Purposes and characteristics of whole-class dialogue

From OER in Education


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This resource is licenced under an Open Government Licence (OGL).

This resource is part of a larger document (QCA, (2003), New Perspectives on Spoken English in the Classroom), downloadable from http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/6062/

Purposes and characteristics of whole-class dialogue

Tony Edwards, Open University

Introduction: some reflections on the English context

The difficulties of defining dialogue begin with the question of how many can take part before it turns into something else. In ordinary conversation, the managing of turns is a shared responsibility, and competition for 'having one's say' in groups larger than, for example, half a dozen makes a diversion into parallel conversations very likely. Most classroom talk, in contrast, involves a centralised communication system. Teachers direct the talk by doing most of it themselves, combining lengthy exposition with many questions, allocating the right or obligation to answer those questions and evaluating the answers. The transmission of knowledge creates very unequal communicative rights to those who 'know' and those who do not. This is why the sequence of (teacher) initiation - (pupil) response - (teacher) evaluation has emerged from so many research studies as the 'essential teaching exchange'1 In whole-class questioning, it carries risks that a single right answer will be taken as representing a class-wide understanding and a single wrong answer as a common failure to get the point.

A great deal of teaching is unavoidably a passing on of information and skills. However, it benefits from being complemented by classroom talk that is organised very differently for specific curriculum purposes. It is this 'something else' to which whole- class dialogue contributes, provided it goes well beyond those class discussions which involve few departures from teacher direction and little reduction in teacher talk.2 It replaces the usual hunt for answers which the teacher already knows into collaborative searches for solutions or understanding. It blurs those sharp boundaries around school knowledge that largely exclude reference to what pupils know unless they have already been taught it, or at least screens such references for educational relevance. It can provide more opportunities for learners to talk their way into understanding rather than receiving, more and less effectively an already defined version of what they are now supposed to know.3 Dialogue differs from most classroom discussion in so far as the talk is exploratory, that is teacher and pupils see the possibility of conclusions unexpected, and certainly unplanned, when the talk began.

If the potential educational advantages are substantial, why is whole-class dialogue apparently uncommon? It may well be less unusual than classroom research indicates because orderly teacher-centred talk was, until quite recently, so much easier to record audibly and then present in play-script form unpunctuated by gaps and guesses. Robin Alexander and his colleagues show a technically advanced and imaginative capacity to capture many learner voices in classrooms which were not ordered in traditional ways.4 But there are powerful managerial and educational reasons why departures from teacher-directed exposition and questioning are unusual.

An absence of untoward noise is still commonly taken as evidence of good classroom control. Opening out the interaction risks disorder. For example, open questions elicit unpredictable responses which are difficult to assess. It is managerially safer to ask the kinds of questions which entitle the teacher (who knows the answer) to respond immediately, thereby exercising the right to speak every other turn, or at least to take a very high share of turns. There has also been a long, well-publicised, war of attrition against progressive teaching that has caricatured it as a laissez-faire indulging of pupils' uninformed opinions. The national curriculum, literacy and numeracy programmes and the high-stakes testing of their outcomes have tended to strengthen the framing of classroom communication. With a great deal to get through, the pace of transmission is likely to be fast. This privileges the teacher's talk, producing not only a great deal of exposition but also a predominance of questions to which the answers are likely to be short and readily 'marked'.

The extent to which whole-class dialogue departs from such normal practice means that it makes unusual pedagogic demands on teachers and learners. Perhaps first among its demands on teachers is that they are willing not to do what they may often take for granted for so much of the time. For example, teachers ask so many questions that innumerable researchers have counted them, timed them, mapped their distribution, categorised them and tried to measure their cognitive level. The pressures to evaluate the consequent answers are so pervasive that there is much to be gained from sometimes replacing them with statements that invite rejoinders, elaboration or disagreement or that even admit perplexity. Dialogue is certainly unlikely to follow either closed questions or those half- or 'pseudo-open' questions which are progressively closed down in ways which make it obvious that an answer is already there for pupils to hunt down. Teachers are extraordinarily skilled not only at redirecting questions in the interests of 'getting on', but also at translating answers into something directly helpful to the lesson's progress that pupils no longer recognise as their own. These are skills to be temporarily put aside. Teachers also need the nerve to tolerate pauses between turns without feeling that any silence is an awkward silence, and that the responsibility for ending it is theirs. A pause at strategic points in the discussion of no more than five seconds (longer than most pauses in whole-class interaction) may be enough to draw in another pupil contribution or encourage the previous speaker to elaborate on what was said. Intervening to answer questions or provide information useful for getting past a sticking-point requires not only the self-restraint not to take the discussion over, but also the willingness to listen to what is being said rather than merely listening for whatever best promotes the teacher's pedagogic agenda.

