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Slides for Cyprus Literacy conference talk

I’m excited to be participating in the  Literacy and Contemporary Society: Spaces, Discourses, Practices conference in Nicosia tomorrow.  At the conference I’ll be sharing our work on teacher professional learning.

Here are my slides, including references and associated notes.

Here’s the title and abstract:

Teacher learning on the job: towards pedagogical productive talk

Studies show that, on average, teachers’ effectiveness as measured on student outcomes peaks after three to five years, plateauing thereafter. This startling statistic suggests that we need to radically rethink our professional development systems. In this talk I argue that we have been looking for teacher learning in the wrong places, and that we should shift our focus – from formal learning activities in professional development workshop to informal processes of learning on the job. Such processes are closely related to the ways in which we talk to one another about teaching, students, learning and curriculum. I will share data from my own and others’ research about teacher collaborative discourse; advance a model of pedagogically productive talk, which has the power to advance teacher learning; and discuss the challenges of facilitating such talk in schools.

We’re now entering into our fourth year of a major research project on the topic, and finally have some published work to show for our efforts: an article on learner agency in coach-leading teacher scaffolding interactions (with Dana Vedder-Weiss, Iris Tabak and Aliza Segal), and an article on appropriation of conversational protocols (with Aliza Segal and Dana Vedder-Weiss) has been accepted but not yet published (I’ll post a link when it is available, or you can e-mail me and I’m happy to share a pre-print copy.


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.

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.

Small group discussions as a way of promoting dialogue

Tony Martin, past president of the United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA) and author of a number of books on the teaching of literacy (most recently Talk for Spelling) sent us the following extremely interesting comments/questions based on his reading of  Chapter 4.

Chapter 4: Breakthrough to Dialogue

Just viewed the video and read the chapter. It may well be that the points I want to make are covered later in the book, but if I leave responding until I finish the book I am likely to have forgotten what I want to say about this episode!

I am not attempting a full analysis, but rather want to focus on one particular issue. This is not intended as criticism. I have taught and observed enough lessons over the past 40 years to be aware of the complexities involved in teaching! Rather, if the aim is to make teaching more ‘dialogic’ (which I totally support!), tentatively to suggest how such an episode might be developed in the future.

I want to focus on the use of small group discussion, which preceded the video episode. The fact that small group discussion preceded the episode is not discussed at any length in the chapter. Not sure why.

1. The episode is preceded by small groups each discussing a different question. I think it is important to ask a teacher why they might do this? What’s the point? How might a teacher answer? I guess something along the lines of…… to enable each child to engage in ‘exploratory talk’ with more chance to engage with the question and contribute than in a ‘whole class discussion’. Perhaps to see if a group consensus emerges in answering the question, which can be shared with the rest of the class.

2. We are not told anything about the process of the preceding small group discussions. For example, was there an expectation that each group would report back ‘formally’ through a spokesperson?

3. There is a problem therefore with the ensuing ‘whole class discussion’ being about individual contributions. Sean’s initial response of ‘I don’t know’ is reformulated by the teacher as ‘You’re not sure’. But Sean has just been engaged in small group discussion….so shouldn’t his ‘I don’t know’ have been reformulated as ‘What did your group think?’ So the children in Sean’s group use ‘we’ rather than ‘I’? After small group discussion, ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ seems to me to be a key.

3. Other opening questions could have been, ‘Did you all agree in your group?’ ‘Did you come up with a group answer?’ ‘Or did you disagree with each other?’ If you came up with an agreed answer, what is it? If you didn’t, what did each of you think? Of course working in such a way requires children to be aware of their responsibilities in small group ‘exploratory talk’ and the outcomes in terms of subsequent whole class discussion.

4. Now any contributions from other individuals in the class are adding to or agreeing with or disagreeing with the group. Much easier for many children to have their group’s ideas challenged than their own.

Paired and small group discussion have become a bit of a mantra. I feel their power and potential is often not maximised because the ensuing whole class discussion (or just IRE) often makes little reference to them. What the group actually did is ignored in the rush to hands up and individual contributions/answers. How paired and small group discussion might be of value in promoting whole class, dialogic discussion seems to me to be a very important consideration.

