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Talk Factory: Supporting 'exploratory talk' in primary school science

IET Technology coffee morning, 5 May 2010: Marilena Petrou. Previous research has found that...

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Rebecca Ferguson
5 May 2010

IET Technology coffee morning, 5 May 2010: Marilena Petrou.

Previous research has found that although students are frequently asked to 'discuss X together', their interactions are often ineffective (Galton & Williamson, 1992).  This is because students often fail to understand how to talk together (Dawes, Mercer & Wegerif, 2004).

The aim of the study presented here was to design and evaluate software-the Talk Factory (TF)= aimed to support the use of exploratory talk (Mercer, Wegerif & Dawes, 1999) in key stage 2 science.  Four classes in a UK primary school participated in the study.  In this paper we report the outcomes of our intervention on the quality of students' talk in a whole class setting.

Our data suggests that the TF is a tool that can be used to teach students how to talk effectively together by representing characteristics of exploratory talk.  In addition, is a tool that can help teachers to model exploratory talk and analyse the talk that has gone in their science lessons in real time.  We illustrate effective ways of using the TF to encourage the use of exploratory talk.  We consider the extent to which the TF lessons were successful and suggest future areas to be explored in a later study.

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Talk Factory is used to represent classroom talk. Explaining reasons, explaining disagreements and asking others are coded with sunny colours, and not giving reasons, not listening to others and interrupting is are shaded in shades of blue. These elements are explained to the class – along with happy and sad faces to emphasise which behaviours are encouraged and which are discouraged.

Teacher taps on the appropriate colour as children make comments. The software converts these into bar charts.

Groups within the class work together to plan a scientific investigation. Each group is asked to explain what factors they will keep the same, which they will change and which they will measure.

They also developed, together with the teachers, a series of lesson plan worksheets. This made sure that the lesson was carried out using the hypothesis testing approach. Group had to fill in their question, the factor they planned to change, the factor they would observe or measure, how they will measure this, and which factors they will keep the same.

They worked with four Year Five classes. One class was a control, two used the software, and one class helped with the design of the prototypes.

The study had three phases

Phase 1: Decided which features of exploratory talk should be represented in the software, and chose which graphical representation would be best to use. Decided on bar charts, and checked children were able to interpret these.

Phase 2: Used the prototype class to test prototypes and to program the Talk Factory software.

Phase 3: Observed a number of lessons on factors affecting ‘sound’. In these lessons the teachers did not use the software. Carried out a number of ‘talk’ lessons based on the ‘Thinking Together’ project, to make sure that students understood the rules. Ran workshops with teachers in intervention classes, giving them some examples of classroom talk, and some guidelines on managing discussion. Then carried out lesson on factors affecting influences on evaporation.

In analysis, focused on the extent to which students were using exploratory talk. Created codes such as ‘gives reason’, ‘does not explain’. This allowed comparison of discussion in control and intervention classes. Were also able to compare talk in pre-software and with-software lessons. Also used ethnographic methods of analysis to identify ways in which teachers were acting as discourse guides.

Discussion was richer when the software was used. Children tried to explain why they disagreed.

Both teachers used the ‘rules’ diagram to make rules explicit, and a common part of the language of the lessons. Children knew they had to explain their reasoning and justify their contributions.

Use of the software helped the children to improve their meta-cognitive skills, and improved their use of exploratory talk in the classroom. Children developed a clear understanding of how to talk effectively together. Teachers felt it worked really well in promoting discussion. They began to listen what others in the class were saying.

Rebecca Ferguson
09:24 on 5 May 2010

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Rebecca Ferguson
9:32am 5 May 2010

I'm interested in what happens when the investigators leave - how easy it is for schools to make use of this software without support. The data analysis suggested that this software can be very helpful in lessons which involve discussion and confliting opinion, but the teacher's experience of using it in a history lesson suggested that there are a lot of issues to think through in order to use it succesfully.

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