The following is a paper I co-authored with a friend and classmate about turn-taking strategies in different educational environments.
Within an educational environment the right of speaking in front of one’s peers is often taken for granted or overlooked in favor of the content that is actually being communicated. As educators we may not fully appreciate the power of communication we hold over our students because as Courtney B. Cazden points out “Teachers have the role-given right to speak at any time and to any person; they can fill any silence or interrupt any speaker; they can speak to a student anywhere in the room and in any volume or tone of voice. No one has the right to object.” However, how a teacher decides to allocate the floor to their students and the methods in which ideas are expressed represent very important factors in the quality as well as the effectiveness of communication.
This paper will take on a multifaceted approach to examining exactly how turn-taking is achieved in a variety of educational contexts, specifically how the setting in which the learning is taking place impacts the ways turn-taking is played out. We will first examine how turn-taking is expressed within a particular social science classroom and the challenges this setting presents. Moving on, we will then examine how in a different setting, such as a physical education class, turn-taking can take on completely different forms which present there own unique challenges. Finally, we will reflect on the similarities and differences between these two styles of turn-taking and argue that in essence turn-taking strategies seek to incorporate elements of different educational settings within their traditional contexts.
Turn-Taking Within a Social Science Classroom
To begin let us examine the use of turn-taking in a social science setting. Within the social science classroom I am observing, much of the turn-taking strategies are dictated by the limited amount of space the teacher is working with. Often, desks are arranged in rows where each student faces the teacher at the front of the room. Despite this ‘common’ arrangement, the class I have observed sometimes organizes the classroom in a large circle by removing the desks. Turn-taking in the circle is controlled by an artifact (in this case a large feather) that is passed around the circle. The teacher who follows and enforces the rules of the circle begins by posing a question or idea to the class and then sits back; students can then share their answer to the question or give their opinion of the idea only if they are holding the feather. If they do not wish to contribute then they pass the feather to the seat beside them.
I have observed that this method has the ability of encouraging students to ask each other questions while moderating who has the floor and how many people can speak at one time. It also allows quieter students to have the ability to feel less pressure about speaking, as they know that eventually the feather will make its way towards them and they can prepare a response, instead of being called out by the teacher who is frustrated by their lack of communication. This also prevents students who aggressively want to communicate their ideas from dominating the discussion, as they have to wait for their turn like everyone else.
Similarly, the circle formation has the ability to emphasize to the students the importance of listening because everyone in the circle can see who is communicating and is only presented with the opportunity to speak at allocated times. This is of prime importance as Cazden relates, “In a community of learners, students have to listen to and learn from each other as well as the teacher. That’s the only way for them to learn during the time spent solving problems in a group rather than just working alone at more traditional seat work. Beyond careful listening herself, the teacher’s responsibility is to help peer listening happen.” This method also has the result of raising the level of eye contact between the students who in a ‘traditional’ classroom setting may only make eye contact with the teacher.
Some of the drawbacks of this method that I have observed are that it forces students who may have an excellent idea in response to another student to wait for the feather to make its way around the room to them in which time they may forget an important element of their response or the discussion may have shifted elsewhere. Another drawback is that this method, although encouraging towards quiet students, still allows them to pass the artifact if they wish to remain silent and not communicate their ideas. Finally, the circle method can be challenging because it does not lend itself easily to desks and so it requires students to remember all the information shared within the circle. It becomes difficult for students to take notes on what they have learned.
Breaching the rules of the circle by talking without having the artifact usually result in a warning from the teacher, especially when they are still getting used to how the circle operates. Often it takes several experiences inside the circle before students will follow the rules precisely as sometimes eager students who really want to share an idea will speak out of turn. After the students are familiar with the rules of the circle and have been warned a further breach is looked upon as being very serious and can result in a student being asked to leave the circle and complete independent work on their own.
Turn-taking Within a Physical Education Classroom
Much like the way a gymnasium is organized differently from a typical classroom, I have observed that so too are the turn-taking strategies used inside of it. Unlike strategies used in a social science setting, physical education does not always rely on the students who would like to contribute, but rather those who would be best able to contribute. When my physical education class studied volleyball, the teacher selected students from the class who are on the school volleyball team to demonstrate and explain rules and regulations. The students who happen to be on extracurricular teams together often share a bond or relationship that differs from that of the rest of the class. These students will often stick together or call on their peers that are also teammates when talking about or demonstrating that specific sport.
Similarly, the students who are on sports teams (or more skilled in sports) tend to be extroverted, where this turn-taking method does not give opportunity for the more introverted students to answer questions or demonstrate for the class. If this method of turn-taking was put to use in a co-ed physical education class, one gender might receive more attention than the other. Being as males are physiologically stronger than females, they may tend to possess more ability and therefore perform a majority of the demonstrations for the class. Deborah Tannen’s examination of the way gender affects communication supports this observation. As Tannen relates gender difference plays a direct role in how communication occurs, specifically, “Men are more comfortable than women in giving information and opinions and speaking in an authoritative way to a group, whereas women are more comfortable than men in supporting others.”
