January 16, 2019, by Rupert Knight
A Dialogic stance
Building on an earlier post in this series which looked at oracy, Rupert Knight considers here the concept of the dialogic classroom, how it relates to a culture valuing spoken language more generally and how this might serve a wider purpose.
Oracy as a foundation
A previous post in this series explored the concept of oracy. Oracy refers to a set of skills relating to spoken language and has been characterised by Voice 21 both as learning to talk and learning through talk. As an example of a whole-school approach to oracy, Rebecca Want from Huntingdon Primary Academy in Nottingham explains her vision of oracy and how this is enacted across the school
While the previous post looked specifically at talk between peers and the idea of exploratory talk, I want this time to broaden the discussion to consider what has been called dialogic teaching.
Dialogic teaching and global learning
The OECD, best known for the influential PISA international league tables, has also turned its attention to the experiences that learners will need in order to thrive in an uncertain future. Its ongoing work on a global learning framework identifies a number of skills – alongside knowledge, attitudes and values – that will be particularly valuable. Among these are collaboration, critical thinking and self-regulation. Singling out skills in this way can be controversial as some see them as domain-specific, rather than generic and transferable (see, for example, this paper by Daniel Willingham). Nevertheless, even if they are best taught within specific subjects, they are worthy of attention alongside the substantive knowledge component of the lesson.
One idea that unifies skills like this is the idea of the dialogic classroom. This is normally associated with the work of Robin Alexander, as summarised by him in this recent paper detailing the promising outcomes of a randomised control trial of this approach. Alexander’s dialogic teaching refers to a form of oral pedagogy with the following features:
|Collective||Teachers and pupils addressing learning tasks together, rather than in isolation|
|Reciprocal||Teachers and pupils listening, sharing ideas and considering multiple viewpoints|
|Supportive||Children sharing ideas without fear in a supportive environment geared towards helping with misunderstandings|
|Cumulative||Teachers and pupils building on one another’s thinking and develop coherent chains of learning|
|Purposeful||Teachers planning dialogic episodes with particular educational goals in mind|
At one level, this implies, of course, a classroom rich in dialogue. We can distinguish dialogue from discussion by seeing it as more than simply an exchange of ideas and rather as a productive co-construction of understanding. Referring back to those skills mentioned by the OECD, it is easy to start spotting the connections:
Collaboration: developed through the sharing of ideas in a supportive environment and the building on one another’s thoughts
Critical thinking: developed through the rigorous examination of multiple viewpoints
Self-regulation: developed through learning to talk and reason together in an explicitly modelled process
However, creating a culture like this is no overnight task: it involves a change of culture at classroom and, ideally, school level and the implementation of a challenging form of pedagogy. So how might teachers realistically take a first step towards a more dialogic classroom?
I would argue that what is most important first and foremost is a dialogic stance, rather than a focus on the features of spoken dialogue itself.
What do we mean by a dialogic stance?
Firstly we need to recognise that the dialogic classroom is not exclusively about interactive, or pupil-led talk. Eduardo Mortimer and colleagues have argued that dialogic teaching can also involve the representation of different perspectives without interaction – multiple viewpoints can be reflected unilaterally by the teacher. If this includes teacher modelling of the process of evaluation and reasoning, then this is likely to strengthen pupils’ critical thinking and self-regulation. Dialogic teaching is also entirely compatible with some episodes of direct instruction. Effective teachers use their professional judgment to switch between dialogic approaches to communication and what Mortimer and colleagues call authoritative approaches relying more on teacher exposition.
Secondly, a dialogic classroom is less about the specific structures of talk than the way in which a wider space for considering viewpoints is opened up. Boyd and Markarian in this paper argue that the hallmark of dialogic teaching is authentically listening and providing space for pupils’ voices and that this goes beyond superficial patterns of talk that might be encountered.
Finally, it is worth noting that Robin Alexander himself, recognising the challenging nature of dialogic teaching, distinguishes in this paper between the first 3 aspects: collective, reciprocal and supportive classrooms, which make up the classroom culture and can be established relatively easily, and cumulative and purposeful dialogue, which are more difficult to achieve. By focusing initially on the first set – the classroom ethos – teachers can more readily begin their journey.
The school-wide culture, promoting and valuing spoken language, as illustrated in the video above, provides a secure foundation for this stance. Here are some questions to consider in order to develop this further in your classroom:
What do you do to ensure that your classroom is a safe and supportive environment for sharing ideas openly?
(e.g. establishing ground rules for collective talk)
To what extent do you provide contexts for learning that allow pupils to share authentic views?
(e.g. using stimulating contexts that are of relevance to pupils)
Do you sometimes model the evaluation of alternative perspectives or ideas?
(e.g. comparing different methods of calculation)
Are you clear about which parts of learning are best suited to an authoritative mode of communication and which might be more dialogic?
(e.g. identifying parts of lessons in which you can be seen to be addressing issues together with the pupils)
It would be great to hear of your experiences.