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Dialogic Circles: A Strategy for High Quality Classroom Talk

I’ve recently been playing with a new (to me at least) classroom setup and way of teaching poetry. I’ve used this strategy with various classes now and across various texts, although not yet beyond poetry. It is reasonably simple to set up and orchestrate, with its major benefit being to promote greater depth of discussion and questioning. It also helps to place even greater emphasis on teasing out initial student response to whatever we’re reading.

How Does It Work?

1. The physical space of the classroom needs to be slightly reconfigured so that there is a central space (maybe a block of two tables) and then tables surrounding this as a perimeter so students are facing towards this central group

2. As students come into the classroom (maybe you ask them to sit in specific places or just to sit next to whoever they typically would or indeed anywhere) they have a poem waiting for them. Perhaps this poem has been blocked out to help scaffold student attention or maybe there are a couple of prompts on the board (what do you like? what do you notice?). They read and annotate this poem, jotting down their first ideas and impressions.

3. If this is the first time trying this strategy, then you’d at this point explain why the tables are arranged in an unusual fashion and therefore what we’re going to be doing today.

4. You explain during the course of the lesson you’re going to be analysing and exploring the poem they have just looked at. In order to do this, some students (maybe 3 or 4) will be seated in the middle table and some around the outside. You as the teacher will also be seated in the middle table and you’ll lead a conversation about the poem with those students. Their role is to do nothing different to what they usually would: discuss, explore and think about the poem with you.

5. You then explain those around the perimeter (in other words everyone else) will have an equally important, but slightly different role. Their role is to listen very carefully to the conversation taking place in the middle. If they hear something they find interesting then they can make a note of it just as usual. If they have questions to ask they can make a note of these questions too.

This then is the basic premise. There are though a couple of refinements I think are important.

1. It is, I think, really important to rotate who is in the middle within the course of a single lesson. Inevitably, those on the edge will have ideas and thoughts of their own and we don’t want to to lock these students out of the lesson. It’s also important we build in an added reason for all students to be thinking hard and listening. Knowing that they might be in the middle soon will help ensure those on the outside are equally engaged in the conversation. As such, I aim for roughly a rotation maybe every 10 minutes (or so), with this being explained in advance.

2. Whilst the conversation in the middle is the main focal point, I also like to pause and bring in those on the edge at various moments in the lesson. This might simply be saying: ‘OK, let’s pause now. X, what you think about Y’, with X being someone not in the middle. However, what works well when I do this is to ask the student being brought into the discussion to comment on what they have just heard. They can add to, develop, challenge aspects of what has been said in the middle. This not only gives students more reason to listen attentively, but also makes it a lot easier to join in. It also then means we’re accruing a deeper sense of the poem as we enfold different perspectives on top of already existing ideas. As with the above, this also helps to ensure students are attentive to the discussion as they know they may be invited to add their thoughts. We can then flip back to the middle: ‘OK, we’ve just heard from X about Y. Does this change what we said earlier?’

Why Do This?

This is an absolutely valid question. Why not just run classroom discussion with the whole class in the ‘normal’ manner. There are a few really significant benefits this strategy brings, which are worth outlining:

1. It allows much greater depth of discussion with a smaller number of students, permitting more probing questions and dialogic back and forth. This can lead to really rich and sustained conversation that can be difficult to maintain with a whole class. You can really go deep in your discussion, pushing students in their thinking and allowing students to develop their responses and ideas in a manner that is genuine and organic.

2. The means of participation are incredibly clear and well defined. This means, perhaps counterintuitively, you have both more dialogic, sustained and free flowing class discussion that is simultaneously more tightly orchestrated and focussed. A common critique of group work (rightly or wrongly) is that it can lead to seemingly disordered and ill managed class discussion. This strategy has all the benefits of high quality, dialogic discussion without the (perceived) downsides of group work.

3. I think the benefits to those in the middle are obvious: focussed, probing, rigorous discussion led by a teacher in a small group that can sustain lots of developed, dialogic discussion. But, what about those on the outside? An obvious challenge to this strategy would be whether or not those on the perimeter are thinking hard. Are they not just switched off? This is where the two caveats mentioned above are really valuable. We need to be really clear as to the expectations for both groups of students and make it explicit both groups, whilst performing different roles, are part of this lesson. We do this by making it clear those on the outside should be making notes, jotting down their observations based on what they hear, formulating questions to ask. We then make sure to embed into the activity opportunity to pause and bring other students into the conversation as well as rotating out the middle. All of this helps to ensure all students are involved and thinking hard whilst retaining the obvious benefits to those directly involved in the central discussion. There is also, I think, a significant metacognitive benefit: the students on the perimeter are constantly considering the discussion in light of their own ideas and thinking. Did I know that? Do I agree with that? How is that different to what I thought? This helps them to reflect on and assess their own understanding in response to the new ideas being shared.

4. John Yandell describes English as a ‘pedagogy of dialogue’, meaning, I think, that textual understanding comes out of and is made in classroom discussion. As such, finding ways to improve the quality of this talk helps to improve our exploration of whatever texts we are teaching. Meaning and insight originates in sustained and rigorous discussion where such thinking goes well beyond the typical question/answer/response format. Rather we dwell in the ‘response’, further exploring it, asking other students to join in and comment on what they have heard. We can do this at the whole class level too, of course, but this strategy places a high premium on such dialogue, making it central to the whole premise of how we set up this lesson.

In essence, we might do this to create a classroom environment where there is emphasis placed on rigorous, sustained, dialogic talk as well as its careful observation and reflection from others in the class.

A Couple of Caveats

There are, I feel, a couple of important considerations when using this strategy.

1. I think it is really important that this strategy is framed in an appropriate way. It’s crucial those in the middle understand and appreciate the reason for this is to allow them to share their ideas and responses in a more natural and sustained manner so that they can really engage with the text. They must not feel they are being put on the spot in order to be caught out. This comes from the way we introduce the strategy as well as how we frame classroom discussion more generally.

2. Following from the above, I think we should also consider our class carefully when deciding who might benefit from being in the middle. Some students will really enjoy and thrive from being in the middle and some will really enjoy the opportunity to listen to and reflect on the conversation. We just need to be alert to who in our class will most enjoy and benefit from the slightly different roles on offer.

3. I wouldn’t suggest we make use of this classroom set up as a routine way to orchestrate discussion. I think it works best when used infrequently. It might work especially well as a kind of revision lesson where we are really delving deeply into a specific area of a text. It can also work really well as a way to introduce a poem, but again not every poem.

In my experience, this is a great strategy to use when we want to really probe student thinking and develop a culture of sustained dialogic discussion.

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