The Talk Factory

Liveblog notes from another IET Tech Coffee Morning – Supporting ‘exploratory talk’ around an Interactive Whiteboard in primary school science, by Marilena Petrou, Cindy Kerawalla, Eileen Scanlon.

It was an ESRC-funded project, run last year. Develop & evaluating software to support particular sorts of talk.

Sociocultural perspective; communication as the basis of learning; carefully designed discussion key. Rarely happens in primary classrooms; discourse there needs to be more dialogic/interactive.

Exploratory talk (Mercer et al 1999):

  • partners engage critically but constructively ith each other’s ideas
  • ideas may be challenged and counter-challenged but challenges are justified and alternative hypotheses are offered
  • reasoning is visible in the talk

RQ were around the role of on-screen graphics and structuring the talk.

The Talk Factory

Software supporting scientific process: hypothesis, plan investigation, perform investigation, discuss findings/conclusions.

The software’s generic for any sort of talk, not just science tasks (?).

Shows six rules of talk (explain reasons, explain disagreements, asking others; not giving reasons, not listening, Interrupting). Rules presented to children. Teacher taps on these rules when a student makes a comment, as appropriate; software makes a bar chart showing how often each happens and a timeline visualisation.

Research Design

Observations in four classes (Year 5, 9-year-olds). Decide on features of talk to use. Iterative learner-centred development of software prototypes (Wizard-of-Oz approach – Dow et al, 2005). Then evaluation: videos of pre-software lessons (not using the software, for comparison); talk lessons; teacher training; software lessons; teacher and student interviews.

Then coded transcripts. Compared class discussion in control class and intervention classes, and talk in pre-software and software lessons in the intervention classes. Also ethnographic methods to look at teachers acting as model/guide for use of exploratory talk.


Clear differences in control vs Talk Factory class discussion and pre-intervention and TF classes – the TF users have more ‘agree … because …’ and ‘disagree … because’, and ‘I think … because …’.

Good practice/effective ways of using: Make the talk rules explicit to students, and common part of language in the class. Use TF to evaluate quality of discussion.

Also, the kids and teachers thought it helped. (!)

Supports view that talk skills are teachable. TF can help.


Me: Have found clear evidence of qualitative change in talk when using TF, and theoretical rationale for that being an improvement. Any delayed-post-tests? Impact on understanding reflected in assessment?

Marilena: Did try delayed post-test but can’t use the data because didn’t have sufficient consent from the control group (only about 1/3 of them).  Have evidence of better understanding of scientific understanding – spotting mistakes in other’s planning, for e.g..  Fair testing specifically.

Rebecca: Teachers interested in carrying on with it?

Marilena: Yes. One report (history), didn’t quite work well, perhaps used in wrong context – needs to be where a conflict between students can be obvious. Need disagreement to make it work – if everyone agrees then there isn’t the potential for a rich discussion. Needs to be planned in to the lesson – create opportunities for disagreement. So in expt provided lesson plans. One teacher tended to do that before using the software; another needed more guidance. Like any tool – depends on how the teacher uses it, and their beliefs/faith in use.

Ann: Needed training and support for the teachers.

Marilena: Yes. Was also activities where students developed rules and the rationale for them themselves. Success of TF depends on the task – you need the right task, the software only supports that sort of discussion.

Rebecca: Can schools use it? Free? Accessible?

Marilena: Not available yet. Given to school who participated, plan to give it away free. But current version still needs some changes.

Ross: How important is the software – could you use a similar approach with paper, like the prototype?

Marilena: Yes, but it wouldn’t give you the graphs and live output – in a classroom the teacher can’t hold it all in their head at the same time. Useful for real-time visualisation. If a student fails to give reason, teacher taps and it comes up immediately – prompts students to change behaviour. Eventually they just do it that way anyway.

Ann: Was a one-year project. Future plans?

Marilena: Want to do something with the Thinking Together project, not started yet. Would be good to explore in other contexts, or older students.

Ann: Could use it with politicians in an election debate!

Marilena: Or for teacher training.

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Author: dougclow

Data scientist, tutxor, project leader, researcher, analyst, teacher, developer, educational technologist, online learning expert, and manager. I particularly enjoy rapidly appraising new-to-me contexts, and mediating between highly technical specialisms and others, from ordinary users to senior management. After 20 years at the OU as an academic, I am now a self-employed consultant, building on my skills and experience in working with people, technology, data science, and artificial intelligence, in a wide range of contexts and industries.

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