This ‘types of talk’ analysis referred to more than just the words children used. It was an interpretation of the underlying ground rules or assumptions shaping the talk – the pragmatic ‘implicature’, as Grice called this - which could only be interpreted through a sort of participant observation, however vicarious. I mean by this that you can only really interpret what is going on in a dialogue by projecting yourself into that dialogue as if you were participating. The 'types of talk' reflected different types of identification. In cumulative talk the children identified with the group. ‘We think’ was more important than ‘I think’. But this sense of ‘we’ was monologic. The group had an identity and they did not want to disrupt it by challenging this. If anyone said something that did not fit with the group ethos it tended to be ignored. In disputational talk each child very obviously identified with themselves as an ego. Each wanted to be right and wanted the others to be wrong. So what were the children identifying with in the more successful type of talk which we called ‘Exploratory Talk’? This is where the term ‘dialogic space’ was useful. (Wegerif and Mercer, 1997).
As well as using the words and interaction patterns associated with Exploratory Talk, successful groups seem to shift their identification from self or group to the process of dialogue itself. This could be seen in shared pregnant pauses indicative of being at ease with a state of uncertainty, individuals being able to ask for help and to change their mind without embarrassment and being able to take up the unfinished utterances of others and finish them without anyone seeming concerned about issues of ownership. These were all signs that they were really ‘thinking together’ as a group.
Later research conducted in Mexico under the leadership of Sylvia Rojas-Drummond taught ‘Thinking Together’ (Dawes, Mercer and Wegerif, 2000) to children and compared the talk that resulted around creative tasks as well as around reasoning tasks (Rojas-Drummond et al, 2008). The talk of the ‘Thinking Together’ children improved in both types of task compared to controls. However the successful creative task talk did not have all the features of Exploratory Talk, lacking the explicit reasoning moves. This suggests that ‘Exploratory Talk’ is a sub-set of the larger type of ‘Dialogic Talk’ which is not so much a type of talk since it is now defined not by talk alone but more fundamentally by an orientation or type of identification. Playful talk can also be dialogic as can dialogues in music in dance and in art. (Wegerif, 2005, 2007, 2013).
What is 'dialogic' about this kind of interaction goes beyond individual dispositions and can be summed up as a temporary identification with dialogic space. This is a space defined by openness and a multiplicity of voices. It is the opening of a shared space of possibilities in which the dialogue is more important than ownership of ideas. Even the identities of the participants enter into the dialogue. This is why people can learn from dialogue. To enter into dialogue is to surrender some autonomy and allow the possibility of learning something which is the possibility that you will change.
Although I thought that 'Dialogic Space' was my idea at the time, at least in the context of research on classroom social interaction, the same or similar ideas have been put forward before in philosophy. The philosopher of dialogue, Martin Buber, referred to this as the space of the ‘in-between’ (1956). Bakhtin referred to this space when he wrote of how persuasive words enter into my words and re-arrange them from within, whereas authoritative words might be accepted or rejected but do not lead to real dialogue. Real dialogue, for Bakhtin, was a shared space (‘chronotope’ in his language) within which participating voices entered into a relationship of ‘inter-illumination’, each learning more about themselves and their position as they engaged with understanding the voices of the others (Bakhtin, 1986). But for me the philosopher who has produced the most eloquent evocation of dialogic space is the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
A discussion is not an exchange or a confrontation of ideas, as if each formed his own, showed them to the others, looked at theirs, and went back to correct them on the basis of his own... . Someone speaks, and the others immediately become no more than certain divergence in relation to his words, and he himself specifies his divergence in relation to them. Whether he speaks loudly or barely whispers, each speaks with all that he is, with his “ideas,” but also with his obsessions, his secret history which the others suddenly lay bare by formulating them as ideas. Life becomes ideas and the ideas return to life, each is caught up in the vortex in which he first committed only measured stakes, each is led on by what he said and the response he received, led on by his own thought of which he is no longer the sole thinker. No one thinks anymore, everyone speaks, all live and gesticulate within Being, as I stir within my landscape, guided by gradients of difference to be observed or to be reduced if I wish to remain here or go yonder.” (Merleau-Ponty, 1968, p. 119).
Dialogic theory suggests that we learn not so much by replacing wrong ideas with right ideas, but more often by augmenting existing perspectives with new perspectives which enable us to see further or better or just differently (Wegerif, 2013). Dialogic Space, as a concept, builds on and augments a range of related space-type notions.
