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!

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.


Where are the episode transcripts?

We’re still ironing out wrinkles with the companion website.  The videos all work fine, but the transcripts are missing.  In the meantime, we’ve added them here, each on the relevant episode page (a link can be found just below the description of the episode and commentators).

We hope you find them useful,

Adam and Julia

The book is now out!

Received an e-mail from the publisher this afternoon, though haven’t seen a physical copy yet.  The “companion website” with the videos is also live, though it still needs some polishing.  And if you want to purchase the book, you can do so here, using the discount code on this flyer.

Can’t wait to see the book, and hear what readers think.


A new job and new opportunities

After three fantastic years in the Department of Education & Professional Studies at King’s College London, I’ll be leaving at the end of January to take up the post of Associate Professor in English Language in the School of English at the University of Leeds. I’ll be joining the English Language team there, headed by new Professor in English Language, Tony Crowley, but I hope also to make links with colleagues in the School of Education and the Department of Linguistics and Phonetics – with the new Language at Leeds initiative, set up to facilitate interdisciplinary language and linguistics research, there’s plenty of scope for collaboration. I’ll be very sorry to leave my colleagues at King’s, but hope to maintain strong links with them. I’ll certainly be back there in July to teach on the Key Concepts and Methods in Ethnography, Language and Communication training course – as Adam said, there’s no better place to be than on the London South Bank in July!

Ethics, consent and masking participant identities

Dennis Kwek (National Institute of Education, Singapore), one of the guest commentators in the book, sent us the following question:

Quick ethical question: the 8 videos that were showcased in the book… when you recorded them with the teachers, did you obtain permission from them to share the videos in a public forum (like the book or the website) or was the permission obtained later on? I’m trying to work out how, if possible at all, we can use the 600+ lessons we collected for Professional Development / teacher learning. When we collected the data, we stated that the videos are confidential and will be shared only with the research team, because we did not consider how we can use the data beyond the Core coding and analysis. Now there’s increasing demand for secondary access to not just our video data but our survey and assessment data. We’re trying to work out the ethical issues for these.

One way forward for us is to contact all our teachers involved in the data collection and ask them for permission to release the videos (perhaps giving them a copy of the video to ‘vet’ first). But this is 3 years after collection, so I’m not sure if they’re still in the school or have left the service.
Would appreciate any thoughts you have on this.

This is a thorny issue.  First, regarding what we did: From the teachers we asked for permission to film for research purposes, promising complete confidentiality, but noting that we might want to use some of the video in the biweekly workshops or beyond, in which case we would seek specific permission from the teacher involved.  As for the parents, the school already had attained general parental permission that “covered” our filming, so we merely sent them a notice informing them about the research and offering them the opportunity to opt out if they so desired.  We also explained the research goals and process to the pupils, who likewise gave their consent to participate.  At the end of the year, after coming up with the idea for the book, we returned to the participating teachers, all of whom gave us blanket consent — use whatever you want — though we still showed them the specific clips to be on the safe side.

Though legally we’re covered by these arrangements, we still thought it wise to mask participant identities, by applying a “cartoonize” filter.  (Specifically, I used the free NewBlueFx Cartoonr plugin, together with Sony Moviestudio Platinum12, but the plugin works with many other video editing programmes.)  It takes some time to play around with to get it right, and every video is different so you need to tweak the filter each time.  This effect is far from perfect — you could still probably identify some of the participants if you knew them ahead of time — but it does create some distance between the representation and the actual person.  It also reduces some of the complexity of the image (less detail), which has some advantages.

My guess is that in your case it’s going to be very difficult to overcome the ethical obstacles (especially with regard to parents) for all your data, but do you need release for all the data?  Probably a couple dozen lessons will suffice for professional learning purposes.  Or, better, go collect some new data specifically for this purpose, using better equipment (the field has certainly progressed in that respect) and select teachers / topics.

I hope this helps.  I wonder what others suggest, and what have been their experiences?

Recommended: Ethnography, Language & Communication 2014 summer course

ELC Class of 2103

ELC Class of 2103

OK, I know that I’m not the most reliable source, since Julia and I are on the course team, but it’s really a fantastic course — certainly the best research methods training activity I’ve ever been involved in, as a student or tutor.  In addition to the energy and expertise of the team (Ben Rampton, Jeff Bezemer, Jan Blommaert, Carey Jewitt, Celia Roberts, alongside Julia and me), the course always attracts excellent students and post-doctoral researchers, from around the world, and from a broad range of disciplinary and professional fields.  Finally, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than on the London South Bank in July.  Hope to see you there.