About Adam

Adam has written 17 articles so far, you can find them below.

New article on dichotomous discourse in teacher conversations

After a relatively long dry spell — which seemed particularly long and dry on account of numerous rejections and unending series of invitations to revise-and-resubmit (is it just me or has academic publishing become more arduous?) —  I’m pleased to share a new article on dichotomous discourse in teacher conversations:

Lefstein, A., Trachtenberg-Maslaton, R., & Pollak, I. (2017). Breaking out of the grips of dichotomous discourse in teacher post-observation debrief conversations. Teaching and Teacher Education, 67, 418-428.

The article is available for free (until September 13, 2017) here.

Educational discourse is dominated by problematic dichotomies, for example, between teacher- and learner-centred pedagogies, and between teacher control and pupil autonomy. Such dichotomies impede attempts to understand and address complex educational problems, and thwart productive discussion among practitioners and the public. This article examines how teachers in one Israeli school addressed dichotomous discourse around classroom management in video-based post-observation debrief conversations. Three ways of coping with dichotomies are conceptualized: either/or, synthesis and both/and. Factors contributing to the emergence of non-dichotomous discourse are discussed, including ambivalent leadership, the use of video representations, flattened hierarchies, and a focus on issues and dilemmas.

Comments most appreciated of course.  I’m excited about Peter Elbow’s ideas about the uses of binary thinking, and would love to discuss them and their application to educational discourse.


Talking literacy education down under

I’m honoured to be speaking at the Australian Association of Teachers of English and Australian Literacy Education Association National Conference in Hobart, Tasmania.  The conference has a great programme, including many practitioner presentations; a great group of interesting attendees who are passionate and critical about literacy and English education; and a stunning location overlooking the river in Sandy Bay, Tasmania.

I’m posting here the handouts and slides for my presentations.  Reflections to follow.  Comments also welcome.

Here are the slides, including notes and references, for my plenary: Relocating Teacher Professional Development: From “Learning” to Work:

relocating teacher professional development ppt with notes

Here’s the transcript handout for my Better than “best practice”: confronting – and learning from –
problems of practice “workshop” at 2:30 on Saturday in the “Showroom” — I do appreciate the irony):

Lefstein_Better than Best Practice_Handout_transcript

And here are the slides:

better than best practice AATE ALEA workshop slides

Comments and ideas welcome!


Some (relatively) new articles on dialogic pedagogy

So, what have I been working on since finishing Better than Best Practice?  I’ve been primarily occupied by two studies: an investigation of Israeli primary pedagogical practices and a collaborative design-based implementation research study on teacher professional discourse and leadership (reports about both studies, in Hebrew, are available here and here, respectively).   On the basis of the first study, we’ve written four papers related to dialogic pedagogy, three of which have been accepted for publication.  The first two focus on the concept of voice, and what it means to have a voice in the classroom.  We recommend reading them as a pair: the first develops the theoretical basis for our approach to voice and how voices are typically realized (or not) in Israeli primary classrooms; the second explores a case study of the emergence of pupil voice, and implications for dialogic pedagogy.  Both articles were published in special issues devoted to dialogic pedagogy.  This is a good opportunity to thank the guest editors — Sue Brindley, Mary Juzwik, Alison Whitehurst, who edited the special issue on International Perspectives on Dialogic Theory and Practice for L1-Educational Studies in Language and Literature, and Mari Haneda, who edited the special issue for Language and Education — and to recommend the other articles in these issues.

Segal, A., & Lefstein, A. (2016). Exuberant, voiceless participation: an unintended consequence of dialogic sensibilities? L1-Educational Studies in Language and Literature, 16 , p. 1-19. http://dx.doi.org/10.17239/L1ESLL-2016.16.02.06

One approach to dialogic pedagogy focuses on the interplay of voices: Whose voices are expressed and attended to in classroom discourse? And how do these voices play off of one another in creating new ideas and meanings? In particular, to what extent are students empowered to express their own voices, rather than reproducing the teacher or textbook’s authoritative discourse? We explore these questions using data from a linguistic ethnographic study of mother tongue Hebrew language lessons in two Israeli primary schools. The lessons are lively, with exuberant student participation, and on multiple occasions teachers encourage students to express their own ideas and to build on one another’s contributions. Though students frequently announce their intentions to undertake dialogic speech acts, these declarations are usually ritualistic and hollow, as students animate the teachers’ voice rather than offering independent or original perspectives. This paper discusses this phenomenon, revealing a potential conflict between the realization of student voice and other dialogic imperatives.

