Making Progress with Dialogue

progress blog header

“Changes and progress very rarely are gifts from above. They come out of struggles from below.” Noam Chomsky


I think the notion of progress is essential to all forms of dialogic teaching (including Philosophy for Children /P4C), and is easily forgotten. Too often progress towards good dialogue ‘plateaus’ at a relatively superficial level, where conversation is polite and ideas and questions (some of them profound) are shared, but there is no active attempt to seek to deeply understand other points of view, to synthesise them, to challenge and test them or to explore alternatives.  In this post I want to discuss one approach to planning for progress with dialogue (or perhaps I should use the term ‘dialogic enquiry’ to refer to practice that uses talk that is recognisably dialogic but is focused on a question or problem), and to share a resource that I hope teachers will find useful (You can download it for free here).

Central to the approach is the idea that establishing ‘ground rules’ helps a group to articulate the quality of talk they are looking to achieve and supports them in working towards it through a process involving reflection, target setting and metacognition. I tend to advocate establishing these ground rules with / eliciting them from the students / members of the group so that they come to have some sense of ownership over them (this can be done as a response to some kind of stimulus or during reflection on the quality of talk currently experienced in the classroom).  Early ground rules that might be expected include commitments to listening to each other, speaking one at a time, respecting people’s ideas, thoughts and beliefs, and giving reasons in support of a position.

The conversation about what constitutes good dialogue (or good ‘thinking together’) can be deepened by the introduction of ‘the 4Cs’. Introduced by Matthew Lipman and augmented (with the notion of collaborative thinking) by Roger Sutcliffe, these represent four inter-related modes of thinking: caring, collaborative, critical and creative. Good ‘thinking together’ requires an harmonious balance between the four modes: for example, an over-emphasis on being caring and collaborative leads to a hasty consensus, whereas an over-emphasis on being critical and creative can lead to coercion and dispute. A more detailed discussion of the 4Cs is provided in this post.

It may be that the students’ early ground rules can be mapped onto the 4Cs; this might lead to some discussion around what the terms caring, collaborative, critical and creative thinking mean.  This might prompt the addition of more ground rules to provide a more detailed account of what the 4Cs mean to the students.

Hopefully the group will co-construct a thoughtful set of rules which they will continue to edit as their experience of dialogue grows. However, I do think that teachers need a resource to support them to think further about what might be missing from the talk in their classroom and what might constitute a useful next step. To this end I offer teachers a ‘Progress Toolkit’ (in the form of an Excel workbook). It begins with a suggested set of ‘overarching;’ 4Cs ground rules as illustrated below:

4Cs from spreadsheet


These terms might not be appropriate for groups at all ages or stages in the development of their dialogue. The toolkit breaks each rule down into a series of more precise rules that might be appropriate for groups in the early, middle or late stages of their development. For example, the overarching rule ‘We challenge and test our ideas’ is broken down into the following components:

·         We say whether we agree or disagree with an idea and we say why (early)

·         We offer counter-arguments and counter-examples (mid)

·         We spot assumptions (mid)

·         We explore the consequences of our ideas (late)

·         We spot faulty reasoning (arguments that are not sound or valid) (late)


The intention here is to give teachers a bank of ground rules (to supplement those suggested by the students), supporting them to think about what progress for their group might ‘look like’ by asking themselves, ‘What’s missing from the quality of our talk? How can I deepen the dialogue? Which ground rules should I introduce next?’  The suggested rules are not to be taken as authoritative! They can be edited, and the stage at which they are introduced is, of course, flexible; the process of adapting the spreadsheet can perhaps be the focus of an ongoing dialogue between teachers (and students) about what good dialogue / dialogic enquiry might involve.

The toolkit also offers numerous language scaffolds to support students to understand and use the ground rules. For example, students trying to develop their capacity to challenge and test their ideas might make use of the following scaffolds:

·         I disagree with X because…

·         I don’t think that’s true…

·         I don’t think that’s ALWAYS true…

·         I think there is an assumption here…

·         I’m not sure that that follows…

·         I don’t think that would work if…

·         Can I offer a counter-example?

·         I don’t think X is consistent with Y

The language scaffolds are tagged as appropriate for early, mid or late stage use (this is matched with the ground rules they are associated with), but it is again important to stress that this is for guidance only – there is no reason why anyone at any age should not use any of the scaffolds if they are able to.  It is important that we don’t place a ‘cap’ on our expectations of what students can achieve.

Questions that a facilitator might use to elicit this kind of language from the students are also included. Without good facilitation it is unlikely that a group (certainly an inexperienced one) will be attain the depth of dialogue that is necessary.

If the ground rules are really to have an impact, then the behaviours they suggest need to be practised so that they can be applied more effectively in dialogue.  The toolkit contains links to two books that offer activities that can be used to practise the necessary skills: Phil Cam’s Twenty Thinking Tools and Roger Sutcliffe’s Thinking Moves (a recent book that offers a great deal more than the activities referred to here – see the Dialogue Works website). It is also linked to a set of more detailed notes about each of the key skills / dispositions identified; these include numerous suggestions for skills building activities – here are examples for you to download: Agreeing and Disagreeing and Supporting / Seeking to Understand

Engaging a group in reflecting on the quality of dialogue regularly is essential if progress is to be made. Identifying, practising and applying new skills to deepen dialogue / dialogic enquiry prevents us from lingering on a relatively lowly plateau.  When useful moves / skills are deployed, it is important to make this visible to all (‘Did you notice how Alice’s use of a counter-example there has forced us to re-consider our account of bravery?’; ‘You see how Leo’s willingness to ask a follow-up question encouraged John to say more and helped us to understand his point of view’.  This is part of the process of metacognition – becoming conscious of the moves we make when thinking together and of why they are helpful, and so becoming able to apply them in different contexts (and indeed internalising them so that they become a feature of our own personal thinking).

This process of teaching for dialogue is effortful. However, if one takes the view, as I do, that dialogue is fundamental to education and to equipping students to take an active role in larger dialogues beyond the confines of schooling, then it is hard to escape the conclusion that the effort is not only worthwhile but an essential part of effective pedagogy. Outcomes will include students gaining a deeper understanding of key concepts from across the curriculum, teachers gaining a greater insight into the meaning that students have made from the information that has been given to them, and young people being better able to engage in caring, collaborative, critical and creative ways with other perspectives wherever they encounter them.

I hope that teachers will find these tools useful for the development of progress with dialogue / dialogic enquiry in their classrooms – I would certainly welcome any feedback, which I will use to improve the toolkit (it will never be in a final form, but always part of an ongoing dialogue!).

If you are interested in training and support with P4C or Dialogic Teaching, then please do get in touch.



One Response to “Making Progress with Dialogue”

  1. Bob House Says:

    Neil’s worksheet looks like a really practical guide to progressing in each of the 4Cs of P4C. It also looks to me as if it could form a very useful basis for a systematic assessment tool in schools using P4C. The link to metacognition and Thinking Moves A – Z is one which I would like to explore further.

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