Reading Note: Dialogue and the Development of Children’s Thinking: Ch. 4: How Dialogue with a Teacher Helps Children Learn

In Neil Mercer and Karen Littleton’s Dialogue and the Development of Children’s Thinking: A Sociological Approach, they observe that overuse of one-sided questioning has led many to discourage teachers from asking questions in the classroom at all. However, their discussion reveals that research shows teachers must balance their questions of students in a thoughtful manner. Too much questioning, particularly closed questions (questions to which there is one known answer that the teacher possesses and the student must figure out) leads to stifled creativity and form answers. On the other hand, if teachers avoid questioning entirely, we miss out on essential learning opportunities, reinforcement, and (most importantly in my book) constructive dialogue. Closed questions are often a useful way of quickly assessing students’ factual understanding while simultaneously reinforcing their knowledge. Open questions at the very least help a teacher gauge student engagement, thinking, and understanding; at their best they will do that as well as stimulate further critical thinking about the topic at hand. Mercer and Littleton use the example, “Why did you decide to have just three characters in your play?” Why questions in particular give students the opportunity to practice the skill of giving reasons for their beliefs and decisions, help the teacher understand the students’ thinking, and strengthen students’ metacognitive abilities in a practical setting.

Nystrand and colleagues published an “event history analysis” in the study of classroom dialogue. They were particularly interested in the student-centred contributions to dialogue, in contrast with the monologic teacher-directed talk that often prevails. Nystrand et. al. identified some strategies to support students’ active roles in classroom dialogue: Actively soliciting students’ independent ideas, responding to and incorporating students’ ideas in later remarks by the teacher, prioritizing open questions over closed questions, and refraining from the sort of one-sided “good job” praise that reinforces the idea that the student’s goal should be to satisfy the teacher.

From the research of Robin Alexander (2000) on teacher-student interactions around the world (who also drew on the research of the Russian scholar Bakhtin (1981)), Mercer and Littleton discuss strategies to implement stronger dialogue teaching:

Dialogic teaching is that in which both teachers and pupils make substantial and significant contributions and through which children’s thinking on a given idea or theme is helped to move forward (Mercer 41).

The four major implications that Mercer and Littleton ask us to take away as educators are that we must a) give students opportunities and encouragement to question and defend their points of view, b) engage in discussion with students to build understanding of content (versus relying on rote memorization), c) genuinely take students’ input into account when designing further curricula, and d) use active dialogue to create “a cumulative, continuing, contextual frame” (42) in which students actively engage with new learning material. 

In many models of Philosophy for Children, the teacher/facilitator offers a stimulus designed to provoke some sort of controversy – e.g. a story or a game – and comes prepared with a set of possible questions. As the discussion progresses, the facilitator uses these pre-prepared questions to guide discussion. In other models, the students are encouraged to come up with the questions themselves. I have tried both, and though the former tends to be easier to begin, the latter has more often yielded discussions that truly surprised me and changed my thinking (and, I hope, the thinking of my students). Mercer & Littleton’s discussion reminds me that dialogue is an essential aspect of any learning experience, and that dialogues among students alone and dialogue between students and the teacher are just as essential. One difficulty I am experiencing currently as a student is that when I respond to readings, I find myself rehashing the same ideas, goals, and values that I have been fine-tuning for years. Even though I think I am reading or hearing something new, I am filtering it all through the same patterns of thinking as before. Real learning, for students and teachers, begins when we can break through those patterns to integrate truly new ideas. As an authority figure in the classroom, if I dominate the discussion, I run the risk of squelching students’ novel ideas, Of course, if I step back and refuse to contribute to the discussion at all, I run the risk of robbing my primary school students of the chance to learn from my experiences while learning from each other’s, and I rob myself of the learning I can receive from them, too. My challenge to myself is to find a way to strike this balance in the classroom and to learn how to sense when my students need more or less input from me.

Mercer, N., & Littleton, K. (2007). Dialogue and the development of children’s thinking: A sociocultural approach. London: Routledge.