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Episode 1

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!