Tony raises important issues about the use of small group discussions to promote dialogue, but before we get to this, let me me start by addressing the methodological points, in particular, why the small group discussion that preceded the episode is not discussed at any length in the chapter. The focus in the ‘Towards Dialogue’ project (upon which the book is based) was on whole-class teaching, partly on account of the fact that we couldn’t cover everything, but also because the complexities of teaching through dialogue are most pronounced in this configuration.  We did not intend that this focus be interpreted as in any way detracting from the importance of alternative kinds of talk for teaching and learning (we agree with Robin Alexander and others that good pedagogy draws upon a broad repertoire of teacher and pupil discourse and interactive forms), but it did mean that we only collected certain kinds of data. We recorded the classrooms using one video camera, which was set up in the front or back corner of the room so as to capture the whole classroom (as far as possible), and one audio recorder (which was used primarily as a back up). This set up worked relatively well for capturing whole-class discussion, but not for capturing small group or paired discussions. The video camera might pick up the conversation of the group situated closest to it (e.g. in this case it picked up the group who were discussing the question ‘Why is it significant that the White Witch’s sledge is led by reindeer?’), but we did not have a record of all the small group discussions. This is why we weren’t able to analyse the impact of these discussions in any systematic way. We recognise that this is a limitation of the study  – as Tony points out, we were unable to develop a coherent account of how paired and small group discussion might be of value in promoting whole class dialogue. In an ideal world (or at least in a bigger research project) we would have more than one camera/audio recorder in order to pick up different kinds of classroom talk simultaneously.

In answer to Tony’s second question, there was an expectation that each group would report back ‘formally’ through a spokesperson – the teacher had made this clear when explaining the task. We don’t know, however, whether the group discussing the question of ‘why Narnia can’t always be found in the same place’ did allocate the role of spokesperson to one pupil or who this person might have been. It is likely too that Ms James didn’t have this information. She spent time wandering from group to group and listening to their discussion, but was only able to spend a minute or so with each group. What we can do, however, is analyse in detail the episode of whole-class discussion and see to what extent the teacher and pupils orient to the previous small group discussions. In this case, as Tony points out, there is little evidence that these small group discussions are having a significant impact on the whole-class discussion. This raises the questions, ‘Why not?’ and ‘How might things have been different?’

We wholeheartedly agree with Tony that small group discussions are a great way of promoting dialogue in classrooms (more intimate, thus more opportunities for pupil voice, and a good way of preparing pupils for the higher stakes whole class discussion), and that it’s critically important to learn how to use them well (e.g. through ground rules and explicit teaching of exploratory talk as Mercer and colleagues have described), and to coordinate effectively between the small group and whole class. The point that ‘paired and small group discussion have become a bit of a mantra’ is also an important one. In the same way that ‘dialogue’ may be appropriated in the classroom in ways that attend only to superficial interactional form, but miss out on the ‘spirit’ of dialogue (which involves e.g. making space for multiple voices and taking a critical stance to knowledge), the impact of other potentially effective pedagogic approaches (like small group work) may also be lost in the way they are enacted in classrooms. We hope that the case-studies in the book raise these interesting questions, and that teachers, teacher educators and researchers will engage in a discussion about them that is grounded in realistic representations of classroom practice.

Many thanks Tony for raising these issues!

Classroom Talk, Social Disadvantage and Educational Attainment: Raising Standards, Closing the Gap

On 17th September I took part in the Induction Day for a new project designed to maximize the quality and educational impact of classroom talk. The project is a joint initiative between Robin Alexander (Cambridge Primary Review Trust) and Frank Hardman (Institute for Effective Education, University of York). It’s funded by the Education Endowment Foundation.

The project builds on Robin Alexander’s work on dialogic teaching and on the best of international research (including the ‘Towards Dialogue Project’ upon which Better than Best Practice is based). It aims to ‘improve the quality of classroom talk as a means to increasing pupils’ engagement, learning and attainment in contexts of severe social disadvantage’.

There are two phases of the project. The first phase (the development phase) has just begun and involves 60 teachers in the Barking and Dagenham Local Authority. Over the course of the 2014-15 academic year, these teachers will take part in a professional training programme using video, print materials and in-school mentoring. The induction day launched this phase of the project, and all participating teachers received a pack of support materials, including a copy of Better than Best Practice!

All teachers received this pack of support materials

All teachers received this pack of support materials

Better than Best Practice forms part of the professional development programme. Each term an episode/chapter from the book will be used as the basis of a study session, involving two participating teachers and a mentor. During the induction day, we introduced this format by running small group workshops using Episode 2. It was fantastic to see teachers working with materials from the book, and more importantly, to hear that they found them useful! Participating schools were also given video cameras (together with tripods and microphones) because the teachers will be recording their own classrooms, and using these recordings to stimulate reflection on their own teaching practice (using a model similar to that outlined in Chapter 12).

I’d like to thank Robin Alexander and Frank Hardman for inviting me to take part, and I’d also like to thank all of the participating teachers for making the day such a success. I’m looking forward to meeting everyone again as the project progresses, and in particular, to hearing about how they’re using the book, and how they’ve found the experience of recording their own classrooms.

In the second phase of the project, the training programme will be rolled out to 60 primary schools and will be subject to an independent randomised control trial (undertaken by the National Centre for Social Research). Although there is evidence that a dialogic approach to teaching and learning can improve pupils’  motivation, engagement, participation and understanding, there has not yet been a UK randomised controlled trial (RCT) to assess its effectiveness. If the results are positive, it is anticipated that the approach will then be scaled up for national dissemination. Exciting stuff!

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).