Quality Talk increases critical thinking in high school STEM classrooms

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Fifteen years after its creation, Quality Talk has continued to expand and now includes high school physics and chemistry curricula. 

Designed to promote high-level comprehension and content-area learning, Quality Talk teaches students to generate oral and written arguments via small-group discussions. Discussions are led by students and facilitated by the teacher. The approach has seen success in improving elementary students’ comprehension of text as well as argumentative writing skills. Researchers now are applying the model to increase critical thinking and analysis in STEM classes.

“The central features of the approach haven’t changed,” said P. Karen Murphy, Penn State professor of education, Harry and Marion Eberly Faculty Fellow, and principal investigator of the Quality Talk project. “It’s very similar to the language arts project except we do it with science teachers and learners, and we provide scaffolds that are useful in understanding scientific phenomenon. Regardless of the content, the discussions still emphasize deeper thinking about, around and with the text and content, which is the key element of Quality Talk.”

"Regardless of the content, the discussions still emphasize deeper thinking about, around and with the text and content, which is the key element of Quality Talk.”

—  P. Karen Murphy, professor of education and project director of Quality Talk

Following the widespread adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) by many states, school districts were required to redesign their science curriculum to increase students’ understanding of scientific concepts and processes. 

“With NGSS, students are supposed to think more like scientists and engineers. It’s all about talking about the phenomenon,” said Ana Butler, project manager for the Quality Talk project, in the Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling, and Special Education. “While the standards say ‘this is what you need to do,’ they don’t educate teachers on how to do it. That’s where QT Science comes in.”

Like other Quality Talk projects, QT Science comprises four components — instructional frame, discourse elements, teacher modeling and scaffolding, and pedagogical principles. Each component helps students and teachers to use talk as a tool to contribute to critical thinking and high-level comprehension.

Quality Talk follows a unique student-led approach where teachers learn to slowly release leadership control of their classroom discussions and allow the students to lead their own discussions on theories and ideas relating to an observation (i.e., a phenomenon) they witnessed. To do this, teachers receive professional development training from QT Science coaches who help with the transition. Butler, who was a teacher for 23 years before coming to Penn State, said this can sometimes be very difficult.

“I speak for myself as a teacher, you have to be pretty confident with your own knowledge and abilities as well as your students' to release the responsibility of providing affirmation and guidance over to students,” she said.

In order for Quality Talk to be successful, students also must learn how to ask questions that promote critical thinking and invite thought-provoking responses. The teacher gives a series of lessons explaining the different types of questions and responses that are used for argumentation to prepare students for their independent discussion.

“As a former teacher, I know what it is like to ask a student ‘Why do you say that?’ and they say, ‘Because,’” Butler said. “So, we provide teachers and students with the tools necessary to help develop more critical thinking skills and we’ve seen tremendous changes from the beginning of our baseline to our QT post-tests.”

Butler also said it is important to understand that Quality Talk isn’t designed to be used for every lesson in every class. For example, she said, a four-day sequence of a 40-minute class could be broken down to include a 10-minute Quality Talk lesson to teach students some aspect of the different types of questions or responses of argumentation. The next day, the teacher could incorporate that lesson into their science lesson.

“We’ve designed a template for our science content lessons that incorporate QT and we have a QT Science catalyst worksheet that helps students get the conversation going by encouraging consideration of potential questions, claims and arguments,” Butler said, explaining that the lessons and worksheets are designed to follow the five E’s — engage, explore, explain, elaborate and evaluate.

“It’s great to hear kids say things like ‘This is the first time I’ve gotten to say what I think about science,’ or ‘Nobody has ever asked my opinion about science before.’”

— Ana Butler

To collect data, the researchers record classroom sessions, which teachers later view.

“The videotaping is very important because it allows the teacher to go back and observe not just the members of the discussion group but also how they as a teacher responded to the group members,” Butler said. “This helps the teacher become a facilitator. Essentially, watching the video is a form of professional development that lets the teacher see what’s working and what needs improvement.”

When starting QT Science four years ago, Murphy and Butler worked primarily with honors and advanced placement classes before moving on to regular academic classes at the request of teachers.

“When you do QT with students that are very driven, you’re going to get strong results, and it was amazing to hear some of the conversations that students were having,” Butler said. “But then teachers wanted to do it in the academic classes — classes where students tend to struggle with science content and it turned out that we had great results in those classes too.”

“It’s great to hear kids say things like ‘This is the first time I’ve gotten to say what I think about science,’ or ‘Nobody has ever asked my opinion about science before,’” she said, adding that one school has a very high transient rate and it was common for students to come and go frequently.

QT Science is funded by a $2 million National Science Foundation grant and will conclude next year. However, Murphy and her team are looking to the future and hope to explore the use of Quality Talk in other K-12 classrooms.

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marketing communications specialist,
College of Education

Last Updated October 24, 2017