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Classroom Dialogue – Talk for Learning

In recent years there has been a renewed interest in the purpose of classroom talk in helping students learn.

The research and pedagogical approaches to classroom talk can be roughly divided into:

a) talk for learning – using talk as a strategy to improve thinking and understanding
b) talk about learning – using talk as a strategy to engage in metacognition
c) talk skills – developing communication and discussion skills

This knowledge bank explores the first two – thinking skills approaches to classroom talk.

Theoretical basis of talk for learning
It is argued that reasoned and purposeful discussion between students in lessons can increase a student’s general thinking abilities across all subjects. Talk as a strategy for improving thinking and learning, has its roots in the work of Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky established the idea that learning is a social process. According to Vygotsky, talk or discussion is at the centre of the learning process, firstly, because through talk we construct meaning and understanding, and secondly, through talk, we are exposed to and guided through new learning. Vygotsky argued that psychological capacities are created by the ‘internalisation’ of social activity. He argues that talk between people is transformed into the process of silent reflection, whereby the individual conducts an internal dialogue (Wegerif). That is, the individual then internalises the new idea or the new strategy for doing or thinking. For example, a father helping his child to complete a jigsaw, by showing her how to find the straight edges. When the child faces the problem again, she will enter into an internal dialogue, mimicking what she first experienced in the social experience, to help her complete the task alone.

Thus, it is argued, that if we can develop in group discussion patterns and processes of reasoned and purposeful dialogue, and make those patterns explicit, students will internalize these patterns and processes in their internal dialogue and raise their level of reasoning and thinking.

Wegerif and colleagues conducted research showing how children that were taught ground rules for talking in a reasoned way together, clearly increased their individual reasoning ability, (measured in standardized tests), following the learning, (see, The Importance of Intelligent Conversations, or Wegerif’s report on his initial research, Learning to Talk, Talking to Learn). Following this theory of learning, one would expect student talk to support learning of all skills and abilities. For example, learning a new problem solving technique in maths, in groups, should help students internalize the technique and then, later, use it alone. Students conducting a science experiment in a group, hypothesising, describing to each other the process and evaluating the results together, would be expected to be more able using scientific language, and writing up the report afterwards alone. Similarly, if we encourage the use of subject specific vocabulary in groups, this will help students make meaning of new complex vocabulary and allow them the opportunity to use and internalize ways of using it.

Approaches to talk for learning
Wegerif and colleagues developed this approach to teach how to participate in effective dialogue and called it, ‘Thinking Together’. Students learn how to listen, give information explicitly and co-operate as a group. They learn appropriate language or expressions for initiating different moves/stages in a discussion. They learn how to apply these ground-rules and processes across subjects. For more information, read Steve Williams: Talking about Talk, or go to the Thinking Together website, www.thinkingtogether.org.

Dialogic teaching is a talk-based approach to learning that involves learning through reciprocal dialogue between teachers and students. Students and teachers collectively tackle learning challenges together, cumulatively building on their own, and each other’s, ideas to chain them into coherent lines of thinking and enquiry. In this model, the role of the teacher is to steer the dialogue, insofar that it leads to purposeful thinking, (as defined by Alexander in Fisher: Creative Dialogue: developing children’s minds through talk). Philosophy for children is the most well known dialogic teaching strategy. P4C is a talk-based approach to learning that focuses on enquiry and questioning. In small groups and as a whole class, students pose questions to pursue enquiry arousing from a given stimulus.

Philosophy for children has clear procedures for discussion, and the role of the teacher is to facilitate the enquiry by only intervening to pose questions to students to extend their thinking and enquiry. This talk approach focuses on using talk to think about philosophical concepts and enables students to develop critical and creative thinking and inquisitive, curious dispositions to learning. Through such dialogue, students internalize forms for questioning – posing open and philosophical questions, reasoning, criticising ideas and creatively and collaboratively building on each other’s ideas, coming up with new ideas to address or resolve arising problems. For more information, see Fisher’s article on the Philosophy for Children Knowledge Bank.

Socratic dialogue is a technique that involves the teacher asking a series of open-ended questions to challenge students to progressively engage in higher levels of thinking. Importantly, the answers are not foreclosed and students are not expected to find the correct answer. Fisher argues that they enable depth of discussion and test the limits of knowledge. In Fisher’s article, (Philosophy for Children Knowledge Bank), Fisher explores different types of questions that can stimulate different levels of thinking, including literal, critical, creative, and conceptual levels of thinking.

Circle time is a talk based strategy that aims to develop emotional literacy. Through creating a safe environment, feelings can be expressed, explored, and increasingly understood, (Steve Williams: Robinson and Maines, Talking about Talk).

Collaborative learning is the sister movement to talk for learning, and represents the attempts to develop discrete activities that require students to engage in collaborative talk in order to complete them. Such activities can be used within regular subject-based teaching and offer a way of integrating student talk into the classroom in a regular and consistent way. For more information and links to collaborative learning resources, see the Collaborative Learning Knowledge Bank. For some nice ideas on successful techniques to stimulate and develop children’s talk, read, How to… Develop Talk for Learning. Drama for learning strategies are also usually talk-based, and offer strategies to develop subject-based knowledge and understanding as well as thinking skills and emotional literacy abilities. See the Drama for Learning Knowledge Bank for more information.

Metacognition and Learning to Learn
Following the same Vygotskian logic, talking about the process of learning and thinking can help students to understand these processes, become more aware of them whilst learning and give them strategies to help guide themselves in their own learning and thinking. Students become aware of when and why they have had positive or effective experiences of learning. They can become aware of what they need to do to succeed, how to overcome something difficult or problematic, and develop a certain form of talk where they support themselves and each other to progress. Watkins argues that developing classroom talk about learning can totally change the culture of the class, as young people ‘literally talk themselves into being learners,’ (Watkins: Learning about Learning). For further discussions of this subject, read, Maine: The Language of Discussion and Wall and Higgins: Thought Bubbles.

Critique
Caglioni offers a well-argued critique against the many benefits of classroom dialogue, in, I Hear What You Say And I See What You Mean. He argues that there is a socio-economic imbalance in children’s access to talk-based learning activities. He also suggests a useful method of redress for the problems he analyses, which is supporting talk-based activities with visual tools.

Blackbourn and Watson, in, Deepening Thinking Through Dialogue, offer a critique of discussion-based activities from a values perspective – arguing that we often reinforce negative patterns of thinking inadvertently when conducting discussions, particularly discussions about value-laden subjects, such as individualism, relativism and pragmatism.

Other reading
Steve Williams’ article, Vocabulary for Thinking, is a practical look at teaching vocabulary of concepts that are necessary for extending thinking – for example, cause, reason, distinction, comparing etc. There are tips for what thinking vocabulary is necessary at each key stage and ideas for teaching it. For discussion of how schools have/can integrate more talk for learning, see Fiona Lovell: Making the Difference with Dialogic Talk, and Tara Lovelock and Lyn Dawes: It’s Good To Talk.

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