Although pupil talk must be our ultimate preoccupation because of its role in the development of thinking, learning and understanding, it is largely through the teacher’s talk that the pupil’s talk is encouraged, facilitated, mediated, probed and extended – or, in too many classrooms, inhibited.
While I was investigating the research around the role of talking and listening as part of the writing process, I came across frequent references to ‘dialogic teaching’, or ‘dialogic pedagogy’.
As I explored further, I realised I had a lot to learn about dialogic teaching, and the implications for us in the classroom. This blog is the beginning of my thinking.
Dialogic teaching, a term created by Dr Robin Alexander in the early 2000s, harnesses the power of talk to stimulate and extend students’ thinking and advance their learning and understanding. (Alexander, https://www.robinalexander.org.uk/dialogic-teaching/ accessed 19/11/2018).
Firmly established by 2000 was understanding of the value of talk for children as they build their knowledge of the world and their relationships within this world. They learn about the language and how to use it.
… language is learnt in dialogic situations where caregivers and children participate in shared meaning-making. Hence language is a major … resource for learning from the earliest years of life.
Christie 2018 p.2
But in classrooms, there was evidence of a persistent kind of interaction – the initiate – respond – feedback (IRF).
While questioning is a main pedagogical device that teachers rely on to conduct their lessons … and in fact has become … a default instructional mechanism (Edwards-Groves & Davidson 2017 p.96), this IRF, and later initiate – response – evaluate (IRE), was the most common pattern of interaction.
IRE ‘funnelling’ towards a predetermined answer allows little contribution by students, and limited cognitive engagement. Within this structure, the teacher controls the talk moves, and – more significantly – decides what is relevant to the focus of the inquiry (Cazden, in Pennington & Reynolds 2018).
This type of questioning also illustrates the unequal relationship between the students and the teacher. It reinforces the control the teacher has over the conversation and its content, and the ‘fixedness’ of the content – there is one correct answer. This type of talk makes limited meaningful contribution to learning and understanding, while teachers do most of the talking. A basic IRE interchange gives the teacher two-thirds of the turns in speaking.
Despite its limitations, the IRE interaction is stubbornly resistant to change (Myhill, 2018 p.105). We persist with using it, because it works – in a sort of a way.
Here is a list of the features of dialogic teaching. This illustrates the difference between the IRE model, which closes off discussion or further investigation:
- interactions which encourage students to think, and to think in different ways
- questions which invite much more than simple recall
- answers which are justified, followed up and built upon rather than merely received
- feedback which informs and leads thinking forward as well as encourages
- contributions which are extended rather than fragmented
- exchanges which chain together into coherent and deepening lines of enquiry
- discussion and argumentation which probe and challenge rather than unquestioningly accept
- professional engagement with subject matter which liberates classroom discourse from the safe and conventional
- classroom organisation, climate and relationships which make all this possible.
(https://www.robinalexander.org.uk/dialogic-teaching/ accessed 19/11/2018)
Students participating in dialogue with such features must take their engagement to a much deeper and more considered level. The teacher no longer ‘owns’ the responses, but becomes a participant in the exploration of meaning.
Studies conducted since 2004 indicate that interactions with these features encourage high level thinking. Teachers and students work together to make meaning and build knowledge. This supports the concept that dialogue is not just the structure of speech, but rather it is a phenomenon that penetrates the very structure of words themselves. (Bakhat 1981 in Wolfe & Alexander, 2008).
As an alternative, dialogic teaching is much more challenging for us because we have to let go of the familiar role of the ‘expert’ (even if we aren’t). We have to change how we do what we do. We have to be prepared to go to places of thought and understanding that are not predictable, known, or even understood.
Despite the term ‘dialogic teaching’ having been analysed, re-purposed and developed to accommodate various aspects of classroom interaction, its use essentially comes back to purpose. If we want our talk to extend students’ thinking and advance their learning and understanding, then we must make the changes to how we manage talking and listening in our classrooms.
Talking to writing
The shifts required in register, from the more ‘spoken like’ to more ‘written-like’ mode in particular, inform the way we work with our students and the opportunities for talk that we facilitate. This informs their writing.
