Thursday, August 04, 2005

Talking to learn – the missing basic!

A rich experience to encourage dialogue. Posted by Picasa

In the current worldwide emphasis on literacy and numeracy, pedagogy, and ‘best practices’, the importance of learning through talk has been overlooked; I don’t hear of many schools setting oracy targets to report on?

I guess it seems too obvious but students learn by talking to each other but for this to be productive it needs sensitive encouragement. We are not talking about teacher talking to students – this 'telling' has long been discounted as an effective way of transmitting information even though it still remains possibly the most used teaching strategy. Students learn best through interactive dialogue, through ‘bouncing ideas of each other’ and collectively expanding their ideas. Teachers, who want to assist need to, learn how to listen, how to support student thinking, and where appropriate, how to challenge students to expand their ideas.

Such ‘dialogic teaching’ (as it is called) fits uncomfortably with an emphasis on preplanned learning objectives and the current dogma of ‘intentional’ teaching. How the new buzz phrase of ‘evidence based teaching’ fits in is hard to imagine. Such approaches suggest that the teachers know what students want to learn – this could only apply to the teaching of low level skills or knowledge?

Dialogue works best in open-ended situations and in classrooms where teachers hold a co-constructivist teaching philosophy (a fancy word for teachers and students creating meaning together). All too often the desire of teachers to teach takes over and the conversation becomes one sided and in the process many students get ‘lost’.

In fact a lot of what goes on in many classrooms is neither conversation nor dialogue but more, ‘guess what I am thinking’; and too often it only requires a closed response. In such an environment only the confident or competitive students are keen to contribute – the less confident students withdraw from making an effort. Possibly the best examples of ‘learning conversations’ are to be seen in the shared reading lessons – the 'shared learning' idea could be extended to all areas of the curriculum.

In a dialogue, or a learning conversation, power is equally shared; dialogue is talking to learn around an open question. It can be encouraged by: involving students (or adults) in groups learning together; teaching people to listen to each other, and encouraging students to support and build on each others ideas. Students need to become aware of these strategies. Some will find it very difficult!

Dialogic teaching is essentially about valuing student’s voices. When students feel their ideas are being recognized they develop a learning identity.

When the skills of dialogue are established people make eye contact with each other, they listen attentively, take turns, bounce ideas of each other, cope with dominant contributors and support reticent members. Most of all they engage with what others say rather than voicing their own opinions

At the end of such a session students, or the group, can sum up the main points they have learnt. And, of course, such learners are only to happy to learn off someone who can fill in the gaps

To develop such ‘learning talk’ environments would, in effect, transform the culture of many classrooms; and for that matter many staff meetings! It would certainly change the power relationships and would require a different stance towards students and each other as we learn to develop ideas collectively as well as individually
It would result in teachers learning alongside their students and would create true learning communities

As Elwyn Richardson, a pioneer New Zealand creative teacher said of his teaching, ‘They were my teachers as much as I was theirs and the basis of our relationship was sincerity, without which, I am convinced, there can be no creative education.’


Anonymous said...

Yes, I think what you say is very true. Talking when focused is 'thinking out loud' and is the basic currency of any positive and successful learning environment. I also agree that generally teachers tend to talk more than they should listen.

Bruce said...

I guess we are conditioned to believe we must teach ( tell) students what they ought to know.
I've heard it called 'sit and git'. And of course the Ministry always knows better than the teachers what they should do!

Learning together is a far more sensible way - in some cases, in this 'wired world', students will know more than the teacher.

I would back the shared wisdom of classroom teachers against those who hide away from reality in the Ministry!

Anonymous said...

Too many people telling and not enough people listening!

Bruce said...

Better people at the 'edge' make the odd mistake in the process of discovering new ideas to share, than those at the 'centre' making a big mistake and then trying to dig their way out of it with endless 'improvements'. In the meantime the Titanic steams happily away! As they say, experts built the Titanic and an amateur built the ark!

Anonymous said...

Indeed, whilst dialogic classrooms are crucial for learning, British classrooms these days are typically monologic. This does need to be changed. However, one of the 5 main dialogic principles (as well as getting pupils to address the learning tasks and encouraging them to share and build on each others ideas in a supportive classroom) is that lessons are structured with certain educational goals in mind. Therefore, there IS room for some "pre-planned learning objectives" within a dialogic classroom. Rather, these objectives may have a different focus than those typically found in classrooms. For example, they may be objectives to promote children's cognitive skills by engaging them with the subject matter rather than merely getting them to learn it. If you are interested in this subject, Robin Alexander's 'Towards Dialogic Teaching' is very good and may well be clearer than I am!