The Dialogic Frame: Why Dialogue is Crucial in Educational Systems

High on my summer reading list this year was John Hattie's Visible Learning for Teachers, his brilliant work on utilizing research-based best-practices—the elements that actually work in the classroom. In the book, Hattie spends significant time on talk—which makes sense, since teaching is so talk dependent—but what is interesting here is that Hattie makes the very important point that dialogue between teacher and students is a crucial component of teaching and learning - yet is seldom present in classroom exchanges.

He sites research by investigators that filmed teacher-student interactions, showing that somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 to 80 percent of class time is simply the teacher doing the talking. 

There is, Hattie reminds us, a classic reason for this, which is an adherence to a traditional approach, the IRE method: teacher initiation, student response, and teacher evaluation. The effect of this is often that the teacher dominates the proceedings with a focus on a one-way transmission of knowledge from teacher to student. The implicit message to students is, as Hattie observes, is "'Keep quiet, behave, listen, and then react to my factual closed questions when I ask you.'" And where "'Interaction' means: ‘Tell me what I have just said so that I can check that you were listening, and then I can continue talking.'" 

If you think of learning as a process of merely receiving information for the purpose of rote memorization then this likely makes sense.  And certainly there is a need for the dispersal of technical factual information - significant dates in history, mathematical formulas, etc. - but if that was all there was to learning, we could learn all we needed from computers. It's not just the reception of facts, it's the thinking, the application and testing of those facts in different situations that is important.

So, if you think of learning as a rich process of making meaning, synthesizing ideas, evaluating truth propositions, and so on, dialogue is crucial. And Hattie brings research to bear on the ideas that teachers need to talk less and listen more.

In his discussion, Hattie cites the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin and his distinction between "dialogic" talk and "monologic" talk. Dialogic talk is this back-and-forth affair where meaning resides somewhere in the center, co-created by both participants in the conversation. The meaning and conclusions produced in the conversation shift as the parties speak and listen, often building knowledge anew in the process.  

"Dialogue," says Hattie,

involves students and teachers joining together in addressing questions or issues of common concern, considering and evaluating differing ways of addressing and learning about these issues, exchanging and appreciating each other's views, and collectively resolving the issues. Listening requires not only showing respect for others’ views and evaluating the students’ views (because not all are worthwhile or necessarily leading in the best directions), but also allows for sharing genuine depth of thinking and processing in our questioning, and permitting the dialogue so necessary if we are to engage students successfully in learning.

Monologic talk on the other hand, is all about a direct transmission of knowledge in a straight line from teacher to student. Knowledge here is closed and static: the teacher is the authority and there's no mental wiggle room. This puts a lot of pressure on the teacher to be right always, and leaves out an essential component of teaching: understanding the misconceptions of students that is possible in dialogue so that teaching can more accurately respond to the needs of the students in the moment. In fact, the whole notion of formative assessment rests on a foundation of dialogue between teacher and student.

And there is a darker dimension to monological talk. One thing that Hattie doesn't mention is that Bakhtin (who was writing in the post-revolutionary Soviet 1920's) frames monologic talk in a civic sense: the monologue is the mode of authoritarian discourse. It is one voice, with no room for dissent. 

This bears on systems and organizations. Not only is dialogue essential in the classroom, but it is also an essential mode of communication in the system as a whole. The traditional top-down chain of command may not always be sufficient: modern dilemmas are increasingly complex and cannot always be solved by authorities, experts or administrators, at least in the same way that they can be solved by peers working together under similar circumstances. 

For example, a teacher having trouble working with a particular gender or ethnic group can learn more from a colleague dealing with the same population who can question the teacher in a dialogic fashion: is this a technique problem? A curricular issue? A problem of your beliefs about your students' capabilities that may manifest itself in your classroom interactions with your students? A dialogical approach would suggest that these questions are best handled in collegial dialogue with peers. In this dialogue, teachers can make use of several minds to co-construct solutions to problems that don't lend themselves to textbook remedies.

A system that believes in a strict top-down chain of authority is naturally going to run into problems, because the challenges that a large system might face requires this collective expertise of many people, especially those on the ground doing the frontline work. The work is complex, uncertain, and often ambiguous and it requires a dialogical frame that can harness the wisdom of multiple minds. 

We need to consider how the dialogical mode of communication affects the learning experience in the classroom, the staffroom, and across the system.

- Michael N. Martin