Segal, A., Pollak, I. &  & Lefstein, A. (in press). Democracy, Voice and Dialogic Pedagogy: The struggle to be heard and heeded. Language and Education.  (This is not yet available on-line; drop me an e-mail if you’d like to read it.)

Dialogic pedagogy is widely viewed as an excellent means of educating students for civic participation in deliberative democracy. While many intervention-based studies have researched dialogic teaching and learning, we know very little about the enactment of dialogic and related ideas “in the wild,” in regular classrooms.  This paper contributes to the naturalistic study of dialogic pedagogy through close examination of an episode of sustained student engagement with and argumentation about a controversial social issue in an Israeli primary school classroom.  In particular, we focus on the emergence and interaction of voices, defined as (a) opportunity to speak, (b) expressing one’s own ideas, (c) on one’s own terms and (d) being heeded by others.  While the norm in Israeli classrooms is exuberant, voiceless participation, in the rare classroom episode examined here we find students – and their teacher – engaged in heated, multivocal deliberation. We follow the struggles of marginalized students to be heard and heeded, exploring the conditions which ultimately allow for the actualization of student voice, and the accompanying pedagogical challenges and dilemmas.

The following paper draws on data from the Towards Dialogue study, the study of Israeli pedagogy, and a study my colleague Hadar Netz conducted in gifted classrooms in the United States. 

Netz, H. & Lefstein, A. (2016). A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Disagreements in Classroom Discourse: Comparative Case Studies from England, USA, and Israel.  Intercultural Pragmatics, 13 (2): 211–255.

How do cultural and institutional factors interact in shaping preference structures? This paper presents a cross-cultural analysis of disagreements in three different classroom settings: (1) a year 6 (ages 11–12) mainstream class in England, (2) a fifth-grade class of gifted students in the United States, and (3) a fourth-grade mainstream class in Israel. The aim of the study is to investigate how disagreements are enacted in these settings, exploring the influence of cultural communicative norms on the one hand and pedagogical goals and norms on the other. The study highlights culture-specific discursive patterns that emerge as the teacher and students manage a delicate balance between often clashing cultural and educational motives.

Finally, I’m pleased to say that we’ve finally finished (and published) a paper that develops the critical topic of the actual and possible relationship between dialogic pedagogy and high stakes testing.  We raise the issue in Better than Best Practice, but didn’t really have a chance to really develop it, until now:

Segal, A., Lefstein, A. and Snell, J. (in press) Dialogic Teaching to the High Stakes Standardized Test? Research Papers in Education.  (This is not yet available on-line; drop me an e-mail if you’d like to read it.)

Within current educational discourse, dialogic pedagogy is diametrically opposed to teaching to the test, especially the high stakes standardized test.  While dialogic pedagogy is about critical thinking, authenticity and freedom, test preparation evokes all that is narrow, instrumental and cynical in education. In this paper we argue that such positioning of dialogic pedagogy as antithetical to testing is detrimental to attempts both to foster dialogue in classrooms and to constructively manage the high stakes standardized tests that are compulsory in so many schools. Drawing on an extended case study of dialogic teaching in one London primary school, we argue that while standardized testing is indeed an impediment to dialogic pedagogy, it does not follow that dialogue is impossible or undesirable within the testing context. By adopting an ironic stance towards the test, teachers can fulfill test preparation mandates while maintaining dialogic ideals and practices.

