The People's voice

Robin Alexander

It's good to talk. Robin Alexander argues that dialogic teaching empowers children as learners and future citizens

We know that children need to talk and to experience a rich diet of spoken language in order to think and learn. Yet, as officially prescribed, "speaking and listening" may leave the traditional one-sidedness of interaction between teacher and pupil intact, while important though "communication skills" undeniably are, talk is for expressing, exploring, arguing and making sense, as well as for communicating.

For some years I have been arguing for a concept of dialogic teaching which lifts classroom talk out of its sometimes prosaic official confines and makes it a true cornerstone of learning across the curriculum. Dialogic teaching aims to make children think for themselves, not merely repeat the thinking of others.

The argument is amply justified by research evidence - psychological, neurological, pedagogical, linguistic - which shows that talk of a genuinely dialogic kind is indispensable to the development of thinking and understanding. My own approach, refined in collaboration with schools and LEAs, has fleshed out dialogic teaching as a framework of justifications, repertoires, principles and classroom indicators, and is being implemented with increasing success in various parts of the country. Dialogue delivers.

But, as ever, there's the problem of policy catch-up. When launched in 2003, the Primary National Strategy mentioned talk just once.

Now it mentions it as often as possible, though still mainly within the conventions of speaking and listening. Similarly, the inherited 3Rs view of literacy, as embodied in the national curriculum, treated oracy as literacy's poor relation. Now, Jim Rose's 2006 report on the teaching of early reading insists that speaking, listening, reading and writing are interdependent, and we hear that the revised National Literacy Strategy framework will give talk a much more prominent place.

Rose, like QCA's recent English 21 report, advocates dialogic teaching by name. But he reminds us that there is a problem of classroom catch-up too.

Here, the 2005 Ofsted English survey echoes independent research showing the persistence of closed questions, brief recall answers, minimal feedback, and of talk which remains teacher-dominated and offers pupils limited cognitive challenge and few opportunities for extended interaction.

These are the habits from which dialogic teaching tries to break away. It re-balances classroom dynamics by making interaction collective, supportive and genuinely reciprocal;it uses carefully-structured extended exchanges to build understanding through cumulation;and throughout, children's own words, ideas, speculations and arguments feature much more prominently.

Yet although time lag is as evident in talk reform as it is in every educational movement of any significance, I sense a hunger among teachers for that very transformation. How else can you explain the take-up of the booklet Towards Dialogic Teaching, already into its third edition and seventh printing? It's as if teachers in our heavily centralised system have understood the true power of talk yet have been reluctant to raise its profile without government permission. That, or the emergence of a dialogic counter-culture.

In what is an exciting time for the real reformers of classroom talk, wherever they are, dialogic teaching is the point at which parallel developments intersect. So, our work on dialogue resonates with ideas emerging elsewhere in the UK and the US. It overlaps the otherwise separate agendas of assessment for learning, inclusion, and philosophy for children.

Casting the net more widely, we find former QCA boss David Hargreaves working with the Association for School and College Leaders and the Specialist Schools Trust to turn personalised learning from vapid political slogan into viable educational rationale, and placing dialogic teaching within a personalising framework linking mentoring and coaching with assessment for learning, student voice and learning for life.

Now dialogue is moving out of the classroom to confront Britain's tattered political fabric. The 2005 EPPI (Evidence for Policy and Practice Co-ordination) citizenship review found that future citizens in a democracy learn participation by enacting rather than being told about it, and that this requires a shift from transmissive to dialogic modes of teaching.

A properly-conceived citizenship education is no mere curriculum add-on: the recent Power Inquiry into Britain's democracy deplored the growth of political alienation and the decline in dialogue both within Parliament and between government and the people - trends which undermine not just democracy but also the country's capacity to cope with the formidable global challenges which lie ahead. In Education as Dialogue (the sequel to Towards Dialogic Teaching) I have tried to link what happens in our classrooms to these urgent questions of national purpose and international need.

Providing a timely illustration of how the debate about classroom talk has both taken off and transformed itself into something larger, the Hong Kong administration has decided to send Towards Dialogic Teaching to each of its 1,300 schools.

But the reasons for this interest differ sharply. On one side are those who are convinced that dialogue enhances student engagement, learning and understanding, and therefore effective teaching in pursuit of orthodox goals. On the other are those who see dialogic teaching as a way of keeping alight the flame of democracy in the face of the Beijing government's efforts to ensure political compliance and advance a nationalistic version of citizenship education.

A lesson for Britain, perhaps - not least now that our government has decreed that every secondary student shall be taught the British value of free speech while in the same week raising questions about our human rights legislation.

Dialogic teaching is for thinking, understanding, inclusion, personalisation, lifelong learning, citizenship, democracy. Take your pick, but recognise that whichever of these purposes one pursues, the common thread is empowerment. That's not something with which those with authoritarian leanings, whether in schools or governments, are comfortable.

Is official endorsement of dialogic teaching what it seems?

Robin Alexander is Fellow of Wolfson College at the University of Cambridge and Professor of Education Emeritus at the University of Warwick. Towards Dialogic Teaching, Education as Dialogue.

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Robin Alexander

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