The following characterisation of the three types and variations on this can be found in several books, articles and web-sites:
- Disputational Talk, which is characterized by disagreement and individualized decision making. There are few attempts to pool resources, to offer constructive criticism or make suggestions. Disputational talk also has some characteristic discourse features – short exchanges consisting of assertions and challenges or counter assertions
- Cumulative Talk, in which speakers build positively but uncritically on what the others have said. Partners use talk to construct ‘common knowledge’ by accumulation. Cumulative discourse is characterized by repetitions, confirmations and elaborations.
- Exploratory Talk, in which partners engage critically but constructively with each other’s ideas. Statements and suggestions are offered for joint consideration. These may be challenged and counter-challenged, but challenges are justified and alternative hypotheses are offered. Partners all actively participate, and opinions are sought and considered before decisions are jointly made. Compared with the other two types, in Exploratory Talk knowledge is made more publicly accountable and reasoning is more visible in the talk. (Mercer and Wegerif 2004 p72)
Types of talk are perhaps a way of seeing more than they are a coding scheme.
We do not measure the curvature of the smile of a child and then check this against the expression in their eyes in order to work out that they are happy, we experience their happiness directly.
In a similar way teachers do not always need to collect and code talk 'data' in order to work out whether a group is working well or not. Tone of voice and body language is often enough. If challenges are being given without elaboration or empathy then the talk is ‘Disputational Talk’ and you need to intervene. If the body language and expressions show shared engagement then it is ‘Exploratory Talk’ and you should probably leave them be. This way of analysing talk in action in a busy classroom depends upon the teacher’s ability to be a participant in the dialogues of the students, grasping what is really going on in between the children in ways that are not always immediately reflected in the words being used.
When researchers code talk they usually depend upon units that are easy to see and distinguish. Words for instance or ‘turns at talk’. Are types of talk identifiable bits of reality in the same way?
In Mercer and Wegerif (1997) ‘A Dialogic Framework for Researching Peer talk’ we gave an example of a sudden transition in the talk of a small group of primary students. In that example a triad were working well together when one girl began to feel that the others were not respecting her views and she stopped giving reasons. The others in the group demanded that she give reasons for her disagreements. She refused and suddenly left the group. In this example the switch in the mood of the group was very obvious. Although the shift was reflected in the talk it was really about the relationship between this girl and the other two children. This is a shift in ‘intersubjective orientation’.
I hope that you agree with me that this kind of shift in intersubjective orientation is something that we are all familiar with as participants in dialogue. For example I might be talking openly about my life and worries to someone then notice, from something they say, that they are judging me. I then become more defensive and cautious in what I reveal. This sort of shift is not always about the surface of the talk which might remain almost the same. It is therefore not always easy to code. Recognising this kind of transition involves an interpretation of the depth structure of the talk. This depth structure is about relationships. It is what is really going on.
The intersubjective orientation of being ‘open to the other’, is essential for Exploratory Talk but it is not enough on its own. Further levels of description are required.
The Thinking Together approach to teaching dialogue relies on teaching learners ‘ground rules’ for talk. But what exactly are these ‘ground rules’? I wrote about them in another blog post http://www.rupertwegerif.name/blog/what-exactly-are-ground-rules.
One way to think about teaching ground rules for effective dialogue is as a form of culture-change. Any culture has implicit assumptions or expectations that shape explicit behaviour. These assumptions tend to be unconscious because you only become aware of them when they are challenged. If the culture of a classroom is individualistic and competitive, for example, then inviting a child to tell the class what she thinks about an issue might be interpreted either as an opportunity to perform or as an invitation to be judged and found wanting or, indeed, as both. If the culture of the classroom is ‘dialogic’ and collaborative then exactly the same invitation might be interpreted simply as a chance to participate in shared thinking with the goal of shared understanding in which case provisional or ‘half-baked’ thoughts are welcome and mistakes are understood as valuable learning opportunities.
Specifying a social kind of reason
Neil Mercer and research team defined Exploratory Talk in terms of specific ground rules
- everyone in the group is encouraged to contribute
- contributions are treated with respect
- reasons are asked for
- everyone is prepared to accept challenges
- alternatives are discussed before a decision is taken
- all relevant information is shared
- the group seeks to reach agreement.
But I think that is too specific in its focus on explicit reasoning. If we go back to Douglas Barnes we can see that Exploratory Talk was set up as an opposition to ‘Presentational Talk’. Barnes claimed that usually children are called upon talk in classroom to show what they know or to ‘present’ but that it is useful to have time to work out ideas by talking them through in an open and provisional way. The trouble is that whenever he pointed to examples of Exploratory Talk he chose examples of explicit reasoning where hypotheses were formed and tested. Mercer tends to follow suit. That is one way of thinking that is useful in some contexts but it is not the only way of thinking. Creative thinking often proceeds without evidence of explicit reasoning left behind in the transcripts.