Against boldness in teaching

I just came across a wonderful short essay by Mary Kennedy entitled “Against Boldness“, which was published as part of a special issue of the Journal of Teacher Education devoted to “Bold Ideas for a New Era in Teacher Education, Teacher Preparation, and Teacher Practice”.  Kennedy argues that our constant search for new, ambitious and bold ideas is part of the problem:

Perhaps the gap between our ideals and the messy truth of  our  situation  leads  us  to  yearn  for  more  forceful responses, hence our interest in bold initiatives…

In fact, I argue that bold ideas are part of our problem, for by definition they are unrealistic, out of range, over the top. Ultimately, bold ideas fail because they don’t take real circumstances into account or because they expect too much from people. Eventually, each of us runs out of gas, gets tired and  disheartened.  Bold  ideas  require  too  much  change. People resist, and new initiatives fall apart.

She deconstructs four types of “boldness”, explaining why each ultimately disappoints.  I recommend reading the whole piece.

One of the reasons Kennedy’s essay resonates with me is that Josh Glazer and I wrote a similar piece — against ambitious teaching — for a special issue of the Israeli teacher journal Hed Hahinuch.  It was published in Hebrew, but was originally written in English.  Our argument can be summarized as follows:

1) Ambitious teaching requires a complex set of conditions, which in most cases are absent or highly difficult to align.

2) Within the current system, these conditions are largely beyond the control of individual teachers and even schools.

3) Setting highly ambitious goals without attending to the conditions necessary to achieve them has the unintended effects of harming the teachers called upon to achieve these goals and of fueling simplistic notions about how to improve teaching.

4) Enacting ambitious teaching on a large scale requires a carefully designed systemic change strategy that attends to teaching conditions, teacher learning and the improvement process.

You can download the full essay here.

Inside Israeli Pedagogy

Inside Israeli Pedagogy report cover

Click on the image to download the report (pdf) הקליקו על התמונה כדי להוריד את הדו”ח

I’m pleased to be publishing here the report on a major — well, major for those of us who have been working on it for the past three years — study of pedagogy in Israeli primary schools.  The research involved participant observation and recording 112 lessons, transcribing and coding discourse and activity in 28 lessons (over 13,000 turns at talk), and conducting 12 focus groups of teachers from schools serving a wide range of pupil populations.

Congratulations are in order to the entire research team: Yariv Feniger, Hadar Netz, Aliza Segal, Mirit Israeli, Maya Bozo-Schwartz, Itay Pollak, Hadas Nagar-Turjeman, Lidar Issasschar, Miri Issasschar, Sivan Shusterman, Tali Avital-Hajaj, Mor Brimberg, Shai Goldfarb, Yana Zlatkin, Galit Levy, Leo Furman, Itay Raanani, Nitzan Sadeh and me (Adam Lefstein).

The report is currently only in Hebrew, but we have published an English version of one of the case study lessons as “Investigating dilemmas in teaching: towards a new form of pedagogical scholarship”, in Studia Paedagogica.  We hope to translate and publish more of the report in the coming months.  Watch this space…

Update: An abridged and accessible version of the report has now been published in a special issue of Educational Echoes (הד החינוך):

Is there an Israeli pedagogy special issue

Click on the image to download the special issue (pdf) הקליקו על התמונה כדי להוריד את המהדורה המיוחדת


Presentations at ULearn14

Update: The video of my keynote (and lots of other educational talks) can be found at EdTalks.  Again, here’s a link to the slides.  Comments much appreciated of course.


I’m just now heading back from ULearn14, a fantastic education conference run by CORE Education in New Zealand. Why fantastic? First and foremost, the people: 2000 educators who are serious about their work, and eager and enthusiastic to share ideas about how to improve it. They also know how to party.

ulearn5 BzZVFprCAAAgIEJ.jpg large

I was exposed to a number of new ideas – and technologies – which I intend to follow up upon in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I want to thank our hosts (Christina, Nick, Derek and everyone else), and make good on my promise to post my powerpoint slides here. I gave three talks:

1) A keynote entitled, “Teacher professional discourse and learning: what we talk about when we talk about our practice”. In this talk I make the case for attending to teacher learning from participation in informal conversations with their peers, bring together research and my own experience regarding the implicit rules that govern such discourse in many schools, and suggest some alternative norms for conducting conversations that have the potential to make us smarter about our practice.

