A Teacher’s Guide to Dialogic Pedagogy Part 1: The What and the Why


In this short series of posts, I want to explore what dialogic pedagogy is, why it might be valuable and how a classroom teacher or school might get started with it. It’s written in part to help me to clarify my own thinking (or at least to keep me thinking!) during the lockdown, though I do hope others will find it interesting and useful too. Any feedback would be most welcome.

What is Dialogic Pedagogy?


Dialogic pedagogy involves teachers and students talking and thinking in a way that seeks out and values different perspectives, and uses them to develop understanding. The different perspectives in question might most commonly be those of the teacher (or the discipline) and the students, or those of different students. Such pedagogy might be characterised by the teacher encouraging / creating opportunities for talk that has the features of dialogue. It might also be characterised by a deliberate effort, on the part of both teacher and students, to get better at dialogue because they value it as a learning tool and because they see it as a ‘good’ in its own right.

Dialogue is a specific type of talk, distinct from others more commonly heard in classrooms. Participants in a dialogue are not trying to impose their views on others (as we often do in the course of teaching the curriculum) and are not willing to unthinkingly accept others’ views (as students do for much of the time). Rather they are engaged in a collaborative endeavour to reach better understandings of ideas, and of each other. Engagement in dialogue in the classroom signals a suspension of ‘putting in’ in favour of shared enquiry, reflection and meaning making. Participants engage in listening, questioning, answering, explaining, exemplifying, distinguishing, connecting, applying, evaluating and so on. They become sensitive to the differences in their understandings, and use these to stimulate further talk aimed at resolving those differences or gaining an expanded awareness of the different perspectives that are held. Dialogic pedagogy is valuable in all subjects, though its form needs to be adapted to context and to different ‘ways of knowing’.

There is much more to say about dialogue, and I think that teachers interested in dialogic pedagogy would find it both interesting and useful to dig a little deeper. I say a little more in the notes shared here, and I have included some useful references in the bibliography below.

Why Invest Time in Dialogic Pedagogy?


Proponents of dialogic pedagogy may well have some shared beliefs relevant to education. In his 2020 book ‘A Dialogic Teaching Companion’, Professor Robin Alexander suggests that these include ‘stances’ on human development, classroom relationships, procedures for managing interactions, reasoning, epistemology, ethics, culture and society, and ontology. My own commitment to dialogic pedagogy is certainly informed by a conscious stance on at least some of these things, which helps me to explain why I think the practice is so valuable. Of course, I need to remain open to the idea that my stances can change as I learn more, and so can my views on dialogic pedagogy, but for now, here’s how I see things:


Firstly, a view about knowledge and its acquisition. One of a teacher’s roles is to pass on knowledge. This might involve making new information available to students through talk, text or experience, and supporting them to store this information in long-term memory. To a degree, this can be achieved by various forms of transmission or self-discovery. However, new information is more likely to be retained if it becomes connected to information that has already been learned; this also ensures that the new information becomes meaningful. In her recent blog Efrat Furst argues for the primacy of meaning making, and helpfully defines it as ‘describing a new concept in terms of other concepts that we already understand, in a way that allows us to use it’. Students need to be engaged in an active process of meaning making if they are to retain and ‘understand’ what they are being taught.


To help students to make appropriate connections, teachers need an awareness of prior learning. What relevant information and concepts are students likely to have in long-term memory, and how can teaching re-activate these and connect them to the new learning? Teachers are aware of the range of experiences (texts, experiments, problems etc.) students have been exposed to and the concepts they have been helped to form in school and this will give them some control over the meaning making process. However, each student will have unique experiences from their everyday lives that will also have an influence. These are less accessible to the teacher and can confound his or her best efforts as unexpected and erroneous connections may be made, leading to alternative conceptions or ‘misconceptions’. This is where the different perspectives mentioned above come from.


Let’s take an example. A primary school science teacher may have done his or her best to teach children that freezing is a process that involves a substance changing from its liquid state to its solid state as it cools down. S/he may well have exemplified this by looking at water becoming ice; s/he may also have attempted to support the generalisation of the concept by looking at other liquids freezing – liquid gold becoming solid gold, for example. Some children will construct the intended understanding. Others might signal their understanding (perhaps they can recite the account of freezing given above), but their strong everyday association of freezing with ‘being cold’ will prevent them from accepting the solidification of gold at hundreds of degrees centigrade as an example of the phenomenon. Still others might have come to regard any example of solidification as an example of freezing, including an egg becoming solid as it is cooked or a resin setting (processes involving chemical change). There is a mismatch between the perspective of the teacher (the perspective of science) and the various perspectives of the children. By the way, this scenario arises from my discussion with three Year 5 pupils in 2019, transcribed here. Have a look – can you see the different perspectives of the students and me?


A wider range of perspectives may be formed during the interpretation of a poem, or an historical event. In these situations there may be a greater range of ‘acceptable’ perspectives, with no one authoritative point of view, though the teacher will wish to engage students with perspectives that have stood the test of time (the ‘best that has been thought and said’).


So how can we make these different perspectives visible and come to understand them and the experiences that have given rise to them? How can teachers and students come to see from the other perspective? How can they bring their perspectives into creative tension in a way that gives rise to some kind of resolution (be that the student’s understanding of the teacher’s view – and vice versa – or the generation of new perspectives through some kind of synthesis)? Engaging students in dialogue is one useful way of doing these things. The recognition and valuing of different perspectives is central to dialogue, as is developing the capacity to visit different perspectives, to inhabit them for a while and understand where they come from without losing sight of one’s own point of view. From a position of value and understanding can come challenge; where appropriate, a dialectical process or a process of argumentation can lead towards resolution (or at least make people aware that their view is contestable).


