In their recent presentation to the Teaching & Leadership Community of Practice, Melissa Reed and Phil Chappell (Linguistics) explained the motivation, approach, and outcomes of using dialogic learning principles for deeper engagement in learning activities.
There’s a lot of activity focused on constructive alignment across the university these days. Based on a constructivist learning theory, namely social constructivism, constructive alignment reflects attempts to align unit and course learning outcomes with assessment tasks and learning activities.
Our project is an attempt to focus on an area of constructive alignment that we feel receives less attention than others.
The following question is our teaser that we’ll come back to at the end of this post. Have a stab at answering it now!
If a curriculum is constructively aligned, what is constructed and where is the construction zone?
To set some context, we co-convene a foundational unit in the Graduate Certificate of TESOL and Master of Applied Linguistics and TESOL courses. It’s a unit that novice as well as experienced language teachers take, and it is focused on developing concepts and knowledge about the English language that is relevant for teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL). The unit is APPL8200 Linguistics and Language Teaching. The unit usually has a cohort of around 25 online students and the same number on campus, the latter who attend a weekly 3-hour seminar. In recent years, the on-campus unit has been delivered as a seminar, comprising a series of mini-lectures interspersed with learning activities involving small groups doing some kind of language analysis task, often involving written texts and/or transcripts of spoken texts. The unit is based on systemic functional linguistic theory, systemic functional grammar, and genre-based pedagogy, which itself is based on social constructivist learning theory.
At the same time that we were talking about flipping the on-campus delivery by having the students watch the mini-lectures before coming to class, we were also talking about implementing dialogic learning principles into our pedagogical approach. Put simply, what we wanted to do was to provide the opportunities for deeper learning of the concepts and analytical techniques around text analysis. Deep learning is where the learning activities that we design engage the students in such a way that they, in a sense, take control of their learning, choosing what they feel is an appropriate cognitive strategy to complete the task in depth.
Our strategy for encouraging deep learning was to incorporate dialogic learning and teaching principles. Dialogic learning can be contrasted with the traditional monologic approach to teaching, where a “knower” imparts information to a “knowee” in a transmission of information. The Greek origin of dialogic is dia meaning through or across, and logos meaning discourse. Dialogic learning is where meaning emerges from voices in dialogue, together. It involves a shared search for understanding and meaning. For us, this should be the spirit of our 3-hour seminars. Students working together in a shared search for understanding and meaning, with the aim of each student constructing their own understandings through this process. Deep learning in action!
One of Phil’s research streams over the past two decades has been investigating language classroom discourse. Through considering all the transcriptions and analyses over this period, and building on the classroom discourse knowledge base, a simple typology of classroom talk emerged.
Monologic classroom talk
includes Rote, Recitation, and Instruction/Exposition, and is, surprisingly, still very prevalent in various education settings, including higher education, today.
Dialogic classroom talk
includes Discussion and Inquiry Dialogue, and is gaining in awareness through various channels, including scholarship of teaching research such as our own project.
Elsewhere, Phil has argued for a strategic approach to classroom talk. Plan when to use each type, and plan to use more Discussion and Inquiry Dialogue to engage students in deep learning activities.
Inquiry Dialogue is what we are after in our project. While Discussion is a totally acceptable outcome, there is a risk that it can be reduced to a pithy exchange of opinion. Surface level learning. No real engagement. Harnessing the power of Inquiry Dialogue, where the activity is in a sense structured so that small groups of students are using language to keep the dialogue open, to open up the discourse to include pondering ideas, considering alternative viewpoints, wondering about possibilities, and building on each other’s ideas to search for shared understanding and meaning. It is cumulative talk to which everyone contributes. It is engaging and provides the opportunities for deep learning.
In a nutshell, Dialogic Teaching harnesses the power of spoken language to develop students’ thinking, learning and understanding. Dialogic Teaching promotes engagement and authenticity through discussion and inquiry into real-world topics and issues important to the learners. A recent compendium of research is available through the Macquarie University library to elaborate on these benefits and is well worth a read (Mercer, Wegerif & Major, 2019).
So, how did we actually implement this dialogic learning?
We guided and scaffolded our students
In a true social constructivist manner, we guided and scaffolded our students into doing dialogic learning, by using Discussion and Inquiry Dialogue in their collaborative learning activities. First, we introduced dialogic learning in our week 1 seminar. We explained our own interest in the approach and then showed a couple of short videos from this site. We then introduced a set of ground rules on day 1, and integrated those ground rules into each seminar.
