Teaching approaches: Whole class

From OER in Education

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1 Working With Whole-Classes

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'. (Adapted from Purposes and characteristics of whole-class dialogue, section WholeClassIntro).

2 Dialogic Talk

For children to become more able in using language as a tool for both solitary and collective thinking, they need involvement in thoughtful and reasoned dialogue, inwhich conversational partners 'model' useful language strategies and in which they can practise using language to reason, reflect, enquire and explain their thinking to others. By using questions to draw out children's reasons for their views or actions, teachers can help them not only to reflect on their reasoning but also to see how and why to seek reasons from others. By seeking and comparing different points of view, a teacher can help those views to be shared and help children see how to use language to compare, debate and perhaps reconcile different perspectives. Providing only brief factual answers to IRF exchanges will not give children suitable opportunities for practice, whereas being drawn into more extended explanations and discussions of problems or topics will. This is the valuable kind of educational experience that 'dialogic talk' and 'whole-class dialogue' can offer. (Adapted from The educational value of dialogic talk in whole-class dialogue, section Why).

3 Whole Class Dialogue - An Opportunity for Teaching Talk

Recent research has shown the importance of the link between spoken language, learning and cognitive development (e.g. Mercer, Wegerif & Dawes, 1999; Mercer, Dawes, Wegerif & Sams, 2004). Through using language and hearing how others use it, children become able to describe the world, make sense of life's experiences and get things done. They learn to use language as a tool for thinking, collectively and alone. However, children will not learn how to make the best use of language as a tool for communicating and thinking without guidance from their teachers. School may provide the only opportunity many children have for acquiring some extremely important speaking, listening and thinking skills.

For the research findings which underpin these claims, see:

Mercer, N., Wegerif, R. and Dawes, L. (1999) 'Children's talk and the development of reasoning in the classroom', British Educational Research Journal, 25, 1, 95-111

Mercer, N., Dawes, L., Wegerif, R., & Sams, C. (2004). Reasoning as a scientist: ways of helping children to use language to learn science. British Educational Research Journal, 30, 3, 367-385.

See also Teaching Approaches/Dialogic Teaching (Adapted from The Importance of Speaking and Listening, section ImportanceOfTalk).

4 Relevant resources

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