In this analysis, I describe and reflect critically on how an instructor’s process for managing discussions can promote or impede dialogic learning. I include interaction maps from a class discussion I witnessed about a Shakespeare text to trace the teacher’s movements and questioning strategy to patterns in the type of students that engaged in the discussion. At the end of this reflection, I describe how teachers can alter their discussion management strategy to promote dialogic learning. Through this analysis, I also demonstrate how I use observation, reflection and interviewing to develop my personal professional practice.
Between reading Shakespearean sonnets and Julius Caesar, Ms. R. designed a sonnet writing contest for her students to review the sonnet form and appreciate Shakespeare’s ability to write narratives in iambic pentameter. Ms. R. facilitated a class-wide discussion to introduce the contest and explain the work that she expected the class to produce, in which she prompted the students to analyze sonnets that students had created in previous years. After witnessing this discussion during the course’s first hour and determining it could help me consider the classroom interaction patterns, I made an interaction map to track the conversation during the subsequent fourth, fifth, and sixth periods. The maps (located in Appendix A) show the layout of the classroom. I labeled desks “B” (male) or “G” (female) to indicate the self-identified gender that Ms. R. has on-record for each student. While I understand these labels reinforce gender as a binary, I included them to consider how the teacher’s and students’ notions of gender affect classroom interactions. An “X” label indicates the student or teacher answered a direct question. A “V” label indicates the teacher or student voluntarily spoke. An “NV” label notes that a student volunteered to talk after the teacher asked to hear “new voices.” A “?” shows the student asked Ms. R. a question. A circled “V” or “NV” indicates the student voluntarily spoke after Ms. R. asked to hear from their desk pod. The arrows show Ms. R.’s path of movement around the space.
Ms. R. initiated the observed discussion as a way to raise the bones (Christensen, 2017) on the sonnet form. Instead of telling students the components of Shakespearean sonnets, she showed them multiple sonnets, and she asked them questions to help discover a Shakespearean sonnet’s meter, rhyme scheme, and structure, including the function of the volta and couplet. While raising the bones facilitated discussion because Ms. R. did not deposit (Freire, 1972) the definition of a sonnet into students’ minds, it did not produce dialogic interaction (Juzwik et al., 2013) because Ms. R.’s questioning strategy kept students from contributing to the “language, content, and direction” (Juzwik et al.,. 2013, p. 8) of the conversation. She would ask a broad question like, “what do you notice?” However, if students noticed a part of the sonnet that she did not anticipate targeting, she would narrow the question, saying, “Yes. But, how about the end-rhyme, what do you notice?” This questioning strategy gave Ms. R. authority over what students learned and established her as the producer of knowledge because she rarely responded more than “yes” or “no” to students’ talk (Juzwik et al., 2013) before moving onto the next subject. Students were discovering knowledge she had planted for them to find, not producing it. Therefore, while Ms. R. asked broad questions, the students began to infer they were Known-Answer/Test Questions, for which there was a “correct” answer (Juzwik et al., 2013), as the discussion progressed. Many students volunteered to answer the “what do you notice?” question with which Ms. R. opened the discussion because they did not know she was looking for a specific answer. As she narrowed her questions to lead students to the answer, students became more reluctant to speak until the questions were so narrow that the answer was obvious. By the discussion’s end, no students (in any of the three classes) volunteered to answer the broad question, “How does this poem make you feel?” They were not confident to answer a question that did not suggest its “correct” answer.
After the day was over, Ms. R. told me that it is normal for students to be “quiet” when she tries to start a discussion about new material. In all classes, the session had seemed less a discussion and more a call-and-response interaction where “teachers initiate a question, students respond, [and] then teachers evaluate the response” (Juzwik et al., 2013, p. 19). When individual students spoke, their peers’ eyes stayed on their teacher as she moved around her room, gauging her reaction to their answer. If she started to cock her head while she listened to their peer, other students’ hands would creep into the air, signaling they would like to try for the “right” answer that their peer was not articulating. If a student said what Ms. R. wanted to hear, she would repeat their response; it was only then that students would scrawl a phrase into their notebooks. The teacher’s words were the only things worthy of documentation. This pattern gave students no motivation to listen to each other or to communicate “I’ve heard you” to their peers (Juzwik et al., 2013). The lack of student-to-student listening eliminated the possibility of Uptake Questions or Student Questions (Juzwik et al., 2013). The norm of hand-raising also eliminated the need for students to listen and “gauge the discussion” so they could “jump in when they had something to say” (Juszik et al., 2013). The gap between when students had a thought (and they raised their hands) and when they were able to articulate that thought (because Ms. R. called on them) prevented a cumulative interaction of “connected ideas” (Juzwik et al. 2013). For instance, Sam raised her hand to ask her teacher about something Prior had said, but by the time she asked it, the topic of conversation had already changed.
