Teach and talk: encouraging student dialogue in class

Dialogic validation is about making students aware of the value their ideas bring to the classroom. Roehl Sybing discusses three simple principles that teachers can adopt to get students talking

Roehl Sybing's avatar
Doshisha University
9 Dec 2022
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Students talking in class

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The traditional notion of “teacher talk” positions teachers as experts who impart their knowledge to students, who are novices in the subjects they are taught. If this were the most effective approach, then all learning could be reduced to online videos and instruction manuals. However, meaningful formal education requires a more engaged form of teaching and learning to prepare students for real-world challenges.

Dialogic validation is about making students aware of the value their ideas bring to the classroom. Collaborative interaction between teachers and students can foster a meaningful dialogue that aids the mastery of essential knowledge and skills. But how can we persuade students to contribute their voices to the classroom talk?

In my research, recently published in the journal Classroom Discourse, I explore the notion of dialogic validation and its implementation in classrooms.

Teachers rely on students’ voices to gauge their understanding of the subject. This helps them adapt their teaching methods to meet students where they are and guide them towards mastery of the subject matter. This task can prove challenging as, by default, the classroom regards the teacher’s knowledge as most valuable. However, effective instruction can make students aware that their ideas and perspectives also have worth. People are more likely to speak out about ideas they consider to have value, research on language commodification shows. Therefore, the essential goal of dialogic validation is for teachers to acknowledge the language and ideas students come up with that are appealing, interesting or otherwise important in the context of classroom interaction.

Dialogic validation, however, is a little more complicated than simply telling students that what they say is important. There are three principles to keep in mind:

Learn what your students know. Think of classroom interactions between the teacher and the students as a room that fills up with ideas. If the teacher’s ideas occupy a large part of the interaction, there is less space for the students’ ideas. However, this doesn’t mean that the teacher has to hide their expertise, just that their expertise should share the room with their students’ knowledge. Teachers should consider how their instruction elicits what their students know and find familiar. What ideas can the subject matter provoke in students? Does the book the class is reading together remind them of a movie, a famous celebrity, or something that happened in their personal lives? How is the maths concept at the centre of the day’s lesson relevant to daily life outside the classroom?

Centre what your students know. Simply knowing where the students are coming from is not enough. The knowledge needs to be a part of the classroom interaction. Marginalised students are likely to be hesitant to speak up in the first place, fearing that what they know might be rejected or devalued. In response to this fear, dialogic validation goes one step further than mere elicitation and actively engages the ideas that students bring to the interaction. It can be as simple as a verbal affirmation (“That’s a great point, I haven’t thought about it that way!”), or it can be something that is used to shape the ensuing dialogue (“I love that, let’s imagine the situation that she described and discuss the problem in groups”).

Build on what your students know. The last challenge in dialogic validation is to tie the classroom interaction back to the subject matter knowledge. While centring students’ knowledge helps make them feel affirmed and valued, a relevant relationship should be established between what they know and the knowledge the teacher is trying to impart. How do the elements of the students’ favourite movie parallel the messages of the book they are reading? What have students learned about real life after trying to apply the maths concept to the situation they discussed? By answering such questions, an effective dialogic teacher validates not only the students’ role in the classroom but also their place in the larger body of knowledge.

The discussion of dialogic validation should prompt educators to consider how much of their teacher talk is about telling students what they should know and how much is about making students aware of what they know. Note that classroom dialogue is less about compelling students to speak and more about having their ideas come to the surface so that everyone in the classroom can interact meaningfully, with productive results. In the end, everyone, teacher and student alike, is an expert on something; an effective teacher validates their students’ expertise to encourage their participation in the dialogue.

Roehl Sybing is an assistant professor at Doshisha University.

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