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Dialogic Learning - More Than Just Talk

Barbara Bleiman explains why the term dialogic learning deserves close inspection - and sets out its importance to the learning process, both for English and across the curriculum
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In a series of exchanges on Twitter recently, as happens from time to time, there was a heated debate on talk, group work and dialogue in the classroom. It’s clear that for some the term ‘dialogic learning’ is complete anathema. To them, it spells whole lessons of unstructured group work, no teacher talk, loss of opportunities for developing knowledge, a waste of classroom time, a handing over of control to students, an abdication of the role as the teacher as knowledgeable expert, noisy classrooms with poor behaviour.

That, to me, is a very crude caricature of dialogic learning – a way of lumping together all kinds of things that are neither true (for instance that it’s all about group work) nor by any means inevitable (for instance that it leads to poor behaviour). As the caricatured version is called into question, the argument of these sceptics takes a rather different tack, suggesting that all pedagogic styles are dialogic anyway, including in classrooms set out in rows where teachers always lead from the front, so what’s all the fuss about? Teachers are always asking questions of students, punctuating their presentations with questions to check understanding, aren’t they? So, that’s dialogic too, isn’t it? What’s the big deal about arguing for something called dialogic learning, when it happens perfectly well anyway, in the course of teacher presentations of knowledge?

Both of these arguments are unhelpful, in my view. The first characterises dialogic learning in extremely crude ways and takes no account of the huge variety and complexity of what we mean by that umbrella term. The second also fails to recognise the full scope of what is meant by dialogic learning and the cry ‘well we’re doing that perfectly well anyway, thank you’ takes us nowhere useful in thinking about the ways in which dialogue can and should support learning, even in that limited definition of it.

Dialogue is as complicated as writing. We don’t say, ‘well we teach them to write in this single way,’ as if all writing were just one thing, and our methodologies were limited to one strategy. We teach writing differently in different subjects, in different forms and formats depending on what the writing is for, we teach creative writing differently from non-fiction genres, we focus attention on different elements at different times, we try fresh approaches and adapt according to what students reveal about strengths and weaknesses. Talk is similar. Except that talk, like writing is both a ‘thing’ to be developed and taught in its own right – the ability to talk well in different contexts –  and it’s a means of learning about other things – talk for learning. So it’s doubly important, doubly valuable and doubly complex. (We can, of course, also write for learning – for instance in exploratory writing, note-taking, journaling and so on. That’s sometimes not fully recognised. But perhaps that’s a topic for a different blog.)

Even just in thinking about the kind of dialogue that happens when a teacher is presenting to the class and asking questions, (the ‘we do it anyway’ kind, there are many, many ways of analysing and refining how that dialogue happens. The classic pattern of IRE – initiate, respond, evaluate - that heavily dominates classroom dialogue according to the research, only allows for a certain kind of very constrained kind of interaction, with short, limited contributions by students. The teacher asks a question, the student responds, the teacher gives an evaluation of that response – good, that’s right, not quite and so on. Those who have done substantial work on dialogic learning – both teachers and academics – have looked at the way these kinds of dialogues work and have analysed what teachers can do to make these exchanges deeper, richer, more extended, more probing and likely to extend and develop students’ understanding. This kind of dialogue alone is worth examining carefully to improve how it happens in classrooms. As teachers, we can learn how to do this differently and do it better, by reading the research, sharing strategies with other teachers, trying things out in the classroom and evaluating their success.

Interestingly, in my recent CPD session on talk, I shared some clips from online dialogue between Lucy Hinchliffe and her Y7 students. Teachers in the chat were champing at the bit to discuss how and why the students’ dialogue was so sustained, so thoughtful, so much part of a genuine conversation with their teacher about the text. They were full of questions to Lucy about the context and exactly how she had achieved this kind of high-quality dialogue with her students, a dialogue that involved equal participation of teacher and student, to question assumptions, grapple with difficulty and come to a fuller understanding. Teachers want to know how to do this kind of thing well, and they don’t get that from polarising debates but rather from more complex, nuanced discussions of classroom interactions and how they are established.

Asking the question, ‘what is dialogic learning?’ throws up for us a very wide range of different answers. It is not just group work, although peer to peer discussion is one important way in which students can learn well and there is much evidence from research to show this.  And it does not imply that group work should be happening all the time, for extended periods, with little or no structure and little or no teacher input. As with the dialogues emerging from teacher input, there are many ways in which it can be structured to improve learning, to make it a part of a broader range of classroom approaches and to think about when and where it’s most (or least) helpful. That’s what EMC’s project ‘It’s Good To Talk’ has been all about, with a sharp focus on the impact of different kinds of tasks, when in the lesson it happens, how it is builds on, or builds on from, individual work or teacher input, homework or other kinds of teacher intervention.

The Twitter exchanges – though sometimes stubbornly and depressingly polarised – did also indicate a real interest among many, many teachers to go beyond the for or against dogmatism to ask some of these important questions. I found myself quoting and referring to some of the people and organisations whose work I much admire, who have, over many decades and more recently, dedicated themselves to talk in classrooms and asked themselves what good dialogic learning is, how it is achieved and what difference it makes.

It was after this recent Twitter debate that the idea came to me of bringing together a few of these excellent people in an English and Media Centre CPD session where teachers could hear them for themselves. Professor Neil Mercer, who leads the Cambridge Oracy project, has conducted research, written books, worked in schools and with Voice21. He has produced some of the most influential and interesting work on dialogic learning of anyone I know. Professor Martin Nystrand, working in the USA, is a world expert on dialogic learning, having done extensive, ground-breaking research on dialogic classrooms, with colleagues Adam Gamoran and others. Amy Druce, who I first met when I went to film her doing group work in a London classroom, is a wonderful English teacher with a strong commitment to dialogic learning and a long track record of excellent work in the classroom.  She works at School 21 and has been involved from the start in EMC’s group work project, ‘It’s Good to Talk.’ 

I approached each of these people – my dream team for a session on dialogic learning – and to my delight, all three agreed to take part. It is happening on Wed 19th May 4.00–6.00pm. They will each do a brief presentation, followed by a panel discussion and Q&A, where attendees can ask questions and we can try to tease out some of the issues raised in this blog. It will look at what dialogic learning is, what the research tells us about it and offer opportunities to think about what difference it can make to students’ learning. We have deliberately made it a £10 event, just to cover our costs, so that as many people as possible can come along and hear these fantastic speakers on a topic that is of such importance. We hope you’ll be able to join us, to take place in this vital dialogue about classroom pedagogy!

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