It turns out that the keynote involved two simultaneous communicative events: my talk on the podium, and a hyperactive twitter conversation conducted by the audience. You can check out some of the posts from that conversation here. I’ve now joined twitter (my username is @ALefstein); next time I’ll try to follow the twitter comments in real time, which is what Katie Novak, the next speaker did.

slides for ULearn keynote on teacher professional conversations

2) A workshop entitled “Teaching and learning through dialogue – a grounded approach”. I gave a very brief introduction to dialogic pedagogy, and then we discussed Episode 2. You’ll note that some of the slides are much more professional looking than the others (thanks, Julia!).

slides for Dialogic Pedagogy workshop

3) A second workshop, “Developing Teaching through Video-based Peer Feedback Conversations”, in which I presented a model for post-lesson observation “dialogic debrief” that Rotem Trachtenberg and I have been trialling. It turned out that many of the participants had extensive experience with feedback systems, so we had a very good conversation (and jettisoned my plan for the workshop).

slides for dialogic feedback conversation workshop

Thanks again to all the participants and organizers for the stimulating conversations and for showing me such a great time. I hope to continue the conversation: please share your thoughts through the comments function on the blog or by e-mail.

Recommended: Ilana Horn’s Teaching/Math/Culture blog

I want to take the opportunity to recommend Ilana Horn Seidel’s blog, and not just because Ilana just published a post saying kind things about our book.  (But, since I mention it, she wrote an excellent summary of the book’s organizing framework — sensitivity, interpretation, repertoire and judgement — better perhaps than the original text.)  I’ve admired Ilana’s research on teacher professional discourse for a while, but had not encountered her blog before.  I’ve now spent a few hours on it and am totally hooked.  In particular, I want to recommend her posts on social status in the classroom.  This is a topic Julia and I focus on in Chapter 8 of the book (Episode 6), but we don’t delve into practical strategies for how to confront the issue in one’s teaching.  Check out this post for some of Ilana’s ideas, and this post on a commenter’s blog with the rather ingenious idea of randomly assigning students to groups (read it, it makes a lot of sense).

Listening to pupils — a conversation with members of the Dialogic Teaching, Learning and Assessment group

Julia and I had a fascinating five-way Skype conversation with Rupert Higham, Alison Whitehurst and Greta Fay from the Cambridge University organized “Dialogic Teaching, Learning and Assessment” Special Interest Group last week. The hour-long conversation focused on chapter five (“Responding to a Pupil Challenge”) of the book, and covered a lot of ground. Among the key issues we discussed:

Interpretations of Ms. Leigh’s response to William’s challenge

Our interlocutors felt that Ms. Leigh neither adequately attended to William’s ideas nor communicated to him an interest to hear his point of view. One wrote in a post before the conversation:

“I felt that Ms. Leigh’s communications – both verbal and nonverbal – when initially faced with William’s challenge were quite negative. In short, I had the distinct feeling – based on tone, verbal and nonverbal communication – that her first impulse was to shut William up as quickly as possible (and indeed, Rachel and Mary, who also wanted to join in). On the other hand, Ms. Leigh was willing to allow Ms. Forester – and to a lesser extent Harry – to speak; indeed she invited them to do so, directly asking Ms. Forester to contribute, and involving Harry by reading out the book he had given her. Because of this, I felt the dialogue was not established on the topic William introduced (the merits of the expository opening), but rather on the topic the teacher had chosen for the lesson (making openings exciting). While there clearly was a useful dialogue, I felt it was not 100% dialogic, because the uptake followed the teacher’s interest, rather than the interest expressed by the pupil who initiated the dialogue.”

Julia and I disagreed rather vigorously with this interpretation. Julia wrote, for example,

“…I don’t agree that Ms. Leigh’s communications – both verbal and nonverbal – when initially faced with William’s challenge were negative. On the contrary, I see Ms Leigh lean her ear towards William, giving the impression, visually, that she wants to hear more about his idea. And even though it appears at first that she wants to move on quickly, she stops herself, halts the task (asking Rachel and Terry to sit down) and questions William in order to better understand his point.”

