Tag Archives: dialogue

Dialogues that enhance learning

4 Dec

Engaging in dialogue is essential for learning. Constructing knowledge cannot occur in a vacuum. Too often we think that any classroom discussion equals dialogue. It does not.

Conversation and discussion are very broad concepts to describe educational dialogue.  Debates are very specific interactions for presenting and supporting an argument, a genre of dialogue focusing on challenging assumptions and knowledge. Argumenting discussion can objectify a perspective and is thus important for reasoning and understanding (p. 108).

Classroom dialogue exists to support understanding. It is not about winning an argument. Nor about an inquiry where students will end up in predetermined conclusion. The traditional classroom talk in the form of IRF (initiation-response-feedback/follow-up) or IRE (initiation-response-evaluation) is definitely not about engaging in dialogue, because the range of acceptable answers is very limited. These closed questions reflect behaviorist-objectivist ideology of education where the knowledge is transmitted to students, and their learning is tested with questions and tests. Well-crafted IRF can lead students “through a complex sequence of ideas” (p. 4), but does it really contribute to the productive interactions that help students to engage in deeper learning and craft individual understanding and transferable knowledge based on the information they received during the discussion?

Dialogue is collaborative meaning-making by nature. It is about equal participants engaging in an attempt to understand the viewpoint of other(s) and defining the meaning in the social setting. Such dialogue is about creating new understanding together, and in that sense it denotes very constructive ideas of learning. Dialogue is very tightly tied to the classroom values and teaching/learning dispositions. In a safe learning environment, where students dare to ask questions and challenge their own beliefs, dialogue can be a very powerful tool for learning.

The essential condition for dialogue to happen is equality. My truth cannot be better than your truth. Dialogue requires openness to rule over the dogma (p.172), in order to make exploration possible. Sometimes this is a very hard change to make in the classroom situation where the teacher is perceived to be the authority of knowledge. Communicating clearly to students about issues that don’t have one signle correct answer helps students to engage in  dialogue with the teacher and each other. Wondering is often the first step in learning.

Dialogue involves multiple dimensions of the classroom reality. Working with the tensions that occur in classroom setting is important to make dialogue possible. Having a non-punitive assessment system is important for fostering dialogue in the classroom. Risk-taking behaviors are not likely to happen in a learning environment where students get punished for submitting a “wrong answer”.  Right and wrong, true and false, are dichotomies that belong to more objectivist pedagogy and official knowledge, and thus are destructive for collaborative meaning-making.

Focusing on concepts instead of details is a viable way to start using the dialogue in the classroom.  It is a good way to help students get engaged in their on learning process.

 

The page numbers refer to the following book, which is an excellent source for learning more about dialogue and how to us it as a tool for learning:

Littleton, K., & Howe, C. (Eds.). (2010). Educational dialogues: Understanding and promoting productive interaction. Routledge.

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Why leadership is so important in education

23 Sep

We often talk about the importance of leadership in education, but what does it actually mean?

My favourite definition of leadership is this:

Leadership is about leading others towards an imaginary future.

It is not easy, because we don’t actually know what is there.  But, by having sufficient knowledge and data, we can make educated guesses about it. Effective leadership in education is about engaging the whole team to improve educational outcomes – yes, this means including students into the improvement process, and engaging them in their own learning (not just schooling: see the previous blogpost).

The other hard, but oh so important step in leadership is to move the focus and action from what is urgent to what is important. In classroom this means teaching and learning for life, not for test (this also can be seen as engaging in deep learning).

For teachers and instructors the job description has (at least) three parts: leadership, management and coaching. A major part of my daily work is about my attempts to provide leadership and  empower my students to step up on the plate and be in charge of their own learning and meaning-making. The managerial aspect of being a teacher (grading, disciplining, being the gatekeeper) is not as appealing to me, and in my current position I am very happy that the assessment department does the grading, and I can just coach and support my students to understand what their tasks entail.

It is always important for students to interact with the content to get all the information provided about the topic of the lesson or unit, but an equally important thing is to engage in thinking, because otherwise the readings/lectures/videos only remain as information, they do not become knowledge. I really like the definition of information only becoming knowledge after it has been processed through our minds, because the individual interpretation of any given fact is what makes effective learning to happen.

Leadership is very much needed in everyday classroom situations to empower students to learn what they need to learn, not what others in the classroom need to learn. One size doesn’t fit all and blanket statements are quite useless when the focus is in learning instead of teaching. This personalization, of course, is also the premise of differentiated instruction, but it actually takes the student even further on the road towards self-directed and self-regulated learning. Knowing what I know and what I need to learn is the foundation of engagement in independent learning.

Leading each student forward on their path of individual learning process is what makes teaching so hard: all students have individual needs and should have personal goals in their learning, but setting and updating those goals would take a lot of teachers’ time. This is why it is so important to engage students in setting their own learning goals (within the classroom/curricular goals – or even beyond them, if the student is very advanced). The standards are an excellent tool for providing the descriptions of what good learning or good skill looks like. The next step on the path towards independent learning is providing opportunities for students to engage in self-assessment to “calibrate” their thinking about their own learning/skills to meet the view of curriculum designers.  Imagine how effective learning is in classrooms like this – and how students are learning for life, not just for the next test! And imagine the ownership of learning students have! This is where the appropriate leadership takes education in the classroom.