Creative methods of turn-taking can also be implemented through learning new sports and making use of equipment. For example, I have observed one method that involves throwing a ball to a student to indicate that they are to demonstrate something from the specified sport with it, as well as explain what it is they are doing. Once they have completed this task, they are to pass the ball on to someone else. This allows peers to determine whose turn will be next. This method may be beneficial in allowing students who are normally quiet an opportunity to speak, however, when allowing students decide who will answer next, there can be a bias in who is chosen. Students tend to choose their friends or other students whom they know better. In the words of Cazden “Allowing self-selection of student speakers can be considered a way of “deregulating” classroom discourse, and like deregulation in other domains of social life, it can lead to new forms of inequality.”
The importance of listening is vital within physical education because if a student is not paying attention to instructions they may put themselves or others at risk of injury. With this in mind, when my physical education teacher has lost a student’s attention, whether it is to other work or a peer, she sometimes chooses to call on them to answer a question she has asked. This method of turn-taking relies strictly on a teacher calling on students, placing them on the spot to make sure they are paying attention and have understood what they have said.
If there is ever a breach in the teacher’s turn-taking method, she may stand quietly and wait for the students to realize that they are being waited on. Upon realizing this, the student’s cease talking and the teacher can continue the lesson. However, if the talking or misbehavior persists, the teacher may wish to single out the students, giving them a verbal warning. Also, if many students are disrespecting the teacher’s turn-taking method, a whistle (staple item used in the gymnasium) is used to grasp everyone’s attention and to signal silence.
To continue, let us now examine how turn-taking strategies seek to incorporate elements of different educational settings within their traditional contexts. As we have shown, turn-taking often takes a variety of forms that are limited to the particular settings of the classroom they are utilized in. A social science class is often limited by space and often requires students to take notes on what is being communicated by the teacher. There is also much less of a team dynamic to the social science setting as students mainly work independently. The content expressed within a social science class is almost always purely theoretical and so physical activity rarely finds its way within the classroom.
Physical education on the other hand can be argued to be restricted in a completely opposite way. The issue may not be a lack of space but an abundance of it, where desks may restrict a social science classroom; a physical education classroom may be restricted by a lack of clear organization that desks can provide. The team dynamic that is often missing within a social science classroom is heavily relied upon within a physical education classroom, which depends on much less independent work. Finally, the theoretical framework used in a social science class is rarely used in a physical education class, which relies heavily upon a hand’s on approach.
What is interesting is that in examining the ways in which these two settings impact the turn-taking methods used within them, we have found that the strategies emphasized often seek to achieve the dynamic found within the opposite educational context. In other words, the strategies employed within a social science classroom seek to utilize the characteristics of a physical education class and vise versa. The sharing circle method seeks to impart a community or team dynamic within the social science classroom without the restriction of desks and relying on the circle formation to express the physical presence of the other students as a way of emphasizing the importance of listening. The turn-taking methods observed in physical education such as the demonstration approach seek to break down the team dynamic and exhibit important skill development on the individual level much like a social science class. By limiting who has the ball or who demonstrates the skill we see a structure that is designed to provide organization to a large open space. By only allowing those most skilled to demonstrate proper technique this emphasizes the theory behind the action, not necessarily a hands on approach to learning (say by trial and error).
In summation, this paper has taken on a multifaceted approach to examining exactly how turn-taking is achieved in a variety of educational contexts, specifically how the setting in which the learning is taking place impacts the ways turn-taking is played out. We have examined how turn-taking is expressed within both social science and physical education classrooms and the challenges these settings present. We have also reflected on the similarities and differences between these two styles of turn-taking and argued that in essence turn-taking strategies seek to incorporate elements of different educational settings within their traditional contexts. Classroom communication plays a vital role in how students come to understand and relate the concepts they are introduced to within their classes. However the form in which this communication takes place, mainly through turn-taking strategies, has a direct impact on the ways in which these students will acquire and apply this knowledge.
Cazden, C.B. “Variations in Discourse Features” Classroom Discourse: The Language of
Teaching and Learning Portsmouth, NH.: Heinemann, 2001.
Tannen, D. “I’ll Explain It to You: Lecturing and Listening” You Just Don’t Understand: Women
and Men in Conversation New York.: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1990.
 Cazden, C.B. “Variations in Discourse Features” Classroom Discourse: The Language of Teaching and Learning
Portsmouth, NH.: Heinemann, 2001. Pg. 82
 Cazden, C.B. “Variations in Discourse Features” Pg. 89
 Cazden, C.B. “Variations in Discourse Features” Pg. 88
 Tannen, D. “I’ll Explain It to You: Lecturing and Listening” You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in
Conversation New York.: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1990. Pg. 133
 Cazden, C.B. “Variations in Discourse Features” Pg. 83