Another ‘stance’ that influences my view of dialogic pedagogy is a stance on the relationship between dialogue and thinking, and on the possibility of teaching thinking. When we call somebody into dialogue, we are calling them to think (not to passively accept an authoritative voice). In this sense thinking does not just mean a rational process that goes on within the brain of the individual, but a process that goes on between people and perspectives; it is a social process – a process of thinking together (Vygotsky famously suggested that higher mental functions are learned through social interaction before becoming a feature of the internal thinking of an individual).


This act of thinking is essential for making meaning and retaining knowledge – in a well-known aphorism, the cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham tells us that ‘memory is the residue of thought’. Good thinking together is dependent on a sound grasp of relevant prior knowledge, and perhaps on an understanding of the styles of reasoning that have developed within the relevant disciplines (science, maths, history etc.). It is also enhanced by the more general dispositions learned in dialogues, such as curiosity, an openness to other perspectives and a willingness to change one’s own perspective. The disposition and ability to seek to understand and inhabit another perspective and to hold it in a creative tension with one’s own perspective is essential, and is something that can be learned through the regular practice of dialogue. The relationship between knowledge, dialogue and thinking is a synergistic one.


And relationships, of course, are critical in dialogue. Professor Rupert Wegerif (2018) argues that relationship is a precursor to thinking together. The ability to be drawn into dialogue with the other is contingent on seeing and valuing the other as a potential source of meaning and understanding; not just as a source of information, but as a source of difference in relation to which one’s own perspective can grow. In this sense, an orientation of openness to and interest in other people and other ideas is fundamental, and so, therefore, is the environment of the classroom and the relationships between students and teachers.


Wegerif also argues that education itself can be seen as a drawing into dialogue. This doesn’t just mean the spatially and temporally bound dialogues of the classroom, but the ongoing dialogues of the disciplines and of humanity as a whole. The knowledge taught in schools is the best answers we currently have to the best questions that have been asked so far; it is not fixed and final but ever-changing. Our job as educators is to bring our students up to speed with the dialogue so far, and to help them, all of them, to come to value their own voice so that they can take it forward into the future. Sympathy with this dialogic view of education as a whole seems to me to demand sympathy with dialogic pedagogy.


I would argue that dialogic pedagogy is fundamentally democratic, not just in the way it values everybody’s voice, but in the way it prepares them to participate in public discourse and deliberation. Hopefully a grounding in dialogue will give students a thirst for truth (or the best version of it they can attain), an openness to the ‘unforced force of the better argument’, and some protection from indoctrination, ideology and fake news.


One final stance I would like to share at this point is an ethical one. I am fond of a quoting Dmitri Nikulin who suggested that dialogue might be ‘the therapy against the misrecognition of one human by another’. In teaching students to engage in dialogue, we are giving them something still more valuable than an academic education: we are giving them the abilities and dispositions they need to be interested in, to value and to come to understand (if not to agree with) their fellow human beings, which might represent a source of the care and kindness that our world so badly needs.

Evidence of Impact

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has carried out research on the impact of both Robin Alexander’s Dialogic Teaching and Philosophy for Children (P4C – a specific example of dialogic pedagogy that I will return to in a later post).


In Alexander’s case a relatively short but intensive intervention led to a conclusion that, ‘This trial found consistent, positive effects in English, science and maths for all children in Year 5, equivalent to about 2 months additional progress.’ You can access the research here.

This is consistent with the findings of the P4C study, which concluded that, ‘Year 4 and 5 pupils doing Philosophy for Children made about two months’ additional progress in Key Stage 2 maths and reading compared with other pupils.’ You can access the research here.

A team from the University of Cambridge led by Professor Christine Howe, Dr Sarah Hennessy and Professor Neil Mercer has published results of a project looking into the impact of dialogic interaction on attainment, concluding that children improved significantly more in maths and English when a teachers encouraged pupils to participate in dialogue, to elaborate on their thoughts / ideas and to question each other’s ideas. You can access this research here.

Summary


So in summary dialogic pedagogy is useful because it helps students to gain meaningful knowledge, to think well and to participate in a deliberative democracy in which all perspectives are valued and understood. It has the power to make the world a better place. So as an interested teacher, where can you start? The next post will offer some suggestions focusing on developing an awareness of the different types of teacher talk we use and the purposes for which we use them.

Bibliography

For a deeper exploration of the nature of dialogue in relation to education try:

Phillipson, N. and Wegerif, R. 2017, Dialogic Education: Mastering core concepts through thinink together, Routledge, Abingdon

Wegerif, R. 2013, Dialogic: Education for the Internet Age, Routledge, Abingdon

See also:

Alexander, R. 2020, A Dialogic Teaching Companion, Routledge, Abingdon

Mercer, M. and Littleton, K. 2013, Interthinking: Putting Talk to Work, Routledge, Abingdon

Wegerif, R. 2018, A Dialogic Theory of Teaching Thinking in Kerslake, L. and Wegerif, R. Theory of Teaching Thinking, Routledge, Abingdon

Moving away from the context of education, try:

Sleap, F. and Sener, O. 2013, Dialogue Theories, The Dialogue Society, London

Isaacs, I. 1999, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, Doubleday, New York

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