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Dialogic teaching and discussion

‘Classroom dialogue is not just any talk. It is as distinct from the question-answer and listen-tell routines of traditional or even so-called “interactive” teaching as it is from the casual conversation of information discussion, aiming to be more consistently searching and empowering than any of these.’

Robin Alexander, 2011

Topics on this page:

  • What is dialogic teaching?
  • Managing discussions in the geography classroom
  • Observing whole class discussions
  • Classroom debate
  • The next step – dialogic teaching
  • Reading

What is dialogic teaching?

Dialogic teaching is a pedagogical approach that uses the power of classroom talk to further students’ thinking, learning and problem solving. It involves teachers and students listening to each other, sharing and constructing ideas together through exploratory talk. Students are expected to reason, discuss and argue; they are expected to go beyond just responding to the teacher.

The term was first developed by Robin Alexander in the early 2000s, although the concept of dialogic talk can be traced back to Socrates (see also Socratic questioning). Vygotsky was also concerned with language and learning through communicating and influenced Mercer (2000) and his work on classroom talk.

Alexander (2011) recognises the vital role of talk in students’ thinking and learning that is rooted in psychological, neuroscientific and pedagogical research. He draws a distinction between ‘interactive-whole-class teaching’ and ‘dialogic teaching’. 

‘Interactive-whole-class teaching’ may focus on talk but it is the teacher who leads, controls and directs learning. Dialogic teaching is a shift in emphasis towards shared discussion and dialogue with the student seen as a partner. Dialogic teaching might still be led by the teacher but it is not teacher dominated.

Alexander proposed six principles of dialogic talk as outlined by Roberts (2023):

  • Collective: The classroom is a site of joint learning and enquiry and whether in groups or a class, students and teachers are willing and able to address learning tasks together.
  • Supportive: Students feel able to express ideas freely, without risk of embarrassment over contributions that are hesitant or tentative or that might be judged ‘wrong’, and they help each other to reach common understandings.
  • Reciprocal: Participants listen to each other, share ideas, ask questions and consider alternative viewpoints, and the teacher ensures that they have ample opportunities to do so.
  • Deliberative: Participants discuss and seek to resolve different points of view, they present and evaluate arguments and they work towards reasoned positions and outcomes.
  • Cumulative: Participants build on their own and each other’s contributions and chain them into coherent lines of thinking and understanding.
  • Purposeful: Classroom talk, though sometimes open-ended, is nevertheless structured with specific learning goals in view.‘ (p 98.)

Dialogic teaching is about higher-order learning and links to disciplinary knowledge. According to Alexander (2011), it is about the ‘quality, content and dynamics of talk’ and it has been described by the EEF as ‘cognitively challenging talk’. This quality talk enables students to debate, deliberate, question, reflect and reconsider geographical ideas, both new ones and those taken for granted.

From this flows understanding, critical thinking and intellectual engagement. Dialogic teaching is particularly important in geography lessons when the objective is to consider alternative viewpoints, construct arguments and understand bias and perspectives.

Therefore, there is a significant difference between a paired discussion in a regular lesson that uses ‘talk’ for learning substantive knowledge, such as a think, pair, share activity; and a paired discussion in dialogic teaching designed to practise arguments about geographical ideas and bring about learning of disciplinary knowledge.

  • Read about dialogical teaching and Alexander’s five principles in: Biddulph et al (2021) pp. 68-9; Roberts (2023) chapter 11; Simon (2018).

Discuss and plan with your mentor some lesson observations of different teachers (they may not only be geography lessons) where you can observe dialogic talk. Which of Alexander’s proposed six principles (shown above) does each illustrate? Note carefully how the teacher manages the discussion and how the students respond.

Managing discussions in the geography classroom

Roberts (2023) describes whole-class discussion as going beyond teacher explanation and question and answer. She sees good discussions as purposeful classroom talk focused on geography when students are expected to talk for at least 50% of the time.

  • Read Roberts (2023) pp. 101-2. ‘Why is discussion important?’ and note how the evidence from classroom-based research shows the ways in which discussion and dialogue can contribute to students’ learning in geography.

The interactive nature of discussions is crucial to give students alternative perspectives and to require them to engage with the views of others. Through ‘exploratory talk’ students explore, question and revise geographical ideas and good discussions should challenge students’ geographical thinking. It is in these discussions that geographical knowledge is jointly constructed and students achieve a deeper understanding of the subject.

In this purposeful discussion views and opinions about a geography topic are shared and all participants’ contributions are treated equally. The teacher should not be the expert in this context, but act as a ‘chair’ who ensures all opinions have equal weighting and who keeps the discussion disciplined and focused. It is important that discussion is purposeful and reaches some conclusions.

When planning for a whole-class discussion think about:

  • Your subject knowledge – you need to be confident in the subject matter to lead a good discussion.
  • Resources: what will help to stimulate discussion? Visual resources can be very helpful.
  • Stance: will you adopt a neutral stance and listen seriously to student’s ideas?
  • Ground rules: what should you use? What instructions will you give? How do you make sure students understand these?
  • Outcomes: a solution, a list of factors, an explanation?
  • Follow up: what will be done next? Extended writing? Homework?

