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Do we need to be held accountable for the way we converse?

Something not often included in discussions of administrative reorganizations and mayoral control is what actually sets New York City classrooms apart from those in other school districts. One defining characteristic: Teachers here are pushed to encourage “accountable talk” in their classrooms by requiring students to justify their claims and relate them to statements made by others.

The conversation strategy, which is available for school districts to purchase as a set of professional development tools, is meant to teach children who don’t have complex conversations in their homes how to discuss ideas in a respectful, academic way. But the approach has its shortcomings, at least according to a teacher at Brooklyn’s PS 108, Diana Senechal. On the Core Knowledge blog, Senechal writes that accountable talk can actually stifle conversation:

In education, “accountability” suggests a wrongdoing: we are made “accountable” so that we can no longer slip by with poor practice. Why, then, must a good class discussion be called “accountable”? Shouldn’t it be driven by something deeper, like desire for truth, curiosity about the subject, and respect for others? Accountability should not be our highest ideal; it has value and meaning only when higher principles are in place. Those principles present, a class discussion needs no special name. Accountable talk could help us out of a bog; but once we can breathe and walk, we should make full use of our faculties, using the words and phrases that seem best. One does not have to be “accountable” at every moment; there is room, in a good class discussion, for exclamations, tangents, and incomplete ideas.

Senechal’s entire essay, which includes riffs on trademark law and clumsy language, is worth a read.

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