‘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
- The next step – dialogic teaching
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 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.
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).
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.
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 form of class discussion views and opinions about a geography topic are shared and all participants’ contributions should be 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 focussed. It is important that discussion is purposeful and reaches some conclusions.
- 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?
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.
Other strategies are 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 and lead into subsequent whole class discussion (See Cannell et al, 2018 for strategies).
Alcock, Fryer and Robinson (2023) use Harkness discussions in their GCSE and A level lessons to increase student engagement and develop the skills of evaluation and synopticity. They describe the approach as follows:
A Harkness discussion involves a small group of students discussing an issue around a table. The discussion will usually focus on a shared stimulus, for example an article, but it can also be a fruitful revision method for the end of a unit. The teacher decides upon the stimulus, sets up the questions the students should tackle, facilitates how lesson time is used, observes the lesson (making notes on what was contributed and by whom), and feeds back on it. As well as giving their own take on the topic, students should be encouraged to politely question, challenge, or prompt each other.
They noted that on the first occasion that a discussion takes place, the teacher may need to intervene, to move the conversation on and sensitively help quieter members by suggesting that they start parts of the discussion. Later on, however, such interventions were rare.
- Read the article by Alcock, Fryer and Robinson (2023) Consider the three case studies in and try out this technique in your classroom with older students.
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).
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?
The next step – dialogic teaching
When you and your students are more experienced in managing whole-class discussion and debate and you feel confident, you are ready to tackle the next stage of dialogic pedagogies, which encourages students to share and to challenge ideas freely, consider alternative viewpoints and voice uncertainties. Refer to Alexander’s five key principles of dialogic teaching. If your classroom talk does not reflect these it is not truly dialogic.
Collective: The teacher and students address learning activities together rather than in isolation. The teacher acts as a full partner in discussions with students.
Reciprocal: Participants listen carefully to each other, sharing and challenging ideas and providing different viewpoints.
Supportive: Contributions are valued and respected by all participants with a goal to achieve a collective understanding. Everyone feels comfortable to contribute.
Cumulative: The teacher and students build on each other’s contributions, bringing them together into coherent lines of enquiry and enabling deeper exploration.
Purposeful: The teacher plans, implements and skilfully facilitates with certain learning goals in mind.
- Refer to Speaking and listening in geography for more about dialogic pedagogies.
- Read Walshe (2017) p. 199 and Roberts (2023) pp. 98-104.
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.
- 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.
- Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, 2nd 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.