Category : Appreciative Coaching Blog

Chalk Talk: A Powerful Tool for Dialogue

Chalk Talk: a Powerful Tool for Dialogue

Chalk Talk: a Powerful Tool for Dialogue

“I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own.”- Chaim Potok, The Chosen

One of my strengths on the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment is Love of Learning. So when I got an email from the online education company that partners with the msw@USC where I teach that they were having a webinar about a teaching approach called “Chalk Talk,” it was only natural that I signed on.

Chalk Talk is Learner-Centered

Chalk Talk is a way of supporting a “learner-centered” approach in the classroom. Being learner-centered is considered a best practice in education pedagogy. Chalk Talk is a silent activity that can be done in a face-to-face setting or virtually as we were doing it on our Adobe Connect courseroom. Learners are given a blank whiteboard with a single prompt from the instructor. They then are encouraged to start responding in type or with a marker with words, lines or drawings and in any color that they choose on the whiteboard.

I was intrigued by the idea, although I have to admit I was a bit skeptical. I decided to give it a try the next day with my Saturday morning msw@USC class. I gave my social work students a prompt on the center of a virtual blank whiteboard: What does Obama mean when he says poverty demands “both/and” vs. “either/or solutions” to poverty? Almost immediately some drawing started to show up in the bottom right corner. Quickly after that, lines in all colors, text in all colors and sizes started to appear on the white space.

Getting Lost Results in New Insights

One student sent me a private chat message: “I am lost. I don’t know what is going on.” I wrote back to her, “It is different. Hang in there and see if anything starts to take shape for you.” A few minutes later, as the board was continuing to fill up, my student sent me a message, “I am starting to get it now.”

Meanwhile the board was getting full and felt chaotic. The instructor in my webinar had pointed out that this is the way speaking conversations work too: people talk over one another, there is cross talk and side conversations. It was true, we could see all of this reflected in our Chalk Talk. The conversation about poverty and solutions was starting to feel as though it had depth and was layered. The students were making connections between ideas all over the board, represented by connecting lines and emphatic observations, like, “we are all one.”

A couple of students observed, “This is fun.” It is hard to appreciate what we had accomplished looking at the white board after the fact or if you are an observer, but as a participant you have a sense that you are participating in a generative learning experience. As a facilitator you are encouraged to participate, which I did rather subtly. I got the board started by circling the words “both/and” and drawing some lines between connecting thoughts.

Processing Chalk Talk is the Key

After a while the board started to quiet down and I messaged the students that we would be finishing up in 2 minutes. I then opened up a discussion by asking, “what did you learn from the Chalk Talk”? I was impressed by how the Chalk Talk experience facilitated a deeper level of thinking in each of them. What I also liked is that it gave everyone space to participate, even the traditionally quieter students who often find it hard to speak up in class.

One student, who is often quiet, shared that the experience had been very moving for him in that it forced him “to speak” about something that he never had before in relation to his thoughts about poverty. He said, I realize that I need to be willing to speak up about this issue and “be in the forefront.” As a social work professor, it doesn’t get any better than that. Another student wrote to me later, “Thanks Dr. Jones. This is really an effective tool that is also relaxing!!! Let’s do more!”

One Chalk Talk experience and I am sold. I look forward to many more Chalk Talks, including with some of my organizational clients, in-person or virtually.

If you would like to have Dr. Jones facilitate an on-site or virtual Chalk Talk at your organization or with your group you can schedule an exploratory discussion with Dr. Jones at

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