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Learning conversations

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Teachers and students from Kelburn Normal School discuss how developing dialogue between teachers and students into learning conversations has empowered students to feel that they can be more creative and individual. The emergence of student voice and the way students discuss their learning highlights the success of these conversations.

Professional learning conversations

These questions and suggested actions encourage you to reflect on your own school context.

Encouraging reflective thought and action

The New Zealand Curriculum (p34) states that:

"Students learn most effectively when they develop the ability to stand back from the information or ideas that they have engaged with and think about these objectively. Reflective learners assimilate new learning, relate it to what they already know, adapt it for their own purposes, and translate thought into action. Over time, they develop their creativity, their ability to think critically about information and ideas, and their metacognitive ability (that is, their ability to think about their own thinking)."

  • Discuss the statement above as a staff. Where are you and your students now? What are your next steps?
  • In what ways do you encourage students to take an active role in decisions about the content, process, and assessment of learning in your classroom?
  • How could you create a climate of mutual trust and respect whereby students can ask the questions they need to ask?

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Learning conversations and key competencies
A series of discussion tools focused on developing learning conversations between students and teachers, and students and students, based on the work at Kelburn Normal School.  


Justine McDonald, Principal

The learning conversations are the learners looking at themselves as learners and looking at what they are learning, and building their learning capacity. We talk about students learning dispositions within our learning conversations, so we really want our students to be empowered with several different dispositions, covering a spectrum, rather than just having one type of learning disposition and we believe that empowers the students learning capability.

Learning conversations in the special needs area

Linda Kingston, Teacher

The learning conversations in the special needs area are crucial. It is definitely the way to reach these children and form relationships through the learning conversations, and it begins with the way of developing trust between you and the child. Once you have the trust established, then you can work on the goals. 

It's pure dialogue, the conversation that you have with the child, but it is learning focused. It's not just having a chat with the child and getting to know them. It is you trying to find out what makes them tick; how they see learning; how they approach their world and how they see themselves. It is a dialogue that you facilitate but you do it in such a careful way that you develop trust with the child and you stop doing the talking and the child starts.

Charles Bisley, Teacher

We got the idea of learning conversations from a constructivist view of learning as dialogue in which learning and meaning is constructed. In primary schools the way this happens is through talk. We wanted to make all talk that happens in the classroom purposeful for learning. 

The key competencies triangle balances the three different aspects of learning, the personal, interpersonal and the cognitive. We thought learning conversations were a way of giving learning power to learners by taking the responsibility of learning away from the teacher and into the community called a class and the individuals who were part of that. 

‘At the beginning of the year when a task didn’t appeal to me I would switch off but over time I figured out that if I apply my knowledge and adapt the task to what I want it to be I can make it more interesting for myself and make more out of it.’


What isn’t a learning conversation?

A learning conversation is not a didactic conversation directed by the teacher focused on an intention or a goal with an obvious learning outcome in mind. What happens then is that learning conversations just become another content area of learning, another part of learning that students have to master that is controlled by the teacher. 

A learning conversation is first and foremost entirely open ended. If we could say there was a purpose of learning conversations it would be to build on the natural learning dispositions of children, in particular their wonder of the world, sociability, creativity, their love of invention and play.

‘We learn differently in this class because we accept everybody’s ideas even though it may not be on the right track it still gives a contribution to everyone in the class. You can open up your mind to that not straight forward point of view.’


If you observe a creative learning conversation at our school you see the children attentive to each other and really listening to each other. The fascinating question is why? That is because the students come to realise the key competency relating to others is vital as the other children in the class are the key resource to them in their learning. If children learn to open their eyes to the way other people see things, to open their ears to the way other people say things the teacher can transfer the control of learning to the community of which the teacher is a part. Relating to others is vital because everything follows on from that.

‘Everyone has their own individual style of writing and we are allowed to take a path so not everyone has to do the same thing, they can make a task their own by writing in their own style. It doesn’t have to end up looking the same. In some classes they want everything to be perfect, outlined and straight but you can sort of go curvy in this class.’


‘Everyone in the class is different, everyone has their own creative flair and everyone likes to do things differently and that makes it fun.’


‘I like having choice because it lets me explore different parts of me and my learning. It lets me explore heaps of new possibilities and I also come across some impossibilities but I figure out they are actually possible.’


So it is the emergence of voice that is one of the key indicators of the success of learning conversations. Learning is very personal, the children are making connections to their life world and things that are really meaningful to them not just success at school. We have to engage this connection. You can hear this coming through in individual voice. Also we know that students are learning because they can construct a coherent story of their learning. The child will be able to describe where they were, where they have come to and where they are going, not just I learnt this and this is the next step, which is an entirely impersonal process.

Updated on: 23 Feb 2010