Michaels, O’Connor, & Resnik’s “Accountable Talk”

I first read this article last summer, and have returned to reread it as part of my work for Dr. Graham’s course.  Though it doesn’t focus on “conversations” specifically, the related terms of “discourse” and “talk” make it important to my project. I really like the concepts that the authors have featured in their model of “Accountable Talk.”  The stated goal of this article is to present classroom discussion practices (termed “Accountable Talk”) which their 15 years of prior research show leads to reasoned participation by all students and which support equity and access to rigorous academic learning. According to the authors, the practices of “Accountable Talk” have been shown to result in academic achievement for diverse populations of students. They tie this to Habermas’ (1990) concept of “deliberate democracy”; another reading I should look into!  They also base their theory in Vygotsky’s ideas of the “social formation of the mind,” constructivist principles, and sociocultural ideals.

These practices require that discourse is accountable to the learning community, to the accepted standards of reasoning, and to knowledge;  then, the authors argue, deeper levels of understanding can be reached and knowledge constructed by the learning community.

  • Accountability to the Learning Community is “talk that attends seriously to and builds on the ideas of others; participants listen carefully to one another, build on each other’s ideas, and ask each other questions aimed at clarifying or expanding a proposition” (Michaels et al., 2007).  In this manner, participants become part of a community of participation and are accountable to the ideas of one another, using others’ ideas to build their own contributions and to construct and reconstruct their knowledge.  Participants should ground their contributions in the ideas of others.  Such grounding can be explained in a rubric, and should also be modeled by the instructor.  Moreover, Michaels et al. give this advice for the instructor hoping to engage learners in Accountable Talk: “it is very important to note that in order for the students to begin using these forms of talk, there have to be interesting and complex ideas to talk and argue about. Implicitly or explicitly, teachers who have implemented these discourse strategies have shifted away from simple questions and one-word answers and opened up the conversation to problems that support multiple positions or solution paths” (Michaels et al., 2007).  In rubrics I have used in the past for discussion boards, this principle is reflected when students practice Etiquette in discussions and strive for Substance in their discussion posts.
  • Accountability to Standards of Reasoning “is talk that emphasizes logical connections and the drawing of reasonable conclusions. It is talk that involves explanation and self-correction. It often involves searching for premises, rather than simply supporting or attacking conclusions” (Michaels et al., 2007).  When students are encouraged to be accountable to logic, they further develop the skills requisite in the knowledge economy they will operate in.  In rubrics I have used in the past for discussion boards, this principle is reflected when students use Insight to make connections between themselves and the materials, or to draw conclusions from the material itself.
  • Accountability to Knowledge is talk that “is based explicitly on facts, written texts or other publicly accessible information that all individuals can access.”  Discourse is viable when “[s]peakers make an effort to get their facts right and make explicit the evidence behind their claims or explanations. They challenge each other when evidence is lacking or unavailable. When the content under discussion involves new or incompletely mastered knowledge, accountable discussion can uncover misunderstandings and misconceptions. A knowledgeable and skilled teacher is required to provide authoritative knowledge when necessary and to guide conversation toward academically correct concepts” (Michaels et al., 2007).  In rubrics I have used in the past for discussion boards, this principle is reflected when Specificity is achieved in student discussions.

Since I’m interested in conversation, I looked to see if they defined that term or a related one. Conversation is not defined, although they seem to imply that “conversations” are the informal “stuff” from which discourse is born.  Discourse it more trained or “deliberate,” following the practices of Accountable Talk; conversation can be analyzed to find the threads that make up formal discourse.

In what ways does “Accountable Talk” speak to Gibbons’ definition of instruction as conversation?  “Accountable Talk” are practices expected of students (and the teacher as model); Gibbons is proposing a metaphor for instructional designers. For Gibbons, the key defining characteristics of conversation are information exchange, mutual intention, listening & thinking before responding, and shared purpose.  Each of these concepts contributes to accountability to community.  “Listening & thinking before responding” leads to accountability to reasoning and to knowledge, as well.  “Information exchange” is only useful instructionally if that information is accountable to reasoning and to knowledge, too.


Michaels, S., O’Connor, C., & Resnik, L.  (2007).Deliberative Discourse Idealized and Realized: Accountable Talk in the Classroom and in Civic Life.” Studies in Philosophy and Education. 27:4. (pp. 283-297).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s