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Classroom talk

Roberts (2013), drawing on Alexander’s work on ‘dialogic teaching’ (see for example Alexander, 2010), emphasised the importance of classroom talk in an enquiry approach to learning. Alexander identified the distinguishing features of dialogic teaching as being:

  • Collective – participants address learning tasks together, which is distinct from question-answer-tell.
  • Reciprocal – participants listen to each other and consider alternative viewpoints.
  • Supportive – students speak freely, without fear of embarrassment over wrong answers and they help each other to reach common understandings.
  • Cumulative – participants build on answers and chain them into coherent lines of thinking and understanding.
  • Purposeful –open dialogue, which is also planned and structured with specific learning goals in view.

All the activities suggested below would benefit from a dialogic teaching approach. Talk in pairs and small groups maximises opportunities for everyone to be involved and can be followed by whole class discussion.


Classroom activities to promote a ‘need to know’

The stance of the teacher to whatever is being studied is crucially important. The teacher needs to convey a sense of curiosity and to present a topic as something to be investigated rather than simply to be learnt. Teachers can involve students by:

  • Eliciting what students already know about the topic, both from prior learning and from their everyday experience.
  • Providing students with frameworks to help them to devise sub-questions: 5Ws: (Who? What? When? Where? Why?); 5Ws plus (plus How? What might? What ought?); Compass Rose (Natural; Social; Economic; Who decides?); KWL grid (What do I know? What do I want to know? What have I learnt?). These sub-questions can be referred to throughout a unit of work.
  • Using an initial stimulus (e.g. artefact; picture; cartoon, film, story, music) to provoke discussion and speculation.
  • Asking students to guess statistics which will later be included in the study (known as ’intelligent guesswork’).


Classroom activities to promote critical study of data as evidence

Students need to be able to extract information from a resource, to make generalisations, to identify key points and to look at it critically. Possible activities that require close study of data include:

  • Identifying the five key points that can be made from a resource (e.g. table of statistics, distribution map, and film). Sharing and discussing the points as a class.
  • Re-presenting the data in another form e.g. statistics as a graph; photograph as a labelled sketch; aerial photo as a map; statistics or photograph into descriptive writing; printed text into a table.
  • Using the ‘layers of inference framework’ to encourage critical examination of a resource by considering not only what the resource shows but also what is not shown and what further questions might be asked.
  • Checking the reliability of data: comparing with other data; fact checking.
  • Categorising data using spider diagrams, using categories such as: economic, social, environmental, cultural, political, technological factors or effects; short-term and long-term; advantages and disadvantages.


Classroom activities to help students make sense of data

Making sense is central to developing geographical understanding. It involves making connections of all kinds: between prior knowledge and new knowledge; between different pieces of information; between factors and impacts; between decisions and their potential outcomes. Possible activities include:

  • Concept mapping, followed by class discussion.
  • Decision making.
  • Simulated public meeting role-play.
  • Watching or reading an explanation of a process followed by discussion in pairs/groups/whole class.
  • Socratic questions (questions that seek clarification, questions that probe assumptions, questions that probe reasons and evidence, questions about viewpoints and perspectives, questions that probe implications and consequences). These could be used by the teacher in whole class discussion or by small groups of students.
  • Comparing and contrasting e.g. places, events, geographical phenomena.


Classroom activities to help students reflect on their learning

Discussion in pairs, groups and whole class or written learning diaries can help students reflect on their learning. Possible questions are:

  • What are the key things you have learned from investigating this topic?
  • Are there some things you are still unclear about?
  • What further questions could be asked to investigate this topic further?
  • What additional data might be useful in investigating this topic?
  • Which skills have been useful in investigating this topic?
  • Do you think this an important topic/issue to investigate? Why or why not?

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