Dialogic education emphasises the importance of dialogue for learning. But what exactly is meant by the word ‘dialogue’? And what does it entail for an educational programme or approach to be ‘dialogic’?
In everyday speech the term ‘dialogue’ can be used to refer to almost any kind of social interaction where words or other signs are exchanged between people. Bakhtin, a philosopher referred to as a major source for recent approaches to dialogic education, defined dialogue by claiming that; ‘If an answer does not give rise to a new question from itself, it falls out of the dialogue’ (Bakhtin 1986, 168). Robin Alexander quotes this sentence from Bakhtin in outlining his Dialogic Teaching approach. The aim of the approach is to engage students in sustained stretches of talk which enables speakers and listeners to explore and build on their own and others’ ideas (Alexander, 2006)
It is sometimes assumed that dialogic education is about talk in classrooms but the definition of dialogue by Bakhtin given above does not necessarily limit itself to explicit spoken language or even to any form of explicit language. Since personality and tone of voice are part of dialogues for Bakhtin, it is clear that some forms of music, Jazz for example, and some forms of improvised dance can be dialogic. Bakhtin was interested in the way in which holding different ideas or perspectives together in the tension of a dialogue led to new insights. For Bakhtin dialogue is not just about talk or texts but includes the more general idea that the inter-animation of different perspectives can lead to mutual illumination (Bakhtin, 1984).
Level 1: Dictionary definition
The term ‘dialogic’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as an adjective applied to describe anything ‘relating to or in the form of dialogue’. This is the first level of definition that can be applied to dialogic education. Where there is group work or a high level of open-ended teacher student interaction this might be referred to as ‘dialogic education’ without specifying any more technical meaning for dialogic than that the teaching and learning takes the form of a dialogue.
Level 2: epistemological definitions of dialogic
Dialogic is often used in a more technical way to refer to the claim that the meaning of an utterance is not given by that utterance alone but can only be understood in a context, more specifically through the position and role of that utterance in a larger dialogue in which it is a response to previous utterances and is trying to elicit or have some impact upon future utterances (Rommetveit, 1992: Linell, 2009). To put this another way, if a friend sends a text with a happy face emoji the meaning of that text does not stand alone but depends on the previous message and also on how your friend might want you to respond.
The term dialogic used in this more technical way is a contrast to the term ‘monologic’ which expresses the idea that everything has one correct meaning in one true perspective on the world. For dialogic, by contrast, knowledge is never direct knowledge of an external world but always emerges only within dialogue as an aspect of dialogue. This is simply because knowledge has to take the form of an answer to a question and questions arise in the context of dialogue, both dialogue between human voices and dialogue with the larger context or the world around. Since the dialogue is never closed the questions we ask will change and so what counts as knowledge is never final. The dialogue is never closed because when you think it is over and look back upon it to reflect upon it, that reflection is itself a new utterance in the dialogue. This is why there is a new interpretation of what Socrates really meant almost every year. It follows from this dialogic understanding of knowledge that it is more important to teach students how to construct knowledge together with others so that they can participate more fully and effectively in ongoing dialogues then in is to teach them lists of fixed knowledge or so-called facts.
This focus on how we gain knowledge gives a second or epistemological level of definition for dialogic education which is that education should be understood as engaging students in an ongoing process of shared enquiry taking the form of a dialogue (Wells, 1999: Linell, 2009). Dialogic teaching, for example, developed by Robin Alexander, mentioned above, is epistemological in focus, drawing students into the process of the shared construction of knowledge. A similar epistemological focus can often be found in the community of enquiry approach in Philosophy for Children (Lipman, 2003), in the promotion of Exploratory Talk (Littleton & Mercer, 2013) and in the promotion of Accountable Talk (Michaels, O’Connor, & Resnick, 2008).
Level 3: ontological definitions of dialogic
Epistemology is about how we know things and so any purely epistemological approach in education does tend to assume that there is a knowing self on the one hand and an external reality that is known about on the other hand. Some claim that taking dialogic seriously as a theory of meaning implies that it is not just a means to knowledge construction mediating between selves and reality, but, that selves and reality are also part of the dialogue. Applied to education this ontological interpretation of dialogic suggests that dialogue is not just a means or tool to be used in education to help construct knowledge, but, more than that, engagement in dialogue is a way to change ourselves and to change our reality.
Different versions of ontologic dialogic education focus differently on either understanding and transforming a) the self, or b) reality as a whole or c) social reality. Understanding the self as a kind of dialogic author and education as developing both the freedom and the responsibility of this authorial self, seems to be a focus of one strand of ontologic dialogic educational theory (Matusov 2009: Sidorkin 1999). Another strand puts more focus on the transformation of reality seeing education, and science understood as dialogue, as a journey of discovery from the naturally occurring illusion that selves and objects are separate substances within an external fixed reality to the realisation that all identities are aspects of a kind of universal dialogue that we can learn to participate in more fully and more effectively or at least more playfully (Wegerif, 2007: Kennedy, 2014). A more political interpretation of dialogic education can be seen in the vision of Freire (1971) and those influenced by Freire (e.g Flecha, 2009) of dialogic education as a way to empower the oppressed such that they can learn to ‘name’ their own reality in a movement that is both an expansion of consciousness (‘conscientization’) and at the same time a transformation of social reality. Where a particular concept of what counts as social justice is established in advance of dialogue then this Freirean vision may be accused of being instrumental and manipulative rather than genuinely dialogic (Matusov, 2009). However, if the focus is on liberating all students to be able to participate equally fully in dialogues that shape a shared social reality then this is a truly dialogic educational goal albeit one which may often have obvious political implications.
In practice, despite claims to the contrary (e.g Matusov in Matusov & Wegerif, 2014), these three levels of definition are not mutually incompatible. Most approaches to education that describe themselves as dialogic combine some element of all three levels. It is not uncommon for approaches to combine a concern for taking the form of a dialogue in which all participants are given opportunities to participate with ideas, a concern to promote knowledge age skills through shared inquiry and also an interest in developing dialogic dispositions and promoting more dialogue as a valued end in itself (eg Flecha 2000, 16: Phillipson and Wegerif, 2016; Lefstein and Snell, 2013; Nystrand. 1997).
Dialogic educational theory has a variety of strands and there are significant differences in focus across these strands. Nonetheless some shared themes emerge. The first of these is the dialogic form. Approaches to education that call themselves dialogic tend to involve dialogue, usually in the form of face to face talk including questioning and exploration of ideas of a kind that might have been familiar to Socrates. However what makes this talk ‘dialogic’ is not the external form but the internal or lived experience of a shared space which Buber called ‘the in-between’ (1958) and which more recently is being referred to as ‘dialogic space’ (e.g Mercer, Warwick, Kershner, & Staarman, 2010). The idea behind dialogic space is summed up by Merleau-Ponty who wrote that when dialogue works it is no longer possible to say who is thinking (Merleau-Ponty, 1968) because we find ourselves thinking together.
In teaching through the opening of a shared dialogic space, dialogic education draws students into participation in the processes through which shared knowledge is constructed and validated. In other words dialogic education promotes dialogue as an end in itself. As a result of participation in dialogic education students are expected to become better at dialogue which means better at learning things together with others.
Dialogic education programmes have elements of these three characteristics, firstly, a dialogic form, secondly, opening a shared dialogic space and thirdly, the aim of teaching for more dialogue or teaching dialogue as an end in itself as well as using dialogue as a means to knowledge construction.
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