Carol Lee has found, in her research with predominantly African American high school students in Chicago, that at times in a lesson, students would break into animated discussion, all seeming to talk at once, speaking over or interrupting one another.7 On the surface, the discussion might have appeared chaotic. However, Lee showed that this kind of discussion could be highly productive in advancing the academic purpose of a lesson. She found that the students’ talk, when analyzed closely, showed evidence of rigorous thinking and of students hearing and building on one another’s contributions.
In addition to coming to school with different discourse experiences and styles, some children have had far less exposure than others to many of the kinds of practices that form the basis of scientific activities and investigations, including providing explanations, analyzing data, making arguments, providing evidence for their claims, and interpreting texts. An extensive body of research suggests that such cultural differences often lead to negative judgments about a student’s intelligence or the quality of their thinking. These judgments can affect a teacher’s expectations of how a student should contribute or participate in classroom discussion. Research also shows that it is hard for teachers to recognize and build on the reasoning of a student whose methods of communication may not be the same as their own. These subtle and not so subtle miscommunications with respect to language and culture in the classroom can lead to serious problems of equity and access, creating barriers to communication, student-teacher trust, and the conditions that nurture active participation and effort. This, in the end, can result in significant decreases in student motivation, participation, and learning, which can have far-reaching, real-life consequences in regard to knowledge and performance.
One way for teachers to overcome cultural and linguistic differences in students is to treat them as if they were highly intelligent foreign diplomats. This simple strategy is reliant on common sense. People recognize that foreign diplomats think and communicate in ways that they cannot always immediately understand or relate to, but they assume, nonetheless, that foreign diplomats are intelligent and possess unique talents and skills. Similarly, in a fast-paced classroom conversation, it may be difficult to immediately understand a student’s unique intelligence, wit, insight, and analytic skills. But the teacher can assume that they have an innate capacity to think deeply, to reason abstractly, to coordinate theory and evidence, and to develop sound arguments. An assumption of competence makes it easier to build on and promote students’ contributions, even if those contributions are incomplete, not entirely explicit, or are expressed in a nonstandard dialect. Once students are invited into the conversation, are given opportunities to