Classroom Dialogue for a Better World
An email from a yesteryear student got me thinking. Of the many things he wrote to me about, he spoke of how our interactions had “prepared him to think deeply and express his opinions, and how important they were in creating his world views”. This student is now pursuing a doctoral program in a prestigious university. As an educator who has seen students over close to two decades now, I often wonder which lessons of mine have been well-received by students? The ones where I had brilliant command on the topic, and banked extensive information into my students as they listened in rapt attention, or the ones where they found their voice and asserted their thoughts, discussed, debated, and explored perspectives other than their own. While the former ones may have heightened my sense of self-worth, it is the latter that stayed with the students.
Classroom dialogue is the most fundamental, yet often the most underrated and overlooked aspect of education. Progressive educational pedagogies around the world are beginning to see an egalitarian student-teacher relationship as fundamental to fostering active citizenship amongst students. As 21st century educators, if we believe that progressive education is about stimulating intellectual curiosity, building on critical thinking, and allowing students to find solutions to real-time, complex 21st-century problems, then conversations are the first step.
Dialogue is essential to curricular reform as it sparks an equitable learning process, that allows learners to exchange perspectives deepening their insights on a topic. It encourages reflection and invites students to take action.
John Dewey, in The Child and the Curriculum (1902) argues that the major flaw in most learning systems is the inactivity of the student. We often make the mistake of assuming that children are “immature beings who are to be matured; superficial beings who are to be deepened” (Dewey, 1902). Freire, the father of critical education saw students as “active citizens”, rather than docile, domesticated learners. Isn’t this the true purpose of education? Or at least where it all started- to think critically, to inquire and question, to analyse and synthesize.
Now remember, by dialogue we mean deep “high quality” conversations, not superficial discussions. These are dialogues that allow students to generate ideas, hypothesize, compare, classify, speculate, and question. Keilty notes that “an effective dialogue in a classroom must feel like a handball match where the teacher is just one of the players, not the entire opposition team”. The ball is passed from one player to another, rather than being a ping-pong match where there is a constant rally from one side to another.” Such a dialogue allows students to be risk-takers, confident speakers, effective collaborators, and critical thinkers as well.
5 Ways to Build a Culture of Classroom Dialogue
o Trust: Build trust within the class group. Entering into a dialogue makes students explore their vulnerabilities and spontaneity. Enter into essential agreements with class members about being non-judgmental and not pressurizing others into conversations. As facilitators, teachers play a crucial role in building the circle of trust amongst students.
o Energize: Lend momentum to conversations by building a classroom climate that channelizes students’ energies constructively. Starting a small discussion on nonacademic topics to help children unwind, or using break-out rooms on online platforms may be great ideas. Once this establishes a rhythm, deeper topics requiring detailed analysis may be considered.
o Model: Introverts and reluctant speakers may be hesitant to delve into dialogue mode initially, and may sometimes make slow progress. Establishing context and taking the lead may be a good way to set things in motion in a classroom. Further, providing for alternate ways of expression such as art, role-play or journaling may be great ways to get everyone involved.
o Celebrate: Celebrate the risks children take when they offer their unbiased perspectives. Listen in without judgment, and celebrate the first steps. More importantly, try not to be the center of every conversation.
o Reflect&Refine: Look back at discussions carefully to understand what worked and what didn’t. This helps teachers refine their practice and make adjustments. Students too may be guided to reflect on discussions and jot down their musings in a journal.
Every Classroom’s Dialogue Toolbox
Most teachers have a handy set of routines in their classroom toolbox that make dialogues come alive in the classroom. Such routines can be used equally purposefully with students of all ages. A few routines that I use in my classroom are:
o Think Pair Share - A good way to structure thinking and build on ideas collaboratively, ideal for lesson starters or pair reflections
o Circle of Viewpoints – Delve into complex issues by exploring multiple perspectives.
o What Makes You Say That? – Explore the speaker’s perspectives by substantiating a viewpoint
o Connect, Extend, Challenge – Make a connection with own experiences, extend your thoughts by giving a new perspective, and question points of view someone shared.
o Edward De Bono’s Thinking Hats - a tool that enables students to think from multiple perspectives – [Process, Facts, Feelings, Creativity, Benefits, and Caution]
In the end, dialogue is one of the lasting ways of bringing change in the fabric of our societies. After all, it is dialogue that instills hope, builds trust, and creates an indivisible solidarity that challenges us and unites us in an intellectual oneness, for a better world of the future.
When we teach our young to dialogue, we teach them to engage purposefully, think fairly and empathize humbly. Then, we as educators would have done our bit in building a responsible society for tomorrow.
De Bono, E. (n.d.). Six thinking hats. De Bono Group – Business management consultant in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. https://www.debonogroup.com/services/core-programs/six-thinking-hats/
Harvard Graduate School of Education. (n.d.). Circle of viewpoints. Project Zero. https://www.pz.harvard.edu/resources/circle-of-viewpoints
Harvard Graduate School of Education. (n.d.). The Dialogue Toolkit. Project Zero. https://pz.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/DigDil%20and%20OOEL%20Dialogue%20Toolkit.pdf
Josephs, M. (2020, August 26). Building community with student-driven conversations. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/building-community-student-driven-conversations
Nottingham, J. (2010). Challenging Learning. Corwin | Professional development book publisher. https://us.corwin.com/sites/default/files/upm-assets/82735_book_item_82735.pdf
Shor. (1992). Education is politics. Retrieved May 4, 2021, from https://cd21ki10x-mp01-y-https-ebookcentral-proquest-com.proxy.lirn.net/lib/univ-people-ebooks/detail.action?docID=166704&query=Paulo+Freire%3A+A+critical+encounter
Talebi. (2015). John Dewey - Philosopher and educational reformer. ERIC - Education Resources Information Center. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED564712.pdf
Washington University in St.Louis. (2020, December 9). Facilitating challenging conversations in the classroom. Center for Teaching and Learning. Retrieved September 7, 2021, from https://ctl.wustl.edu/resources/facilitating-challenging-conversations-in-the-classroom/