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
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
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
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
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.