Classroom Dialogue and Learning

Dr Victoria Cook, Dr Louis Major, Dr Sara Hennessy with Farah Ahmed, Elisa Calcagni and other colleagues from the Cambridge Educational Dialogue Research Group (CEDiR) | View as single page | Feedback/Impact

Dialogic Teaching - Whole-class dialogue

Different types of talk have been identified in the classroom, some of which are more educationally effective than others. ‘Monologic’ talk is dominated by the teacher and is exemplified by an Initiation-Response-Feedback’ (IRF) pattern. The IRF pattern, which may be repeated several times during whole-class teaching, is typified by the teacher asking a closed question (initiation), a child answering (response) and the teacher offering feedback on that answer (feedback). Such an approach is common in classrooms (Howe & Abedin, 2013), but it has been criticised for limiting the meaningful engagement of students with talk (Mercer, 1995).

In contrast, dialogic talk assumes a more conversational manner and tries to consider several points of view (Howe & Abedin, 2013). It encompases encouraging, non-evaluative feedback (e.g. Berry, 2006; Chin, 2006) and refocuses the conversation away from the teacher’s initiating moves towards students’ responses (Wolfe & Alexander, 2008). This focus on students’ responses enables teachers to more effectively support individuals in their learning, which is fundamental to both formative assessment (Black, Harrison, Lee, Marshall & Wiliam, 2002) and the idea of “learning as assessment‟ (Wolfe & Alexander, 2008). In this way, the conceptualisation of learning is broadened, moving beyond the idea of acquisition of knowledge to encompass students’ involvement in knowledge building practices (James, 2008).

An approach to classroom teaching that emphasises Classroom Dialogue has been summarised by Alexander (2017). Alexander defines dialogic teaching as being:

  • Collective: teachers and children address learning tasks together

  • Reciprocal: teachers and children listen to each other, share ideas and consider alternative viewpoints

  • Supportive: children articulate ideas freely without fear of embarrassment over “wrong‟ answers and help each other achieve common understandings

  • Purposeful: questions are purposeful and structured to provoke thoughtful answers, which may in turn provoke further questions

  • Cumulative: individual exchanges are not disconnected but chained into coherent lines of enquiry. Answers are viewed as the building blocks of dialogue rather than its end point

In reality, it is neither possible nor desirable to be dialogic all the time. The rhythm of the lesson will change and there will be times when the teacher does not wish to seek extended contributions from the students. At such times the teacher may adopt a more ‘authoritative’ style of interaction with the class (Mortimer & Scott, 2003), for example when introducing new information. The most effective whole-class teaching uses a balance of authoritative talk and dialogue, because each kind of talk has its own useful functions.