Teacher Scholar Voices

Academic Discussion: What Does it Mean?

Teacher Scholar Voices

Mills Teacher Scholars’ inquiry work supports teachers to understand both what students are doing/thinking/learning and what is that they want students to do/ learn/think. Kirsti Jewel Peters’ exploration of academic discussion is a wonderful illustration of how teachers need time and support to make sense of complex concepts (academic discussion, balanced literacy, technology integration, critical analysis) on their own terms in order to effectively guide students to deeper learning. On her journey of incorporating academic discussion into her classroom, Kirsti starts with passing along tools to her students that were passed to her, yet through her Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry work explores the central–but often over looked– question: What do I mean by academic discussion?

What are we talking about when we say “academic discussion?”

The Common Core State Standards are here, and we teachers are trying to wrap our minds around how they’ll shift our teaching and our students’ learning experiences. There are gripes about the shift, confusion about what’s so different, and some praise that we’re not glued to past curriculum. Curriculum has been purchased across districts and professional developments are in session. Teachers are preparing themselves to take on the CCSS with excitement, some uncertainty, and a little bit of optimism.

Meanwhile, I’m in East Oakland, trying to figure out what this nationwide shift will do to and for my students. One of the big takeaways from OUSD’s discussion of the CCSS, is that, regardless of what you’re teaching, you must support your students’ usage of academic discussion. Academic discussion should be used in E.L.A! Math! Science! Art!

Sounds easy enough, right? Simply, teach your students (from K-12) about any given topic, and have them discuss it… with absolute sophistication.

Unfortunately, when beginning my inquiry around academic discussion in math, the simplicity of the task was lost on me. I kept wondering, what is academic discussion? Is it using jargon words associated with certain fields of study? Is it speaking in complete sentences? Does it mean using a British accent, and having your pinky in the air?

Throughout the year, I tripped and stumbled with my inquiry, trying to find a neat answer to my wonderings around academic discussion in math. I tried to support my students with tools that were handed down to me and that I sought out—sentence frames, manipulatives, guided questions, group roles, reflection time, hand gestures, math games, stuff I found on Etsy—I was desperately trying to get them to speak about math academically, not really knowing what that meant for myself.

What does Academic Discussion Sound Like to Me?

By winter, I needed to reevaluate my plan for facilitating fourth grade academic discussions in math. During my Mills Teacher Scholars sessions I watched and listened to recordings of my students working through math problems, and I didn’t see what I wanted to see. Some students dominated talking time, others either copied work from their neighbor, or quietly worked through the problem by themselves. Then there were the few that would simply spend their discussions arguing about everything, other than the math tasks I’d prepared for them. By this time, I’d used all the tricks I had, and only had a blurred vision of what I was looking for. I realized that before I could unpack what academic discussion looked like during small group math discussions, I needed to unpack what academic discussion meant to me.

I often get so caught up in my role as a teacher that I forget that some of the expectations I have for my students connect with expectations I have for myself. As teachers and as people continuously seeking more knowledge, we often engage in academic discussions. Keeping this mind, I stopped to consider with my Mills Teacher Scholars colleagues what academic discussion may and may not look like when I’m having these discussions with friends and coworkers. I specifically thought about what it sounds like when I’m in a small group, discussing something that I want to learn more about.

Academic Discussion Doesn’t Sound Like… Academic Discussion Can Sound Like…
* One word answers* One person talking* Immediate knowledge* The “right” answer* Always using one style of speaking* Always speaking in complete sentences * Explaining my thinking in sentences or phrases* Speaking in my home language* Silence*Struggle* Asking questions

Though I couldn’t recall someone defining academic discussion for me before this inquiry, I realized that I spent much of the year with assumptions. I’d assumed academic discussion was formulaic— speaking in completed sentences, using mathematical terms, and, then, arriving to the “right” answer. With my school being a part of the Math Cohort, I participated in many professional development sessions tackling the CCSS for math. Experts on math learning emphasized the students’ learning journey, rather than the arrival at the “right” answer, but I hadn’t bought into this Math Journey. I was still concerned with the “right” answer, rather than the twists and turns necessary to not only have the “right” answer, but to understand it. Once I realized my own misunderstanding of academic discussion, I redefined it for myself and my students:

Academic Discussion is…. A noun and verb. It is a thing that involves action. It is messy and complicated. It doesn’t fit into sentence frames, nor does it always use a particular lexicon. Academic Discussion can go in and out of different languages and dialects and may include a hybrid of slang and “School Language.” It varies, depending on the activity and the environment. Academic Discussion involves struggle— silence, questioning, and pondering.

How do students start on the journey of Academic Discussion?

Once I embraced a more nuanced definition of academic discussion, I was able to support more opportunities for academic discussions in the classroom. The good news was I had a classroom full of inquisitive students that had access to multiple styles of language. And while I discovered academic discussion wasn’t as rote as I’d originally thought, it does depend on certain conditions in the classroom environment.

The first condition that is necessary for facilitating academic discussion in math is providing engaging tasks. Simple word problems or traditional math problems may be necessary for individual practice, but in order for students to question each other, to stumble, to ponder, and, therefore have academic discussions, they need hands-on, rigorous, well-planned tasks that engage their thinking and, for my class, their hands.

I have carried the work that I did around math discussions last year into how I facilitate academic discussions in Book Clubs this year.

Most importantly, instead of focusing on providing academic sentence frames, I need to support continuous opportunities for building students’ Social Emotional Learning. Those students who had been arguing about everything other than the math problems, needed constant support with how to ask questions when frustrated, how to engage with multiple stimuli without getting overwhelmed, and how to receive someone saying “I disagree.” The Social Emotional Learning piece was and continues to be the most challenging, but most important part of the academic discussion work.

Through my Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry, I’ve realized the sophistication of academic discussions has little to do with the language used, but more to do with the varying emotions that get triggered and excited when grappling and understanding new ideas and concepts. I will continue to try out new learning tools and modify my practice to support academic discussion, but with a much clearer idea of what this means to me.


Kirsti Jewel Peters is a fifth grade teacher at RISE Community School in East Oakland and a Mills Teacher Scholar teacher leader. Aside from the work she does with academic discussion in her classroom, she is most passionate about the work she does as the lead of her school’s Race and Equity Committee. When she’s not thinking about her scholars, she’s likely reading a good book, or writing for her blog:  shesgotthemic.wordpress.com.