The first contrast is with physical space. In physical space, as Aristotle pointed out, objects cannot occupy the same position at the time. From this we get the rule ‘a thing is what it is and not another thing’ or ‘A=A’, the principle of identity that underlies classic logic. Dialogic space overlaps with physical spaces (physical spacetime to be more accurate). In a classroom one can note where and when dialogic spaces open and where and when they close. Yet they open up a different kind of space with different rules. Your ideas are also my ideas and vice versa, when the dialogue is flowing. Each idea resonates with others and invokes often distant other voices. Whereas physical space assumes a finished surfaces of things where bodies each have a discrete and unique place, dialogic space undermines this to open up new possibilities through the potential interconnectedness of everything with everything else. Everything physical become a metaphor to think with. The pencil and ruler on the table between us are no longer fixed in meaning but can be used by me to explain my ideas as can my doodles on bits of paper. Physical things become intersubjective signs only within Dialogic Space.
The next contrast for me is with conceptual space or the space of reasons (Brandom referred to by Jan Derry 2008). In Mathematics one version of rational space is Hilbert Space in which many mathematical ideas can be mapped in terms of multi-dimensional vectors. Vygotsky mapped out a conceptual space of concepts (1986, p198) as a kind of global grid and perhaps he thought of education as drawing children from savage participatory thinking into this space of ideas. Opening up Dialogic Space brings with it, as one aspect, this space of concepts. Dialogic Space includes conceptual space and the only way into conceptual space, initially at least, is through dialogue. But, more than this, Dialogic Space is also a space of resonances between bodies, of feelings, of historical and cultural colours and traces. Whereas rational spaces are defined and divided off from other spaces, dialogic space has no preset boundaries. It is not uncommon for ideas to enter into the dialogue unbidden not because of explicit reasoning but because of a resonance in form or other associations that might seem random at first but connect with something in the dialogue. The poetic resonance of words is a feature of Dialogic Space but not of conceptual space (See Damasio, 1994 for a neuro-science account of how and whay ‘reasons’ always inhere within bodily emotional guidance systems).
A related, contrast is with design spaces. A design space is the space of possibilities used in combining different elements to create a new product. Any product will have a design space underlying it of shapes, colours, materials and so on that could be combined in different ways. Creative thinking is a kind of design and some have suggested that creative thinking could be modelled by computers using design spaces (Margaret Boden). Like design spaces dialogic space opens a range of new possibilities. However, unlike design spaces, there are no boundaries fixed in advance so no fixed positions or parameters. Dialogic Space is a design space only it is an infinite design space. Think of the ultimate design space, the design space that underlies the Universe, not only the periodic table but also the range of crystals, animals, processes and so on. Of course any given Dialogic Space might by framed by the assumptions pertaining in the cultural context of the dialogue. As Merleau-Ponty puts it, each dialogic space has its own inner landscape with mountain peaks, areas of darkness and clearings in the forest. But these landscapes are virtual, open to change, and ultimately opening onto the infinite potential of all things to interrelate to all things which is the metaphysical truth of dialogic space – a kind of deep dialogue that Bakhtin referred to as ‘Great Time’, the chronotope (timespace) in which every voice intercommunicated with every other voice.
Observations about Dialogic Space(s)
Any given dialogic space can be deepened through a process of ‘de-construction’ that unpicks the key distinctions that frame the dialogue thereby expanding the range of possible thoughts.
A given dialogic space can be widened by bringing in a new and different perspective. When this new perspective is ‘radically’ different this implies also a process of deepening since framing assumptions have to opened up in order to allow the new previously ‘other’ voice into the dialogue.
A dialogue can also be focussed by imposing a framework of differences relevant to the task at hand. However, for creativity, it is often best to combine a specific focus with an unlimited background horizon of possible resonances that could potentially be brought to bear.
Dialogic space appears to be many spaces on the surface of empirical space-time but all these spaces have a shared depth in the infinite space of potential meaning which is the ‘transcendental’ depth of dialogue, ie the underlying structure that makes dialogue and the opening of dialogic space possible in the first place (see earlier blog on transcendental). It is as if there were lots of puddles of water on a plain surface and each puddle seemed unique but actually they were all connected by hidden channels on the inside to an underground ocean. This transcendental underlying structure is not really a ‘thing’ or a ‘self’ but is perhaps best described by Simondon’s concept of the ‘pre-individual’, that which is there as a potential for meaning before various divisions enable us to carve out a more precise meaning. Merleau-Ponty refers to a similar idea, in the context of perception, as the ‘pre-thematic’.
