Dialogic Teaching

Dialogic teaching is an approach developed by Alexander (2008) and adopted by several scholars in the field of educational research (e.g., Mercer et al., 2009; Mercer & Littleton, 2007; Wegerif, 2013). It is based upon Bakhtin’s idea of dialogue as ‘shared enquiry’. According to Bakhtin (1986) in dialogue, every answer gives rise to new questions and meaning only exists in dialogue. Ideas are perceived as a kind of common property to be further explored. Wegerif (2010, 2013) argues that becoming more dialogic is central to learning to think better. In dialogic education, space is created for multiple voices, questions are asked to stimulate students to think and reason, ideas are challenged, students are encouraged to ask questions and make statements, and new ideas and insights are co-constructed. The idea of ‘multivoicedness’ is an important aspect of dialogic interaction. Dialogic, in contrast to monologic, assumes that there is always more than one voice present and meaning emerges ‘in the play of different voices in dialogue with each other’ (Wegerif, 2013: 3). Dialogic teaching does not aim at the transmission of ready-made representations or narratives, but at engaging students in dialogue about the construction and evaluation of these representations. This approach relates to our description of historical reasoning as a key activity in the history classroom. From a dialogic teaching perspective, the history classroom needs to become a place for shared historical inquiry and reasoning where meanings are negotiated and co-constructed. Students should learn how these narratives are constructed, deconstruct existing narratives, and become aware that our representation of the past is related to the time we now live in, its norms, values, challenges, and so on. In short, students are not learned to repeat what other people reasoned upon, but are stimulated to reason historically themselves.

Within the classroom that consists of students with diverse backgrounds, experiences and ideas, the potential for multivoicedness is there, but it takes an active effort of the teacher to realize this potential in order to promote understanding and learning (Dysthe, 1996). When we contrast the notion of dialogic interaction with monologic interaction patterns, this becomes clear. In monologic interaction, the pervasive discourse pattern is the IRF-pattern (Chin, 2006). The teacher initiates (I) typically by asking a question, the student responses often using only one or a few words (R), and the teacher provides feedback on this response against cultural or scientific norms (F), telling whether or not the answer was correct, and recapitulating the answer to show how it can be formulated in a more sophisticated and scientific manner. Various authors have argued that this pattern is not sufficient for collaborative knowledge construction in whole-class discussions, as it tends to minimize the role of the student in the process of constructing knowledge (Chin, 2006; Elbers & Streefland, 2000).

Scott, Mortimer, and Aguiar (2006) present two dimensions to characterize whole-class discussions: the dialogic-authoritative dimension (including the level of inter-animation) and the interactive-non-interactive dimension. The term authoritative discourse is used to describe classroom interaction which has a fixed intent and outcome. The teacher conveys information, and the role of the students is to answer the questions of the teacher, who decides on the rightness of the answer, against cultural or school norms. In contrast, dialogic discourse has a generative intent and is open to various viewpoints. It encourages challenge and debate and allows students to argue and justify their ideas. Student utterances are often spontaneous and in whole phrases or sentences. Within dialogic discourse, the authors make a distinction in the level of interanimation of ideas. Low interanimation refers to the situation in which the teacher only collects different ideas, but does not work with them by comparing or contrasting these ideas, as is the case with high interanimation. Thus, whereas in authoritative discourse, the focus is on only one point of view, dialogic discourse is open to various viewpoints. These can be only collected (low interanimation) or explored deeply and compared and contrasted with other ideas (high interanimation). Second, the interactive-non-interactive dimension refers to whether more than one person is participating in the discourse, or only one person (the teacher). Combining the two dimensions results in four classes: (a) interactive dialogic, in which teacher and students consider a range of ideas; (b) non-interactive dialogic, in which the teacher revisits and summarizes different viewpoints; (c) interactive authoritative, the teacher focuses on one specific viewpoint and leads students through a question and answer routine; (d) noninteractive authoritative, in which the teacher present a specific point of view.

In dialogic classroom interaction, the teacher elicits and sustains an ongoing dialogue. The purpose of the questions teachers ask is to elicit students’ thinking and to make this explicit and open for further discussion (Chin, 2006). Questions are not primarily used to evaluate, but to challenge the students to elaborate on previous ideas, to provide arguments and to engage them in domain-specific reasoning. The questions used for these purposes are more authentic and open-ended (cf. Nystrand, 1997) and require long answers. Contributions of students are taken seriously, the discourse is open to various viewpoints and different student ideas are explored. This also implicates that the content of the discussion is not fixed, and not immediately evaluated against cultural or school norms. Thus, instead of evaluating the response of the student, the teacher asks for elaboration, or invites other students to respond. Nystrand and Gamaron (1991) mention as productive teacher contributions incorporating previous answers into subsequent questions (uptake) and Mercer (1995) mentions making ‘we’ statements, literal and reconstructive recapping of past activity, eliciting relevant knowledge from students, elaborating replies received, and in various ways helping students perceive key issues and continuity in their educational experience. From the idea to include various voices in the discussion, the teacher can specifically invite or challenge students to adopt another perspective. In this way, the reaction of the teacher to a student response is not an evaluation (as in the IRF-pattern) but an elicitation for further exploration and discussion.

The main role of the teacher in these discussions is thus to make students historical thinking and reasoning visible and in doing so open for discussion. However, orchestrating dialogic interaction is highly complex and it puts high demands on the teacher. Teachers should know how knowledge in the discipline of history is organized, recognize misconceptions and opportunities for learning (Cazden, 2001). In deciding how to respond to a student contribution, teachers have to make many decisions, for example how to involve as many students as possible, what kind of questions promote further learning, how to allocate turns, or how to respond to ‘insufficient’ answers. Different responses may have a different effect on the continuous line of reasoning.

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