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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.

Adam