The interaction that occurs in regular conversation includes all the features of spoken text – overlapping statements, building on from the utterances of others, repetition, rephrasing, pauses and interruptions – as meaning is negotiated. In written text, however, the meaning has to be contained within the words themselves.
Teachers can assist students move towards more formal, more written-like utterances by strategically planning talk for particular goals. We can set up our classrooms and the climate of our classrooms, to facilitate and manage conversations – dialogue. Opportunities for frequent, purposeful interactions, questioning that provides challenge, feedback that informs and helps students build their knowledge, all have a part in this, and allowing and encouraging discussion around topics with challenging, confronting points of view.
Meaning can be negotiated, reframed, clarified, and synthesised as the scaffolding needed for students to clarify meaning and understanding in their writing.
Here are several suggestions, expanded much more comprehensively in the Edwards-Groves & Davidson (2018).
- Listen and actively respond with critical analysis – eg Could someone respond to that idea?
- Extend thinking – eg Can you tell us a little more about that?
- Clarify thinking – eg Can you say that in another way?
- Support responses – eg Can you tell us where it tells us that in the text?
- Extend the ideas of other students – eg Can someone tell us a little more about that idea?
(Edwards-Groves & Davidson, 2018 p.101)
Examination of the way dialogic teaching can provide the bridge to the more written-like mode is covered in excellent detail by Beverly Derewianka in Chapter 2 in Jones, Simpson and Thwaite (2018).
Links with Australian Curriculum and the Literacy Progression
The General Capabilities of the Australian Curriculum open broad possibilities for dialogic teaching. We can explore through literature, the study of change in history, the examination of the world we live in in geography, and the value of science. The opportunities for dialogic teaching in mathematics are frequent and endless. (See Numeracy blogs and Resources on this website).
For example, Critical and Creative Thinking includes:
- Inquiring – identifying, exploring and organising information and ideas
- Generating ideas, possibilities and actions
- Reflecting on thinking and processes
- Analysing, synthesizing and evaluating reasoning and procedures
A Learning Continuum for Critical and Creative Thinking is included on this site. It assists teachers to plan and map their addressing of the General Capability. This is an excellent guide. Support is also provided for learning areas.
The ACARA Literacy Learning Progression includes listening and speaking, so we can articulate what our students are doing, and where they will move to next. For example, in the element Speaking and Listening, the indicator Interacts to extend and elaborate ideas in a discussion sits in the Sub-element Interaction, progression level InT4.
If we want children to talk to learn – as well as learn to talk – then what they say probably matters more than what teachers say.
Alexander, 2006, p.26
‘Talking the Talk’ and ‘Becoming a meaning-maker’, 2018 publications from the Primary English Teaching Association of Australia, provide sound and relevant theoretical background to dialogic teaching, and couple this with school-based research.
In PETAA Paper 211, Gill Pennington and Margaret Turnbull extend their use of dialogic conversations into their work with teachers.
Alexander, R. (2006) Towards Dialogic Teaching: Rethinking classroom talk 3rd Ed, Diologos: UK
Alexander, R. (2007) in https://www.robinalexander.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Dialogc-teaching-in-brief-170622.pdf retrieved 19/11/2018
Alexander, R. https://www.robinalexander.org.uk/dialogic-teaching/ accessed 19/11/2018
Christie, F. (2018) Classroom talk: a resource for learning, in Talking the Talk: Snapshots from Australian Classrooms, Chapter 1, PETAA: Newtown
Derewianka, B. (2018) Creating dialogic contexts for learning, in Talking the Talk: Snapshots from Australian Classrooms, Chapter 1, PETAA: Newtown
Edwards-Groves, C. & Davidson, C. (2017) Becoming a meaning-maker: Talk and interaction in the dialogic classroom, PETAA: Newtown
Myhill, D. (2018) Dialogic futures: transforming talking cultures, in Talking the Talk: Snapshots from Australian Classrooms, Chapter 9, PETAA: Newtown
Pennington, G. & Reynolds, M. (2018) The Power of Teacher Talk: Developing quality mentoring relationships PETAA Paper 2011
Wolf, S. & Alexander, R.J. (2008) Argumentation and dialogic teaching: alternative pedagogies for a changing world in https://www.robinalexander.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/wolfealexander.pdf retrieved 18/11/2018