To introduce in-depth discussions into your teaching it helps to start with some form of group discussion on the chosen topic first, to get ideas flowing. Some teachers use think, pair, share to give students some reflection time before they open up a topic for class discussion. 

The focus for discussion is important and should be carefully considered. There must be something tangible that they can discuss. The students need sufficient knowledge about the topic so that different views can be shared. You might find it helpful to build the discussion around one or more resources.

Alternatively, the discussion could be the debriefing that follows up to a specific activity where there are varied student outcomes to discuss, such as concept maps or layers of inference.

The teacher’s stance is key to managing a good discussion. They must allow the discussion to flow and resist intervening too much. However, they need to correct inaccuracies or provide further information as needed. They also need to ensure that all students have the opportunity to have their say.

Roberts (2023) p 101 warns that good discussion and dialogic talk are not easy to achieve. They require a classroom culture that is open to students’ contributions, and this might be difficult in a school where patterns of classroom talk are more traditional. However, she sets out how it can be useful if ground rules are made explicit, certain strategies are adopted and structured activities are used.

  • Read Roberts (2023) pp. 102-4 for how to establish ground rules and conditions that encourage whole-class discussion.
  • Find out about strategies that can lead into subsequent whole class discussion, such as ‘give one to get one’ and ‘flat chat’. These silent strategies are often used for critical thinking and involve written and sharing activities to engage all pupils (see Cannell et al, 2018).
  • Ask your mentor to arrange for you to observe how expert teachers manage discussions. This could be in lessons other than geography. You may find it interesting to see how other departments, such as RE or English, manage whole-class discussion or debates.

Consider these questions as you observe. Find out from the class teacher what prior experience the class has in this type of activity.

  • What ground rules does the teacher establish for speaking and listening? How do they do this?
  • How is the classroom arranged?
  • What topic is used? Is it controversial?
  • Does the teacher use any stimulus resource/s? How do they use this?
  • Sometimes the stimulus or data might require students to listen – for example, to a reading, tape, video, visiting speaker or video commentary. How does the teacher ensure the students focus on listening?
  • What ‘stance’ does the teacher adopt? Do they open up a topic for speculation?
  • What open-ended questions does the teacher ask to start the discussion? 
  • Do the students discuss in pairs/groups prior to whole class discussion?
  • How does the teacher manage the discussion? Do they let it flow? Do they intervene?

Classroom debate

A classroom debate can be an extremely effective way to structure discussion. But if a class has not debated before, you will need to scaffold activities carefully so they can produce the evidence to support their point of view against the alternative. You could use role play or arrange group discussions first, to provide students with ideas to articulate in the debate.

Alternatively, you could use a silent debate first and then move to an oral debate. Silent debates allow all students to express opinions and particularly benefits those who don’t normally put forward their ideas.

  • See Cannell et al (2018) p. 20 and Sloggett (2016) for silent debates.

Another approach is Philosophy for Children (P4C)’s ‘community of enquiry’. Students are introduced to a geographical issue through a stimulus, such as a video clip or newspaper article, and asked to generate questions. One question is selected for discussion. The teacher is a neutral chair and uses the questions to help students to start questioning assumptions and developing reasoned opinions and judgements to the chosen question (See Roberts, (2023) p 105).

The next step – dialogic teaching

When you and your students are more experienced in whole-class discussion and debate and you feel confident, you are ready to tackle the next stage of dialogic pedagogies. This means encouraging students to share and to challenge ideas freely, consider alternative viewpoints and voice uncertainties. Refer to back Alexander’s six principles of dialogic talk. If your classroom talk does not reflect these it is not truly dialogic.

From these readings you will see the difference between ordinary discussion in the classroom and the deliberate and planned nature of dialogic teaching with specific educational goals in mind. Notice that the teacher is not dominant, but lets the discussion flow so that ideas are shared and built upon. You will also note that the approach is particularly appropriate when controversial issues are studied in geography.

Reading

  • Alcock, D., Fryer, L. and Robinson, H. (2023) ‘Active geographical learning using Harkness discussions’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Alexander, R. (2011) Towards Dialogic Teaching: Rethinking Classroom Talk, 4th edition. York: Diaglogos.
  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 68-9.
  • Cannell, J., Hopkin, J. and Kitchen, B. (2018) Critical thinking in practice, Geographical Association.
  • Sloggett, G. (2016) ‘The silent debate’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Mercer, N. (2000) Words and Minds: How We Use Language to Think Together. London: Routledge.
  • Philosophy for Children (2022) ‘What is a typical P4C session like?‘.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 11.
  • Simon, D.E. (2018) ‘It’s good to talk: Moving towards dialogic teaching’, Impact. Chartered College of Teaching, May.
  • Walshe, N. (2017) ‘Literacy’ in Jones, M. (ed) Secondary Geography Handbook. Sheffield: Geographical Association.