Angelia Crouch’s Middle School World History class at St Joseph Catholic School, an emphasis on dialogue moves starts right away, in the initial footsteps (learning experiences) of their OOEL learning journey. After giving students an opportunity to look closely at the Dialogue Toolkit, she guides them in looking together at images and text from a few sample posts, asking them to consider some of the ways they could respond.

Sample Photographs from OOEL students Neighborhood Walk Posts

Photo by: D_patrick_star
Photo by: SpongeBob123
Photo by: ILoveSuperSmashBros

As she guides students in looking closely at a single post, she asks questions such as:
“What is one thing that we can notice about these pictures that stands out to you?”
“Can you tell from this picture what this student really wanted us to know? Based on how they’re taking the picture?”
“What questions does this raise for you?”

In addition to looking and thinking about a few posts together, students have the opportunity to look back at the Dialogue Toolkit and consider the different moves and ways to engage with other students’ posts. Later on, in the course of digital exchange, we see Angela’s 6th grade students continuing to comment in ways similar to the shared discussion questions described above. 

Looking closely and sharing details from other students’ posts: 
I love your map. I like how much color you put into it and all of the trees” (Dog Lord) 
“I noticed all of the foot prints in the snow” (Kathleen) 
“I noticed, when you look out of the window, you can see amazing views. 😀” (vsosms)

Raising questions to learn more and further explore with other students: 
“Which town was she going to when she were riding on the shuttle bus?” “What are some of the things you learned from the history of Concord?” (Vsoms)
“That is awesome! Has she renovated your house?” (Dog Lord)

See footnote 1 for suggested structures for Modeling Dialogue and Practicing Different Moves.

2. Reinforce Physical & Electronic Presence of the Toolkit

In Alexis Cole’s Elementary Studio at Liberty Leadership in Maryland, not only has the presence of the Dialogue Toolkit been increased through the use of a physical poster, but when questions arise about the toolkit, students are invited to use the poster as a resource, looking to see if they can answer their own questions. The ongoing visibility of these Dialogue Toolkit visuals and sentence starters in her studio remind students of the moves and underscore the value of careful, thoughtful exchange.

In Alexis’s studio, use of the DTK is framed not as a set of steps they must follow but as a way to underscore her emphasis on student agency and self-direction in their learning:

We want them to be prepared. We want them to be independent learners, that are going to seek the answers on their own – we do not think we should be like ‘figure it out without any guidance’ . . . they’ll take it (the Dialogue Toolkit poster) off the wall, they’ll take it where they’re working, wherever it suits them best. I do see them going up to look at it, or when it’s in the room, to go up and look. -Alexis Cole

One student in Alexis’s studio described his process for responding to posts, thinking about what he would recommend to a new Out of Eden Learn user, as follows: 

The Dialogue Toolkit, it’s pretty much the brainstorming of how you’re writing it – Try to think about what you want to write, before writing it. Put the dialogue toolkit somewhere you’ll remember, and then go up and look at it. Then it kind of gets in your mind over time.

In supporting her dialogue on the platform, another student referenced the resource as well, noting the most helpful thing was “Having it written down on paper let me be able to look at it wherever I was.”

In addition to the physical resource, Alexis and other teachers  mentioned making the Toolkit accessible to students electronically (e.g., posting the full PDF of the DTK on a class website/Google classroom) or reposting the moves from the DTK in association with daily learning goals teachers set for or with students. 

3. Coach and Provide Feedback on an Individual Basis

As is a hallmark of learning in project-based and deeper learning-focused experiences, the opportunity for feedback and individual coaching appears to have a positive impact on students’ effective use of the Dialogue Toolkit.

In Kim Young’s Social Studies class at Weston High School in Weston, Massachusetts, she’s noted that it’s easier for students to “like” or “say what they notice” about a post, but she’ll push them to use some of the more challenging, less frequently used moves such as Challenge (question or challenge a point of view or idea someone else has shared) or Name (name the aspects of your identity, experiences, or place you live that are influencing the way you see things.) In instances where a student may need more targeted support to effectively use the different DTK moves, Kim will coach students individually. In describing her process for one-on-one sessions with students, Kim shares,

We’ll pull up the response they did, pull up the DTK, talk about it. Based upon their personality, sometimes we’ll choose 3 moves, and we’ll brainstorm or model how for that response or their next response, they could communicate with greater depth. It’s a combo of brainstorming and modeling.