So, what do we do with these conflicting interpretations? Is there any way to reconcile them? To decide which is right? One method is to look at how the people in the event are themselves interpreting what’s happening. For example, in this case, do William and the other pupils respond as if they’re being “shut up”? The available evidence would suggest the opposite.

How much contextual knowledge is necessary?

Nevertheless, we are still faced with the fact that five experienced and knowledgeable observers responded very differently to the same recording. One explanation is that we’re arriving at the data with different sets of expectations, formed by our different experiences with schools and classrooms. It’s quite possible – likely, I’d say, given how Greta, Rupert and Alison responded to the clip – that this classroom culture is somewhat unique, and it’s only because Julia and I have seen so many other lessons in this classroom that we see Ms. Leigh’s (counter) challenge to William as encouraging him. That opens a whole set of additional questions about the importance of ethnographic knowledge in interpreting video. Again, I quote Julia’s comments:

“These differences in interpretation raised for me an analytic point regarding the importance of ethnographic/contextual information in interpreting classroom interaction. How far is my own interpretation influenced by my knowledge of this classroom and by my relationship with Ms Leigh (and with the pupils)? How far are others’ interpretations influenced by their own assumptions and experiences? What might answers to these questions say about the value of short episodes of classroom interaction for teacher professional development?”

Are we misreading William’s story opening?

In what was for us the most interesting part of the conversation, Rupert and Alison reread William’s opening sentence, claiming that Ms. Leigh (and Julia and I) have not fully appreciated its literary qualities. First, a reminder of the story opening:

“Loads of people think nothing’s going to happen as they go into a tunnel. But then… and then…”

Rupert and Alison, who both come from an English literature teaching background (and therefore have a better ear for this sort of thing than I do), spoke eloquently and in detail about the merits of this opening. Here I’ve transcribed some of Rupert’s comments (you can listen to a recording of this and another four minutes of the conversation here).

“I don’t necessarily see that anyone has really picked up on his ideas. And looked to draw them out. In fact, what we have is an extended attempt to disapprove the premise of his question that there might be other useful, or engaging ways of starting a story. And, for me, the irony of that is I actually really like his idea for starting a story. I think it’s quite witty, quite ironic, quite suspenseful. And actually, the bit where I think extemporaneously Ms. Leigh tries – and very well in the circumstances – tries to create a story around that, I think actually it detracts from his entry a little bit. And I know that what she’s trying to do there is to work with him on trying to incorporate something of what she sees as his perspective, giving a bit of background detail. But actually I don’t think that she recognizes – at any point, nor does anyone [else] – that his initial suggestion has the qualities that she says that she’s looking for herself.”

Julia and I found this perspective (and the rest of his and Alison and Greta’s comments) fascinating, since we’d taken William at face value when he said that he preferred “a little bit of narration first”. How interesting. In a sense, what Rupert is suggesting, is that Ms. Leigh could have used William’s opening as an opportunity to explore ways of dropping the reader right into the action. This would have required, of course, swiftly appreciating the qualities inherent in his opening, apprehending that it was different from what he claimed, and coming up with a way to explore that with William and the rest of the class. Not easy, but certainly interesting to think about. Later in the conversation, Julia raised the question of what a SATs examiner might say about William’s opening, and I spoke about the QCA guidance for teaching story openings.

And more…

We spoke about a number of other topics, including:

  • Planning for dialogic lessons
  • The benefits and disadvantages of explicitly marking dialogic teaching as such (e.g. explaining to pupils what we’re doing and why)
  • Teaching through dialogue within current curricular and administrative constraints and pressures
  • The communicative environment outside school: where are the dialogic spaces? What are the implications of this for school?
  • The advantages and problems of dramatic confrontation

Too much to do justice to in this post, but happy to address in future. Let us know where your interests lie, and/or what you think about the above issues.

Thanks again Alison, Rupert, Greta and Julia for the brilliant and enjoyable conversation.