Uncharted Tesol

Teaching: a long conversation?

     Clov: What is there to keep me here?
     Hamm: The dialogue.
     -Samuel Beckett, Endgame

One of the unexpected pleasures –and benefits– of teaching online, for both instructors and students, is the capacity you have to retrieve the traces of past exchanges. This is because the interaction is almost wholly conducted in writing – whether on the discussion boards, through feedback comments on assignments, or by means of occasional one-to-one emails.

This means that you can track the way a topic emerges, evolves and is elaborated over the course of several classes, and even a whole semester. For example, a student on my current (Language Analysis) course happened to mention – in a discussion on curriculum goals – that she teaches in a jail. A week or two later, in a subsequent discussion on pronunciation, the same student commented that the presence of a guard in her classroom served as a reliable check on her students’ intelligibility. This prompted me, the instructor, to ask her what the purpose of the “guard” was, only to be reminded of her teaching situation. This, in turn, triggered a number of other comments and questions about the challenges of that particular teaching context – situating it firmly in this class’s shared “story.” A story, moreover, that, in all likelihood, will be revisited, retold and elaborated on in future classes.

Of course, these shared stories emerge and ripple through most teaching contexts – it’s only  in an online course that they are easily retrievable. For example, Sylvia Ashton-Warner recognized the learning potential of such conversations, which she describes in the novel she wrote based on her experience as an “infant teacher” in rural New Zealand:

A rainy, rainy Thursday and I talk to them all day. They ask ten thousand questions in the morning and eleven thousand in the  afternoon. And more and more as I talk with them I sense hidden in the converse some kind of key. A kind of high-above nebulous meaning that I cannot identify. And the more I withdraw as a  teacher and sit and talk as a person, the more I join in with the stream of their energy, the direction of their inclinations, the rhythms of their emotions, and the forces of their communications, the more I feel my thinking travelling towards this; this something  that is the answer to it all; this . . . key. (Ashton-Warner, S. 1959, p. 67)

The “key,” once she discovered it, unlocked an approach to the teaching of first language literacy that was grounded in the talk that her learners generated. As she wrote, “I harness the communication [between the children] since I can’t control it, and base my method on it.” (1980, p. 104)

Neil Mercer, a writer on education, uses the term “long conversation” to capture the nature of these evolving turns of talk: “When a teacher and a group of learners are working together, the talk in one lesson can be thought of as one part of a ‘long conversation’ that lasts the whole of their relationship.” (1995, p.70)  Far from being incidental to learning, these conversations, in serving to scaffold the processes of joint discovery, constitute the very stuff of learning:

According to the theory, talk is used to construct knowledge. This is a social, historical process, in the sense that the talk generates its own context and continuity, so that the knowledge that is created carries with it echoes of the conversations in which it was generated. (1995, p.84)

As I say, the online discussion board provides a means of tracing these “echoes” as they ripple through a course, and hence this has become an important locus of research into online learning.

Not all scholars are convinced, though, that the quality of online conversations captures the kind of immediacy that Ashton-Warner described above: “…the stream of their energy, the direction of their inclinations, the rhythms of their emotions, and the forces of their communications…” By contrast, one early researcher characterized the dominant discourse mode of online discussion boards as ”‘serial monologues” i.e. “messages posted by individual participants to share their experiences without connecting to each other’s messages.” (Henri , 1992, cited in Shinn & Bickel, 2012, p. 107.)

Likewise, in her book, Reclaiming Conversation (2015), Sherry Turkle is not persuaded that online interaction captures the contingent quality of face-to-face talk. She notes that, “In face-to-face settings, faculty become experienced in handling difficult conversations. For example, they can gently stop students who begin to share too much. Or help students deal with emotionally charged material that may be hard to process but is nonetheless relevant to the central themes of the class. In an online discussion, this is harder to do.” (p.233)

Moreover, she is highly skeptical of claims for the benefits of introducing so-called interactive technologies, such as interactive whiteboards, into existing classrooms: “These days, teaching by conversation is talked about as crucial… But at the same time, there is pressure to use technology in classrooms in ways that make conversation nearly impossible. Interestingly, this technology is often presented as supporting student ‘engagement.’” (p.242)

It is for these reasons that The New School MATESOL program is experimenting with ways of creating more immediacy, contingency and real-time engagement in our on-line classes. Using easily accessible video conferencing software, such as Zoom, we’re introducing synchronous (i.e. real-time) sessions on a regular basis, so that students can interact directly with their instructors and with one another. This is part of an overall New School strategy to enhance the learning process for online learners, by foregrounding, extending and deepening the “long conversation.” I hope to report on this later on – stay tuned!

Author’s biography: Scott Thornbury teaches on the MA TESOL program at The New School. His previous experience includes teaching and teacher training in Egypt, UK, Spain, and in his native New Zealand. His writing credits include several award-winning books for teachers on language and methodology. His most recent book is Scott Thornbury’s 101 Grammar Questions (Cambridge). He is also series editor for the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers. The picture on the left was taken by Martin Seck during the New School MATESOL summer intensives in 2015.


Ashton-Warner, S. (1963, 1980). Teacher. London: Virago.

Ashton-Warner, S. (1971). Spinster. London: Secker & Warburg.

Mercer, N. (1995) The Guided Construction of Knowledge: Talk amongst teachers and learners. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Shinn, J. K. And Bickel, B. (2012). ‘Building an online community of inquiry with participant-moderated discussions’, in England, L. (2012) Online Language Teacher Education: TESOL perspectives. London: Routledge.

Turkle, S. (2015) Reclaiming Conversation: The power of talk in a digital age. New York: Penguin.

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