We set ground rules
The ground rules are also called the 4Cs, and give students guidelines for discussion around 4 focal areas- caring (for each other and the subject), collaborative (active participation and support, critical (challenging and testing ideas, reasoning) and creative (considering alternative perspectives, expressing ideas in new ways). We provided students with “intentions” for group activities, where students would focus on one of the 4Cs. At the beginning of the semester, we also provided more scaffolding such as explicit conversational strategies. During the semester, we found that the students’ group work followed the principles of the 4Cs, and they no longer needed explicit reminders. In anonymous feedback at the end of the semester, students were positive about the dialogic learning approach. One student said:
..it helped me grow a lot. Learning through other people’s experiences, as well as linking the concepts to my own context, made all the content much more practical and useful.
Another felt that it was a better approach than monologic teaching as “everyone’s thought process was valued”.
We flipped the content
Because we knew that true dialogic learning would take time, we had to free up class time for deeper discussion. We did this by flipping the content, so before class, students would watch mini-lectures and at times prepare to present something to their peers at the start of the seminar. Based on work we did during 2020 and 2021, when we were forced to go entirely online, we ensured students were well supported in knowing what to do, and when, each week. Click here for an example (in iLearn). Student feedback back then was very positive, as it was again.
We organised the iLearn site
I found the iLearn site pretty easy to navigate – I especially liked the outline of what we had to complete each week. I also liked that the mini-lectures were split into smaller chunks of information because it kept each sub-topic distinct.
…the ilearn was organised really well. I liked how I could easily find materials and watch/rewatch or read material as many times as needed.
We introduced some dialogic principles for online learners as well, but we would like to focus on our face-to-face class for this article. The students were positive about this change in the end-of-semester feedback.
The mini lectures were helpful and gave me more confidence to then talk about the concepts in class. It helped the class to go deeper with their knowledge when working on activities in class.
This shows the benefit of flipping learning in order to create time for a dialogic approach.
The concern with flipped learning is that students may not engage with the content ahead of time.
We found that the majority of face-to-face students watched the mini-lectures and came to class prepared. However, even when students had not engaged with the content, peer assistance as well as simpler introductory activities allowed all students to engage with the content and the class as a whole. We began the class with scaffolded warmer activities in groups to allow students to work with the key concepts for the week. These warmer activities also allowed us to see how comfortable the students were with the concepts, and problem-solve or clarify any areas of difficulty together as a class before engaging in more complicated analyses. We also started most sessions with a summary of the key learning areas for the weekly topic.
The content from one of our classes illustrates how we implement dialogic learning while scaffolding active student participation throughout the class:
- In week 6, students began the class by writing three sentences- two truths and one lie about themselves. The students discussed these and speculated about the lies. They then had to analyse their simple sentences in groups, identifying parts of the sentence.
- From this, we worked on some sentences on the board that students were having difficulty with and we were able to alter the stages of the class to make more time for certain activities based on student needs.
- Once they were comfortable with the key concepts for the class, students worked together on text analyses, working on the dialogic principle of critical discussion, providing good reasons and evidence to reach conclusions together.
- Students also had time for creative play expanding sentences, which allowed them to explore the ideas of the class in new ways.
- Finally, we had a discussion in groups (a weekly event), where students discussed their takeaways from the class, areas they were still unsure about, and questions. The students work to clarify concepts and answer each others’ questions together and the teacher assists where required. We have found that later in the semester there has been very little need for teacher intervention at this stage.
As teachers, we also used collaborative dialogic reflection to learn from each other. We have found that discussing our teaching experiences has helped us to clarify our own thinking and consider other perspectives. We also write down our reflections for each other to read, and we pose ourselves and each other questions that make us curious about our own teaching practice and the students’ learning. For example, currently, we are both wondering about the strategic use of dialogic learning combined with other types of talk in our classes.
So, returning to our teaser that we started out this post with:
If a curriculum is constructively aligned, what is constructed and where is the construction zone?
We have focused on an area that we feel doesn’t get talked about much in curriculum and learning and teaching meetings: the application of social constructivist learning principles in face-to-face teaching.
We feel we have a well-aligned unit in terms of assessment tasks aligning with unit learning outcomes as well as learning activities. Importantly for us, we also feel our teaching practices align well by ensuring that we maximise the opportunities for the co-construction of knowledge between students, and also involving the teacher(s) and the learning resources as tools to mediate learning. Knowledge is constructed physically in the face-to-face interactions between students, and also metaphorically in the zone of proximal development (stay tuned for a future TECHE post on this concept).
In the words of the well-known social constructivist psychologist, L.S. Vygotksy (1989, p. 56),
Mercer, N., Wegerif, R., & Major, L. (2019). The Routledge International Handbook of Research on Dialogic Education. London: Routledge.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1989). Concrete Human Psychology. Soviet Psychology. 27(2), 53-77.
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