Equally important is to have the appropriate balance of leadership and management in school administration and school districts. Grant Wiggins wrote a wonderful post about the difference of leadership and management in regards of curriculum leadership:

Wanted: real curriculum leaders, not just managers

The questions of purpose, audience, the level of detail, feedback, etc. asked from curriculum writers are equally valid in the classroom practice, even if in a different scale.  Effective teaching, or instruction, is about providing learning facilitation and leadership for students, so that they can feel empowered to engage in learning and meaning-making and have solid ownership for their learning.

Collaborative meaning making is the best tool for engaging people in a dialogue. The shared vision of learning is the imaginary future; and real curriculum leadership, not just management is the way to get there. Unless students and teachers are buying into the district vision, it doesn’t really matter what the papers have written on them, or how beautifully crafted the mission and vision statements are.

Interactions that support learning

3 Feb

Interactions are the basic fabric of learning.

We are born with an intrinsic curiosity about the surrounding world, and try to figure out the way of life by interacting with people around us. This is called the primary socialization process[1] and during this process we learn to speak and move independently, but also adopt the values and the filters our significant others (parents, caregivers) are expressing in their tone, words and behavior.  From these early experiences and interactions, and everything coming after that, we create our own worldview and expectations for life, learning and everything. In pre-school or school age the secondary socialization process shapes our interactions with other people, media and information around us.

There are many different ways to interact, and some have traditionally been used more in education than others. Today we recognize how communicative interactions are more effective than purely physical ones.  Showing (how to do something) and explaining it creates more connections in students’ brain and thus supports deeper learning.

Learning by interacting with their environment has always been the children’s natural mode of learning. Adding active concept development into explorations simply by naming the subjects of that momentary interest and providing connections to previous experiences is often instinctively done by parents.  Of course early childhood educators try to cater for this type of learning by planning for experiences and having appropriate equipment nearby. Yet, for concept development the dialogue is the most important tool. Early learning experts actively use self-talk and parallel talk to describe what they are doing or what the child is doing in order to make words and sentences become relevant for children, adding more substance to the short sentences children are able to use, yet keeping the discussion focused and meaningful.

Communicative interactions are extremely useful in all other levels of education, too.  K-12 students should have plenty of opportunities to explain why and how they helped themselves learn, and as the teacher cannot be listening to everyone simultaneously, I cannot see any other way to increase the student talk time, but by having them to explain to each other. Somehow we often seem to have the fallacy that teacher needs to hear every word – which to me seems to be a remnant from the past. If the focus of education is in control, then yes, teacher probably needs to hear every word students are uttering, but in that case interactions are very limited purely on mathematical principles (one hour, 25 students and one teacher equals 2.4 minutes of time per student) so something must be done. I strongly suggest cooperative learning activities.

Too often the view of teaching is limited to instruction, which at worst becomes a monologue: communication without interaction.[2] I think we all have been listening to lectures, but not actually hearing the message, and wishing we were elsewhere. This is far from effective teaching and meaningful learning, because it basically is just providing information for students, not facilitating their learning, as there are no immediate feedback loops. Often it is also based on power or control (mandatory lectures, no matter whether I already have learnt the content, but attending because of credit hours), instead of validity of information and relevance for my learning.

Unfortunately the same phenomenon happens in K-12 classrooms where teachers are expected to teach the curriculum, regardless whether there are students who have already learnt it and/or others who don’t possess the prerequisite skills. Why do we do this?! One helpful tool for any teacher is to use self-talk to make their thinking visible and parallel talk to help a struggling student understand a different point of view – the important part is the interactive way of using it and having students map their own actions or thoughts to make the learning process more tangible. Communication with interaction makes the difference!

Interaction without communication presents a different problem: doing things and saying words simply because we are supposed to do so. I am not talking against politeness, it is important for the everyday life, but more about the non-verbal and paraverbal language and how we know when the other person truly means what s/he is saying. Empty words are teacher’s worst enemy.  We have so little time with our students that we truly cannot afford using the precious opportunities to interact and not communicate – whether it is negotiating meaning or conveying caring – and then checking for understanding.  This is also an area where I need to grow, and be much more intentional with my words while talking. But, my problem is always that my thoughts are running way faster than I can put them into words. I am still learning.

In higher education we come together to negotiate meanings, to tap into the expertise of our colleagues, to compare and contrast our views about the subject matter and to construct new knowledge. This is the true dialogue learning is made of. It is communicative interaction, very intentional and extremely cooperative. Could we provide our students with the same experience?

To best reach our students and support their learning we want to use similar open and honest communication that is based on validity instead of power or control. We need to open a dialogue, a conversation with students and listen what they say, because learning grows in interactions.