Prologue to A Dialogic Teaching Companion

Notes from A Dialogic Teaching Companion by Robin Alexander (2020)

Chapter 1 – Prologue

In the Prologue, Robin Alexander gives a case for teaching talk as an essential tool in teaching and learning. He describes the positive value of dialogic teaching and asserts that there is a strong evidence base for using dialogic approaches. He presents his involvement with oracy since the 1980s. Alexander goes on to consider the broader civic value of dialogic teaching in what he terms a “collision of discourses”.

  • Alexander broadly identifies the benefits of dialogic teaching for students and teachers.
  • ” Dialogic teaching is both talk and more than talk, for it enacts a dialogic stance on knowledge, learning, social relations and education itself.”
  • Dialogic teaching is more “consistently searching” than Q+A and everyday talk.
  • “dialogic teaching also celebrates talk for talk’s sake, relishing language in all its forms and rejoicing in expression, articulation, communication, discussion and argumentation. And, in so doing, dialogue takes us beyond classroom transactions into the realm of ideas and values, for dialogue is as much a stance or outlook – on human relationships, knowledge, education, culture and society – as it is a pedagogical technique.”
  • Despite this, Alexander argues that classroom talk is seen as marginal and negatively. Claims in 2012 that a minister did not want to encourage “idle chatter in class” and that fostering Tracy might imperil literacy.
  • May 2019: All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) launched public enquiry into oracy, “Speaking for Change”. Believes the report will have limited impact.
  • Alexander “emphasises the idea of repertoire and characterises dialogic teaching as an approach that encourages teachers to acquire and refine a broad array of interactive skills, strategies and moves, but to exercise their own judgement about how these are most effectively applied to the particular contexts in which they are working, using dialogic prin­ciples as reference points rather than obediently applying the nostrums of ‘best practice’.”
  • Also emphasised is the responsibility of the teacher’s talk “because although the student’s talk manifests and drives his/her thinking and understanding and is therefore our ultimate concern, it is through the teacher’s talk that the student’s talk is mainly prompted, accelerated and enriched – or not, as the case may be.”
  • Originally, Towards Dialogic Teaching was drafted as part of a QCA professional development pack but “fell mould of rivalry between the QCA and National Literacy Strategy”. This book is the successor.
  • Dialogic teaching has a “sense of a journey” (Alexander refers to Bakhtin’s “neither a first nor last word”).
  • Alexander gives an account of his own development from 1980s onwards. Early work “confirmed not only the near-ubiquity of recitation -that familiar exchange structure of closed ‘test’ teacher question, recall student answer and minimal though usually judgemental teacher feedback – but also problems in the pat­terns of teaching which at the time were being advanced as recitation’s anti­dote: protracted and unstructured reading and writing activities associated with low levels of pupil time on task and relatively superficial monitoring by the teacher; and an ostensibly gentler and more open kind of talk character­ised by teacher-controlled pseudo-enquiry rather than genuine discussion, by hyperbolic but uninformative praise {‘Brilliant!’ ‘Fantastic!’ ‘Well done!’…) rather than useful feedback, and by a low level of cognitive demand.”
  • Next stage of Alexander’s work (international in nature) culminated in Culture and Pedagogy. He identifies four subsequent strands of inquiry. The fourth, translating the insights from international study into viable classroom strategies is identified as most important, helping teachers explore alternatives to Q+A (he calls it IRF/IRE: Initiation, student Response and teacher Feedback or Evaluation).
  • From 2014 to 2017 Alexander and Frank Hardman conducted an EEF-funded project (Randomised Control Trial, the “gold standard” of educational research): “The RCT, which was wholly independent, reported that after a dialogic teaching programme of only 20 weeks, preceded by training for the teachers involved, students in the intervention group were up to two months ahead of their control group peers in standardised tests of English, mathematics and science.”
  • A dialogic stance informed the Cambridge Primary Review: pedagogy AND purpose of education. “as well as advocating dialogue in classroom interaction, we argued that education is itself a dialogue – of people, obviously, but also of ideas, arguments, values, cultures and ways of knowing.” (This is a change from pedagogic practice to educational stance.)
  • Alexander is now “increasingly exercised by what I see as a widening gulf between the ways of talking and reasoning that we try to cultivate inside the school and those that students encounter outside it.” He explains this as: ” On the one hand we have the sedimented habits and values embodied in school curriculum domains and the more or less rational and courteous ways of accessing, interrogating and verifying the knowledge that such domains embody. But on the other hand we witness the sometimes raucous free-for-all of social media, the ascendancy of ephemeral and anony­mous online content over the verifiable and attributable knowledge of book, studio and laboratory, the mischievous anarchy of fake news, the reduction of judgemental nuance to the binary ‘like’/’dislike’, the trolling and abuse that for many people have replaced discussion and debate, and the sense not so much that truth claims are open to question, as of course they always should be, as that for many in the public and political spheres truth is no longer a standard to which they feel morally obliged to aspire.”
  • He argues that dialogic teaching confronts this “collision of discourses”. The role of social media is presented (eg. Trump’s climate change denial and its opposition by young people). Dialogue is both an end-in-itself and a means to many ends, a way of being, of surviving.