To make sense of Dialogic Space we need a relational ontology (Gergen) or difference ontology (Heidegger and Derrida) as opposed to the more traditional substance ontology. As Merleau-Ponty writes in the quotation above, meaning in dialogue is not about building up blocks of meaning but it is about 'divergence'. Each new claim diverges in a new way and introduces a new structure of the whole. This is like throwing a new pebble in a pond and seeing how the ripples structure the whole surface of the pond interacting with other ripples from other pebbles. Derrida does not use the term ontology but spells out the idea of a difference ontology very clearly when he writes of: 'all the others of physis--tekhnè, nomos, thesis, society, freedom, history, mind, etc.—as physis differed and deferred, or as physis differing and deferring'. In other words things are not self-subsistent substances, they are not really things at all, but they only appear to be things because of a series of differentiations that have been in a prior underlying potential for all meaning which I prefer to call the 'pre-individual'. As Simondon writes, it is because we all participate in the pre-individual that we are able to join up and participate in trans-individual identities. Identification with Dialogic Space is a transindividual identity. This is not an unscientific position, by the way, Simondon was interpreting quantum theory which many think implies a relational ontology and shows the limites of substance ontology.
On the inside the limit of dialogue is self-identity. When my ideas coincide with yours there is no more need for talk. On the outside it is a lack of trust. When my freely expressed ideas are taken and used as evidence against me then the dialogue breaks down. When participants become self-conscious the dialogue breaks down. Then it can seem that the stretch between perspectives was too great. One might think: ‘I assumed a mutual understanding and empathy that did not really exist’. But mutual understanding and empathy can be built through careful scaffolding of activities and experiences together. That is the job of educators in expanding the space of dialogue.
When people think creatively and reflectively on their own , then they open a Dialogic space and bring multiple voices to bear on a problem or issue. They learn to do this by first talking with others. Dialogic Space (mind) does not emerge with bodily maturation – it comes to the individual through the culture. It is when he or she is taken over by the culture and taken up into the culture as Dorothy was picked up by a worldwind in the film the Wizard of Oz.
Voices in dialogue are not all given equal respect (as some claim). Some voices assume authority because they seem to say what the participants recognise needs to be said. We give authority to other voices because we authorise them to speak on our behalf. This voice then becomes our voice. This authority comes because the voice seems to subtend a greater area of the real, to be a ‘higher perspective’ making more sense of multiple ‘lower’ points of view’. This can be misleading. Authoritative voices have a glow of the infinite ‘outside’ about them. Like the silhouette of someone framed by the light shining through the window.
Ultimately the greatest authority belongs to the voice of the Infinite Other. This is the voice of the dialogue itself. It is a silent voice (See Bakhtin’s account of the silence of Christ in his Grand Inquisitor dialogue). The voice of the dialogue understands all but has no specific content. It is the voice that always sees further and so challenges each consensus. There is always an outside. There is no final word.
Teacher’s voices tend to have authority within dialogic spaces but they can use that authority to open up possibilities for learners to speak. Learners can ‘find their own voice’ in a dialogue precisely by ‘authorising’ a voice that comes to them and possesses them to speak. Waiting is important and then sometimes you know what to say. When you find yourself saying what needs to be said and not pretending this is someone else’s voice but owning it as your voice, this is when you find your voice. When you find yourself pulled out to speak by the Infinite Other that is when you find yourself at your most individual and also at your most universal.
Of course it is perhaps more common for the Infinite Other (the outside) to call to you through a more culturally situated ‘superaddressee’ voice like the voice of science for example. The voice that responds to the challenge in science and is authorised by you as your voice enables you to find your voice within a field, the specific field of science where you find yourself adding to the discourse. You find your voice as a voice amongst others.
The voice that responds to the call of the Infinite Other directly does not stem from this image or that image, your body, your status as a student or professor or whatever, being British or French is irrelevant, the voice that responds is like a pure circuit across the whole of ‘being’, connecting the inside to the outside. The real you, it turns out, is the Infinite Other on the inside.
These are just a few thoughts about dialogues and dialogic spaces. I expect that I have it wrong It is not as if I have understood it yet. I am sure that you can add your own observations. Please do.
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