Book Talk: Insights from Conversation Analysis

| November 2, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-10-30 at 12.34.19 PMOn October 26th, Teachers College professor and program director Hansun Zhang Waring captivated a standing-room-only audience in Gottesman Libraries with an eagerly awaited talk on her book, Theorizing Pedagogical Interaction: Insights from Conversation Analysis, first published by CRC/Routledge in 2016. A scholar in language and social interaction, Professor Waring introduced her subject with a story about her own first teachers in China. Her father had a gift for making complicated things simple. Her grandmother demonstrated that you don’t need to know something well to teach it effectively. These early teachers struck her as nothing less than superheroes.

While Professor Waring continues to consider good teaching to be the act of superheroes, her work reveals that you can learn to be a successful teacher. Using the discipline of Conversation Analysis to examine pedagogical interactions, Professor Waring’s studies coalesce into three larger themes: competence, contingency, and complexity. By applying these three principles in the classroom, good teaching becomes something that can be taught and replicated.

Based in the social sciences, Conversation Analysis affords a view of the entire world of pedagogy through observing the minute details of classroom interaction. A turn-by-turn analysis of participants’ conduct is produced from analyzing numerous recordings and transcriptions that convey not just what is said, but how. Professor Waring terms this analysis the “why that now?” Conversation Analysis employs a fascinating technical system that uses symbols to capture nuances of speech. These nuances include quickened pace; Screen Shot 2017-10-30 at 12.51.26 PMmeasured silence; quiet speech; raised pitch; volume range; and sound stretch. A $ sign, for example, is the symbol that indicates a “smiling voice.”

Professor Waring walked the audience through a series of videotaped data extracts in which classroom teachers demonstrate the three guiding principles of pedagogical interaction, competence, contingency, and complexity. Professor Waring concludes that good teachers:

  • Acknowledge student competence. They foster an inviting learning environment through speech and actions that highlight success, give voice to the less vocal, and take seriously the work of their students.
  • Demonstrate what Professor Waring calls contingency. They preserve the integrity of the moment while being responsive to the voices of students.
  • Address the complexity of competing classroom demands using multivocalic “teacher talk.” They manage “side talk,” move on without discouraging, and help their students stay focused.

The Language and Social Interaction Working Group (LANSI) stands by its empowering motto, “We articulate the expertise you own.”  Professor Waring encourages those interested in learning more to follow LANSI on the web, Facebook, and Twitter, and to sign up for LANSI’s ListServ at