Teachers I talked to all recognise that playful talk is very common in classrooms. Playful talk involves making verbal puns and imaginative associations with words. Playful talk works with the resonances and associations of words rather than with explicit meanings and explicit reasoning. Neil Mercer almost gives an example of this when illustrating cumulative talk (1995: p. 101). Two girls in a primary school working on creating a newspaper front page try out alternatives for their headline about how wonderful their region is. One tries ‘Fantastic’, the other tries ‘Brilliant’ but these words are obviously not quite right. Then suddenly the first girl says ‘Fantabuloso’ and both of them repeat it a few times excitedly. While this might not be reasoning it is co-constructive talk that solves a design problem.
Books on creativity are full of examples of new connections that have been made between contexts in a way that solves a problem. In my book ‘Mind Expanding’ I give the example of how a business technique to generate creative thinking, ‘Synectics’ discovered that the way that a horse’s backside works, with two separate openings, was perfect for dispensing creams in a way that keeps them from going dry (Wegerif, 2010 p47-8). This might seem a long way from the playful talk of puns and rhymes and resonances in classrooms. But both kinds of talk use metaphors in a way that explicit reasoning talk does not. There is a continuum between more silly ‘playful talk’ and more serious ‘creative talk’.
In Mexico Sylvia Rojas-Drummond led an interesting experimental study that tested the importance of explicit reasoning to the effectiveness of Exploratory Talk. Students who had been taught Exploratory Talk over three months using the Thinking Together approach were given two different kinds of test. One was a version of the kind of reasoning test that has already been widely used. The other was a more creative task in which groups of students had to collaborate together to write a short text. It was found that the students did better on the reasoning task than they had in a pre-test and this improved result was associated with more explicit reasoning. However, they also did better on the more creative task, using established ways of judging the creative quality of the writing, but that this improvement was not associated with explicit reasoning (Rojas-Drummond et al 2006).
I do not have the recordings of the talk of the groups doing the more creative task but it is possible that their lack of explicit reasoning was compensated for by more of the kind of thinking by resonance that also characterises playful talk (Wegerif, 2005).
A type of talk needs to be specified at at least three levels
A) Intersubjective orientations
Types of talk are rooted in intersubjective orientations or ways of relating to the other like being ‘open’ or ‘closed’
If we take Exploratory Talk in the spirit of Douglas Barnes as that kind of talk in which children can work out their thinking together then we need to expand our understanding of this type of talk to include creative talk which builds understanding through resonances between ideas even if no explicit critical thinking is present.
Cumulative talk should not be defined as any talk without explicit reasoning. Such talk can be creative. But we can preserve the term cumulative talk for that kind of closed talk which defends the image of the group. I am sure we have all been in meetings where it was clear that criticism of any kind was not welcome, we can add on to what has been said, we can agree with the others but we are not allowed to challenge. The closure of cumulative talk is based on defending an image of the group. This balances the closure of disputational talk which is all about defending the image of the individual ego.
This discussion leads us to table 1: Types of talk
The intention of Barnes was that Exploratory Talk represented thinking talk. Thinking includes creative thinking that progresses by resonance and metaphor. I therefore think we need to expand the definition of Exploratory Talk given earlier to recognise that explicit reasoning is only present for some tasks in some contexts and that for other tasks in other contexts more creative and even playful forms of talk are also Exploratory Talk. Exploratory Talk is now understood as a way of talking together that takes shared thinking forward.
B) Social norms
Each ‘type of talk’ will be characterised by a set of appropriate social norms. Whereas the fundamental division between open and closed attitudes is probably a human universal social norms vary greatly across history, culture and social context. The social norms that best support Exploratory Talk in a Mathematics classroom might not be the same as those needed in an Art class but the Exploratory orientation underlying the ground rules might be the same. The social norms we should teach for Exploratory Talk in China might not be same as those we should teach in Mexico (e.g Yang 2016). One way to approach this cultural diversity is to give children an experience of group work and then to ask them what they think the ‘ground rules’ should be for effective and productive dialogue.
C) Surface features
Intersubjective orientations like openness to the other are instantiated in social norms like listening with patience and respect, these norms then realise themselves in terms of interaction patterns like asking clarifying questions and giving elaborated responses and communicative actions like showing appreciation for the other. The underlying structures, in combination with a context, result in patterns of data on the surface of talk, the number of turns, the length of turns, the words used, the eyebrows raised etc.
A type of talk has all these levels, intersubjective orientation, social norms and surface features. Type of talk analysis is interesting because it is not simply empirical. It does not start with the data and work up to reconstruct meaning but it starts with the experience of teachers as participants in classroom dialogues that are always already full of meaning.
Types of talk analysis shows us that the kind of thinking that occurs in classrooms depends upon intersubjective orientations and social norms that are not always apparent to participants. How children think in classrooms is largely determined by these invisible rules. In Disputational Talk, for example, speakers find themselves narrowly defined in opposition to others and only think defensively to justify themselves. In Exploratory Talk speakers may forget themselves at times and flow into participating in a kind of ‘thinking in general’ that is not my thinking or your thinking but just good thinking.
PS An extended version of this blog can now be found as Chapter 3 Orientations and Ground Rules: A Framework for Researching Educational Dialogue in: Kershner, R., Hennessy, S., Wegerif, R., & Ahmed, A. (2020). Research methods for educational dialogue. Bloomsbury Publishing. A preprint draft is now on researchgate and can be found by searching on my name and that chapter title .
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