In the Stories of Human Migration learning journey, students compare and contrast two different media reports on human migration, critically attending to the ways in which the authors represent migration and migrants. Kim students’ comments showed a range of dialogue moves in action:

I really liked the way you paired the lines with polar-opposite views to show how different the perspectives on immigration really are. Do you think people who are anti-immigration are creating a fair narrative of immigrants (illegal or not)–and vice versa? If not, why? (23cr)

I really like how you use the voices from the two different sources to show a more vague and political point of view from the news, and a more personal and relatable point of view from Paul Salopek’s Dispatches. The exchange that stuck out to me the most is the line in which the news writes about the possible overflow of immigrants into Europe, whereas Salopek describes Syrians being forced to live in shipping containers, where there used to be farmland. Overall, you did a very good job at showing both very different points of view right next to one another. (h_c_l_23)

4. Connect to In-Person Communication Strategies

A similarity that emerged across all teachers we interviewed was that they viewed the Dialogue Toolkit as more than just a tool for online discussion. Rather, they viewed the DTK as interconnected with their classroom strategies for supporting students’ in-person interactions. In short, effective use of the Dialogue Toolkit was able to support existing strategies they were using in their classrooms and vice-versa.

Educator Kim Young describes how the deep thinking and uncovering of complexity promoted by the Dialogue Toolkit align with her expectations for dialogue and thinking in her 9th grade World History class, 

Topics of Socratic seminars require students to engage. . .the general conclusion is we always come back to “the answer is complicated”. We never in any of our discussions come to “an answer” Once they start to become more comfortable with that – what’s valued or rewarded in the class is being able to see nuance from  multiple sides – not having declarative statements.

Kim describes further how the Dialogue Toolkit offers a scaffolded approach to some of the thinking skills targeted in high school classrooms and the long term impact of connecting the use of the DTK with in-person communication strategies:

The DTK gives a framework for supporting students in terms of “the how” and “the why.” I think one of the most frustrating things for me as a student was getting feedback from a teacher saying “analyze in more depth.” I understood the feedback, but didn’t know how to change it.  At the high school level, students are developing the more difficult and nuanced skills of critical thinking and empathic listening – both skills that the DTK addresses.  These skills are teachable but there’s not a perfect formula – I can’t say ‘you do a, you do b, you do c, and now you’re empathetic.’  The DTK gives me strategies and tools to scaffold these skills for students; “Here’s how you do that. Can you look at these moves and these tools and engage with them?

The skills are embedded throughout whatever we’re doing. Not always transparently, but in my mind, everything we’re doing in class is structured around these skills. When we’re not doing OOEL assignments, students are practicing these same skills, through dialogue and critical thinking. It’s not like they turn off and on for OOEL. Students are getting more practice than what is shown on the discussion board. That’s why by the 2nd or 3rd footstep, some of the conversations are getting stronger, because we’re doing migration and OOEL as a fully integrated part of our classroom curriculum.

Similarly, Alexis Cole describes the how moves she uses in her in-person elementary studio discussion intertwine with the moves provided in the Dialogue Toolkit,

We have daily, twice a day Socratic discussions – launches in the morning and afternoon where we already have rules of engagement established. . . . . [initially] I presented the DTK to them, I let them read through it. Then I gave time for comments, asking “Is this a strategy you already use? Do you feel comfortable with it?” Like Circle of Viewpoints, certain things they’re unfamiliar with the jargon but they understand the principle of it. So it was a re-adjustment and reading – looking back at the resources and realizing, in Out of Eden we call it this . . .

A group of people sitting in a room

Description automatically generated

(Alexis working with a group of students Fall/Winter 2019)

Students reflected that opportunities to participate in thoughtful dialogue online and in-person supported meaningful shifts in perspective. One student in Alexis’s class shared, “Before I did OOEL, I had trouble keeping conversations going on other social media platforms, but ever since I’ve done OOEL, it’s been really nice.. . I ask more questions on Snapchat.”

5. Use DTK Moves in Delivering Feedback on Student Work

Utilizing Dialogue Toolkit moves when delivering comments and feedback on student projects is another move educators make to support a culture of thoughtful dialogue and familiarity with specific dialogue moves. This usefulness of the DTK for delivering comments and feedback for students was even observed for Master’s level students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Shari Tishman, a Co-Director of Out of Eden Learn and a faculty member at HGSE shares, 

Modeling the DTK tools when giving verbal and written feedback on student work – to me, that’s one of its most powerful applications. In fact, ever since the development of the DTK, I use the moves in my own teaching to give verbal and written feedback, even with students who have never heard of OOEL or the DTK.

In peer-to-peer editing, students can also be encouraged to use these moves to increase the depth and range of thinking and comments. Similar to structured protocols used by Project Zero in delivering feedback, Kristin Tarnas, a 5th grade teacher in Kamuela, HI, at Hawaii Preparatory Academy, describes how she guides students in initially using moves that show a thoughtful consideration and appreciation of aspects of others’ projects, “We use the DTK moves extensively in verbal and written discussion throughout the year. For instance, I will guide students to employ a combination of written moves with instructions like, “when you are giving your partner feedback on their Capstone project, it’d be really nice to start with what you appreciate most and then maybe a connect with and a probe to help them think of next steps.”

