A Perspective on Dialogic Education

I became conscious recently that I and others I spoke with often use terms such as dialogic education, dialogic teaching and even P4C as if they are synonyms.  In what follows I offer a possible way of describing the relationship between such terms.



Ideas that Inform a Dialogic View of Education


I have come to think of the term ‘Dialogic Education’ as implying a particular perspective on the whole endeavour of education.  Such a perspective might involve acceptance of a number of ideas about how we come to know / make sense of things and about how dialogue impacts on ourselves and our relationships with others and the world. I don’t believe that there is a definitive set of these ideas, but they might include:

  • Knowledge (at least the way in which we make sense of it) is socially constructed
  • Knowledge is provisional and context-sensitive. It is subject to change and re-interpretation; it is not fixed and authoritative – other perspectives are always available
  • Good personal thinking is learned through ‘thinking together’ with others in dialogues
  • Connections need to be made between new learning and students’ lives, interests and prior knowledge to ensure that learning is meaningful
  • The ability to engage critically, caringly, colloaboratively and creatively with other perspectives is essential to learning and to life
  • Dialogue is a valuable educational endpoint in its own right

Such a set of ideas might lead us to conclude that education is about initiating children into long-term cultural dialogues (about mathematics or science or politics or art), or into the overall ‘dialogue of humanity‘.  This might entail making sure that young people inherit the best that has been thought and said so far, and helping them to make meaning of this in terms of its relevance to the world today. It might also involve helping young people to develop the skills and dispositions to join the dialogue and take it forward into the future. These ideas are drawn from theorists such as Michael Oakeshott, Mikhail Bakhtin, Lev Vygotsky and Rupert Wegerif. I find that the writings of Professor Rupert Wegerif provide a rigorous and yet accessible introduction to such theory.



The Implications of a Dialogic Perspective


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A dialogic perspective on education (including teacher education) will influence decisions about curriculum, pedagogy and assessment – though not in an entirely predictable way.  For example, one might be drawn to a knowledge-based curriculum because preparing children to join the ongoing ‘dialogue of humanity’ should involve bringing them up to speed with the best things that have been communicated so far (though perhaps in a way that acknowledges their provisionality). As a science teacher, I think my dialogic perspective would encourage me to engage children with the human stories behind the development of scientific knowledge.  Is science a purely rational activity – a steady accumulation of objective and authoritative knowledge about the universe?  Or is it, as most human endeavours are, influenced by bias, culture, chance and creative thinking (or a lack of it) and subject to regular revision? Another point of view (one that was certainly held by Professor Matthew Lipman) might be that opportunities for pupils to engage in open philosophical dialogues that help them to become reflective, thoughtful, considerate and reasonable members of society should be incorporated into the curriculum, even if they are not directly relevant to subjects.

Acceptance of the ideas listed above might also influence decisions about assessment. Dialogic skills themselves may need to be assessed, and the value of dialogue as a medium through which both student and teacher receive immediate feedback about learning may be recognised.  It may be fair to say that during dialogues with students (or student teachers) teachers can be engaged in assessment and teaching simultaneously.



Dialogic Pedagogies


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A pedagogy that is dialogic will involve teaching through the medium of dialogue. It will also involve teaching students to get better at dialogue – teaching for dialogue. The approaches listed in the diagram above are among those that embrace both these aspects of dialogic pedagogy.

The development of Communities of Enquiry (CoE) was advocated by Charles Peirce in the 19th Century and employed by Matthew Lipman in his development of Philosophy for Children. Members of a CoE engage in a collaborative effort to reach better shared understandings of different perspectives and different ideas and concepts. They reflect on their dialogues to develop their capacity to think together carefully (and caringly), collaboratively, creatively and critically.

The term Dialogic Teaching has become associated with the work of Professor Robin Alexander. While acknowledging the importance of a repertoire of types of talk for teachers and students, Alexander emphasises the value of dialogue and provides strategies for developing classroom talk that is collective, reciprocal, supportive, cumulative and purposeful.

Thinking Together is an approach developed by Professor Neil Mercer, Dr Lynne Dawes and Professor Rupert Wegerif.  It encourages the use of a set of agreed ‘ground rules’ to develop Exploratory Talk in the classroom.

Accountable Talk is an approach developed by Professor Lauren Resnick in the United States. It encourages talk that is accountable to accurate knowledge, to rigorous thinking and to the learning community.  This is supported by the use of a series of a series of ‘talk moves’ to help students to articulate and deepen their thinking.

All of these approaches have been demonstrated to impact positively on student attainment. In the last two years studies carried out by the Education Endowment Foundation in England have suggested that Philosophy for Children (involving the development of the CoE) and Dialogic Teaching raise attainment in a number of subjects (larger follow-up studies are underway). I would argue that the use of one or more of these approaches (or similar others not included above) is invaluable in the development of a dialogic pedagogy, and perhaps inescapable if one accepts the epistemological ideas outlined above.


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Robin Alexander emphasises that dialogic teaching should not be exclusive of the other talk types listed on the left of the diagram above. Teaching for dialogue involves supporting students to accumulate sufficient knowledge to join the cultural dialogues represented by school subjects. The learning of number facts and the conjugation of verbs in languages (for example) may best be done by rote and recitation. Careful exposition of Newton’s laws of motion is necessary – students really can’t discover everything for themselves. While the dialogic pedagogies listed above may not always be explicitly ‘in use’, their presence in a classroom may still help to ensure that at some point space is created for students to make meaning of their new knowledge and that the knowledge itself is seen as being the best that has been thought and said so far.

Talk and dialogue will of course occur in a variety of contexts in a school curriculum (such as those mentioned to the right of the diagram above) where teachers and students are not consciously employing a dialogic pedagogy, but the presence of such pedagogy in school may enhance the quality and impact of these interactions.



Putting it All Together


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A dialogic education will help students to gain and make sense of knowledge, to appreciate its significance and relevance and to believe that they might have a role to play in its continued development. It will also enhance them as human beings, making them concerned and able to come to understand different perspectives and enabling them to engage in critical, caring, collaborative and creative dialogue with ‘the other’ in whatever form they encounter it.


The thoughts outlined above came about in dialogue with Diane Swift of Keele and North Staffordshire Teacher Education and are very much informed by my ongoing dialogue with the work of Professor Rupert Wegerif.

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