The Russian literary theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin has much to offer teachers who wish to transform their classrooms into places of lively debate where the voice of the student is heard rather than the monologue of the teacher. Despite a broad consensus that learning needs to be learner-centred and active, rather than authoritarian and passive, perhaps the majority of classrooms continue to reflect what Bakhtin called, an authoritative discourse. Teachers tend to give lectures, and students are treated as passive vessels being filled up with knowledge. As Irwin Edman once put it, teaching is the art of casting false pearls before real swine!
For Bakhtin all language and thought is a dialogic process. All language, and thought is social. Meaning is made, constructed by a process of interaction. The very words we use are formed under the pressures of centripetal unifying forces (something like the dictionary definition of a word) where the meaning of that word is socially agreed, and centrifugal forces, for all utterances have an individual flavour shaped by our unique experiences in this world. The meaning I invest in the word horse is similar, but different to yours. We both mean four-legged creatures you can ride, but what I mean is coloured by the fact that I was savaged as a boy by a Shetland pony anxious to wrench a sugar-cube from my hand, and your meaning may be largely shaped by more pleasant experiences of money won off the backs of Arabian stallions at the race-track.
If we wish to get away from an educational system centred on the lecture and passivity, we need to be able to introduce the voice of the student into the conversation. Not that I am against the lecture. It is often necessary and beneficial. It is an efficient way to introduce new material to students. I have argued elsewhere in this blog, that in the sage-on-the-stage vs the guide-on-the-side debate I am very much in favour of the meddler-in-the-middle! Teachers need to transmit knowledge from time to time and provide students with the knowledge and skills they need, they need to work with students’ voices as well, work collaboratively and in communities of practice. Most of all they need to roll up their sleeves and engage with student learning, constructing meaning with students, side by side. Bakhtin’s notion of dialogism is a useful theoretical underpinning for any teacher trying to explain to administrators or parents what they are doing.
One of the critical thinking approaches that I find works best in my classroom is the Philosophy For Children approach (P4C) where a lesson becomes an enquiry, and all voices are heard in the conversation that develops. I use it most often for the discussion of poetry, both in the face to face classroom, and on a forum. The question is always, what does the poem mean? I see my role as a teacher in this enquiry as being to introduce key ideas that might help sharpen the discussion, to focus attention when it is wandering and to try to draw in those who are not participating. A follow-up to an enquiry is usually an explicit lesson on some formal aspect of the discussion such as unpacking narrative voice or what irony means. As a pedagogy then, for me, dialogic pedagogy means that balance between the authoritative monologic teacher voice and the dialogic student chorus where meaning is made socially.
I believe that forums, either on Moodle or another platform, are an excellent way of encouraging student voices and valorizing students’ opinions, and in terms of the Flipped Classroom represent an ideal way of flipping discussion. It allows students to continue the debate once the class is over, and provides an opportunity to maximise discussion time in class if you hold some discussion online ahead of the class. Student comments on the forum are a great way to kick off in-class discussion, for example. I love the fact that a forum post also involves more reflection. Students, because they are writing out a response rather than speaking, are able to think an reflect just that little bit more. Their response is still immediate and often in reaction to what others have said, but it is also considered, more crafted. Stevan Harnad suggests that this power of reflection and immediacy is what characterises the power of the new digital technologies to unleash a fourth cognitive revolution.
Students are often reticent about posting discussion online, just as they may be in a face to face situation, but often it is different children who are drawn into the discussion, so I would always recommend running both discussions, face to face and on forums simultaneously – get the one to feed or continue the other. Being active on the forum helps draw students in. And make it compulsory! Don’t be afraid to assess participation both quantitatively and qualitatively. When students realise that it counts they will post!