Similarly, in Shari’s graduate level class, she frequently uses the Appreciate and Probe dialogue moves, but makes an effort to model Snip, Notice and Extend as well. Shari writes “ I also make a special point to share the DTK toolkit with graduate students, so they know what I’m modelling.  Hopefully it will encourage them to use the DTK themselves.” 

6. Discuss the Purpose and Value of Thoughtful Dialogue in Digital Exchange and Beyond

For many students, participating in a digital exchange program such as Out of Eden Learn may be their first chance to communicate with a student from another country or context quite different from their own. Since most digital exchanges do not involve students meeting face to face, some teachers find taking time to reflect on opportunities and challenges before beginning a shared digital learning experience increases student investment. This discussion can include consideration of the potential for mutual understanding through the experience as well as the importance of respectful communication—and how practicing thoughtful dialogue moves with the Dialogue Toolkit can contribute to both. 

Mike McPharlin a 5th grade teacher at the Francis Parker School in Chicago, Illinois, describes,

In the fall when we are first introducing Out of Eden to them, I talk a lot about authentic audience. . . .because they will never have the opportunity to talk face to face . . . I frame it in that way to say, ‘this is an authentic audience for your works, we really want to take our time, we really want to take pride in it, but we really want to be cautious in terms of maybe how we also respond to people’.

A few questions that can guide conversation about the purpose and value of thoughtful dialogue in digital exchange include: 

  • What can you learn from an in-depth exchange that goes beyond “likes”? 
  • What are the opportunities that may come from engaging in dialogue with people who have different experiences and/or perspectives on topics from your own? 
  • When you share a written piece of work, art, or something meaningful, what sorts of comments might make you feel like your work is appreciated and understood by others?  
  • What sorts of comments might make you feel not appreciated, fully listened to, or understood?

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An Opportunity to Reflect About These Six Teacher Moves:

When leveraged as these educators describe, the Dialogue Toolkit is not only an opportunity to promote student engagement and thinking in current online activities, but also an opportunity to impact longer term habits that support meaningful exchanges, thinking and understanding between people in person and online. The six teacher moves in this guide contribute to classroom settings where student dialogue flourishes, and students feel better supported to participate in thoughtful dialogue with others from around the world. In thinking about how one may effectively support students’ dialogue, using the Dialogue Toolkit, consider the following questions:

  • Toward the beginning of a learning experience that involves digital exchange between students, what questions or provocations can give students an opportunity to practice engaging with different dialogue moves, and develop a sensitivity to when and why those moves might be of use?
  • How might the Dialogue Toolkit or specific moves be reinforced by increasing their presence both physically and electronically? 
  • If a student is not effectively using different Dialogue Toolkit moves to support thoughtful conversations, how might we engage with students one-on-one  to brainstorm together how the DTK moves can deepen their comments?
  • In what ways do the communication and thinking strategies in the Dialogue Toolkit connect with strategies that may be already in place in our classroom? How might the Dialogue Toolkit support and strengthen existing strategies used in our classroom and vice-versa?
  • How can utilizing Dialogue Toolkit moves when delivering comments and feedback on student projects support a culture of thoughtful dialogue and familiarity with specific dialogue moves?
  • How can we guide students to realize the potential, purpose and value of thoughtful dialogue in digital exchange and beyond?

If you’re interested in offering your students an opportunity to engage in international digital exchange in the coming semester, the next round of OOEL learning journeys launch in September and October.  If you’d like more information or are interested in signing up, visit us our Out of Eden Learn website or contact us at learn@outofedenwalk.com. 

Footnote 1:Additional Opportunities for Modeling Dialogue and Practicing Different Moves
Similar to activities designed to promote effective feedback between students, the following activity may prompt students to consider the benefit and impact of different thinking moves:
1. Before students post online for a footstep, have them print a physical copy of a draft post (or pull it up on the screen of an ipad or computer).
2. Let students walk around the room leaving comments on post-it’s for 2-3 pieces of work, considering the moves in the dialogue toolkit. 
3. Have students review the comments left for them, before discussing as a class, which types comments left by others pushed their thinking the most, or would prompt them to continue dialogue with the person who left the comment.
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If a teacher finds that students are only using a limited set of dialogue moves, they may share a few sample posts with students, directing student’s attention to 1-3 different moves, asking students which one they think might add to the conversation and how they might effectively use those moves. For example, if students are not often using the Snip (cut and paste a phrase or sentence from the original post into your comment) , Extend (describe how the post extended your thoughts in new directions or gave you a new perspective) or CHALLENGE (question or challenge a point of view or idea someone else has shared) move, the teacher might discuss these moves briefly with students, and ask students if they see any opportunities to use those responses in the few sample posts together. Giving real-time feedback to students about appropriate use of these types of comments.

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