Corresponding demands are made on pupils. They are usually well practised in listening for clues in how the teacher introduces a question and responds to initial answers. Experience may well have taught them that the clues are often so prolific that even a wild guess will lead the teacher to answer the question for them. They may have much less experience of listening to one another. Indeed, the distance between whole-class dialogue and customary classroom talk is wide enough to make explicit rules of engagement helpful so that the differences are seen as deliberate departures. Doing so applies the notion of a distinctive 'speech event' to whole-class dialogue, recognised by the participants as having its own way of contributing appropriately. Notable examples of recommending clear procedural rules designed largely to curb teachers' usual directing role are the Nuffield Humanities Project and the National Oracy Project, both vulnerable to ill-informed attacks as a progressive descent into 'anything goes'.

Criteria for recognising dialogic talk

Having emphasised the distinctiveness of whole-class dialogue, I end with some criteria for recognising it when it happens. These are offered cautiously, because how classroom talk is used to organise relationships and meanings is too skilful and complex to be treated as a transparent medium. Most obviously, participation is shared around, not monopolised by the teacher and a few confident, willing pupils. Some pupil contributions may be lengthy and most are followed by another pupil. Teacher interventions may well be decisive pedagogically, but are likely to be infrequent and their placing in the interaction unpredictable. Getting and keeping 'the floor', and ensuring that interruptions are constructive not disruptive, are managed as shared responsibilities. Any skewing of communication so that some pupils or a group of pupils remain persistently silent is recognised as a problem and confronted openly. Such normal teacher tasks as clarifying where a discussion has got to or summarising what has actually been learned from it are also shared around. Teacher and pupils take explicit account of what others have said, so that their speech is responsive as well as expressive. Thinking time can be taken without the speaker's turn being lost and re-allocated. Pauses are more frequent, and often longer, than is possible from the driven momentum of most classroom talk. Thinking aloud is encouraged, that is talking one's way into meaning rather than remaining silent until some sort of answer has been formulated.


There is no implication in that brief profile that a consensual conclusion should eventually be reached. Indeed, the sharpest contrast between whole-class question-and- answer, and whole-class dialogue, is that different and even competing ideas can be kept in play without being subjected to one participant's authoritative arbitration. Making good educational use of it raises an obvious question about what to do if the dialogue appears to the teacher to be achieving nothing other than confusion, or is threatening a conclusion (citizenship lessons come to mind) that the teacher is likely to feel an educational or civic obligation to challenge. Contrary to hostile caricatures, whole-class dialogue does not demand that all such responsibility be discarded. It does embody more problem-posing and less solution-giving; a view of learning as enquiry as well as induction into what is already known, and as a social, truly interactive process; and a clear recognition of the educational value of drawing attention from time to time to the grounds for opinions and conclusions, and to how new knowledge can be constructed.


1 Edwards, A and Westgate, D, Investigating classroom talk, London, Falmer Press, 1994, pages 44 to 54 and 124 to 133.

2 Dillon, J, Using discussion in classrooms, Buckingham, Open University Press, 1994.

3 Barnes, D and Todd, F, Communication and learning revisited: making meaning through talk, Portsmouth NH, Boynton Cook, 1995; and Mercer, N, Wegerif, R and Dawes, L, Children's talk and the development of reasoning in classrooms, British educational research journal, 25, 1999, pages 95 to 111.

4 See, for example, Alexander, R, Culture and pedagogy: international comparisons in primary education, Oxford, Blackwell, 2000, pages 450 to 461.