As the interaction continued and students discovered its purpose was to push them into knowing a predetermined something about sonnets, they needed more time to think before responding to the questions. At times, Ms. R. would read this lack-of-response as a lack of volunteers. She navigated the perceived situation of a resigned classroom by moving to stand near a new pod of desks. In all classes, students closest to where the teacher posed the question were more likely to volunteer a response. As students considered Ms. R. to be the test distributor, they took her nearness as a signal to guess at an answer. If moving locations did not produce a response, Ms. R. would direct the question at a “pod” of students, often offering them a chance to discuss their thinking before answering. Students stated their answers more confidently—”I notice…” versus “I mean, I think I notice…”—after they had time to validate their thoughts against their group members’. Juzwik et al. (2013) note that giving students time “to brainstorm and organize ideas before being asked to dialogue about those ideas” is an essential factor in creating more sustained student dialogue (p. 44). While students appeared to participate in these “pod” interactions, the same student in each pod would often speak their thoughts to the large group. If the exchange had been more dialogic, the fact that one student in each pod dominated the “share-out” would interfere with facilitating a full-class dialogue because these dominant students would only be responding to each other. Gender seemed to be less an indicator of which students in each “pod” were more likely to volunteer than the fact that the students in each pod were used to working together and, through their repeated interactions, had formed ideas about who would be the “best” or the most-eager respondent. Halfway through the interaction, Ms. R. had to start asking for “new voices,” which was enough to prompt the quieter students to contribute to the exchange.
The next week, I was able to ask Ms. R. about classroom norms regarding hand raising and group discussions. She told me that she expected students to raise their hands before speaking unless they were engaging in a structured class discussion, like a Socratic Seminar. Before these discussions, Ms. R. provides the students with teacher-led preparation and practice tools (Juzwik et al., 2013) like writing prompts or questions. She does not have to use a call-and-response format to establish herself as the conversation director because the preparation tools mean students are less likely to “get off-track.” Of the conversation I observed, Ms. R. noted, “If I had just let them run with things last week, we wouldn’t have covered the necessary material.” Ms. R. also creates scaffolds to help her students monitor their participation in structured discussions, like ensuring they contribute only two substantive comments before everyone else in the class has spoken. “If I do not set some sort of speaking expectations or control the flow of the conversation by asking students to raise their hands first,” she says, “a few voices will dominate the whole discussion.” What I had observed confirmed Ms. R.’s claim. For instance, during the fourth period, one boy kept volunteering to speak. As soon as he raised his hands, a few other students would put their hands down, pleased that someone else would take the “guess” that would eventually lead to the teacher giving them the “correct” answer. If a classmate was so ready to volunteer a guess, they knew they did not need to think about the question to generate their own. It was at these times that students were more likely to turn to their phones or iPads.
To facilitate a dialogic classroom, I understand that I will need to work with students to create norms for how we interact outside of more-structured classroom discussions so that I know one student will not dominate impromptu class conversations. This confidence will make it easier for me to move away from call-and-response interactions and towards viewing my questions as a teacher-led, “learning-talk” preparation tool (Juzwik et al., 2013) that has the goal of producing sustained, coherent, and reciprocal student-directed dialogue. This objective will affect how I prepare questions. I should go into each lesson practiced in turning the topic of the class (at any moment) into an authentic question meant to “generate an in-depth response,” “extend student talk,” and produce “wide participation” (Juzwik et al., 2013, p. 28).
Interaction Maps (Appendix A)
Christensen, L. (2017). Reading, writing, and rising up (2nd ed.). Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.
Juzwik, M. et al. (2013). Inspiring dialogue: Talking to learn in the English classroom (Language and literacy series). New York, NY: Teachers College Press, Teachers College, Columbia University.