Collaborative Exploration of Classroom Discourse (Voices)
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Thoughts on the Article | Barbara Henderson, Voices Executive Editor
This YC issue’s Voices of Practitioners article presents us with a mirror, featuring teacher educator Diane Santori discussing how she uses teacher research in her courses while simultaneously conducting teacher research into her own teacher education practice. She and her students examine their attempts to implement Alexander’s dialogic teaching (2008), a framework that places inquiry and collaboration at the center.
Teacher research is key to Diane’s work because it keeps the learner, whether child or teacher education student, in focus as an active maker of meaning in the classroom. I appreciate being reminded of Alexander’s principles of dialogic teaching, which highlight classroom conversations that are collective, reciprocal, supportive, cumulative, and purposeful, and in which students take the lead. I can see how making these principles directly available to my teacher education students would both model for them the inquiry-focused approach I value and allow us to engage in meta-analysis of our inquiry and teaching processes.
Santori also emphasizes the power of video analysis for capturing important moments of teaching and then making them available for colleagues to provide feedback. As educators, we all would benefit from analyzing the discourse that unfolds when we teach, holding a critical lens to how well and in what ways we are able to facilitate the principles of dialogic teaching. We can then ask ourselves if we actually do share power with children or our teacher education students. Overall, Diane Santori’s article makes a compelling case for the ways in which we teacher educators who use teacher research also benefit deeply from remaining engaged in inquiry ourselves through the self-study of our higher education practices.
For the past 10 years, I have been teaching a graduate course titled Language Literacy, and Learning. The graduate students teach children in grades K–12 across various content areas; however, the majority of them are elementary school teachers. They come from various school districts surrounding the university. Throughout the course, I encourage the teachers to take an inquiry stance toward their practice. They use various frameworks to analyze and evaluate language and its relationship to literacy and learning; identify potential areas for research based on discourse and dilemmas in their current teaching environments; and generate research questions that emerge from classroom discourse.
In the following sections, I describe how practitioner research, a core element of my graduate course, led to a research collaboration that enabled two third-grade teachers to investigate how they facilitate classroom discussions among the children they teach. At the same time, I considered my own questions related to supporting the teachers’ inquiries. Specifically, I engaged in self-study to learn how to enhance the support I provide to teachers as they attempt to move toward an approach to teaching that prioritizes their students’ thinking, questions, and discussion. The findings of my self-study are the primary focus of this article.
Analyzing classroom discourse
To complete various course assignments, graduate students enrolled in my Language, Literacy, and Learning course participate in practitioner research (Cochran-Smith & Lytle 1993) as they systematically reflect on their language use and pursue personal inquiries on discourse in their classrooms. The teachers are required to videotape themselves teaching and to transcribe segments of the lessons as well.
The teachers use various frameworks (Furniss & Green 1991) and coding manuals (Kucan 2007; Santori 2011) to analyze their videos and transcripts. Research tells us that “transcript analysis within a context of inquiry provides support and motivation for teachers’ developing understanding of and higher levels of performance in engaging students in productive instructional talk” (Kucan 2007, 228). These practicing teachers also develop a specific research question focused on classroom discourses, then collect and analyze related data (videos, transcripts, anecdotal notes).
For several weeks, my graduate students take turns sharing their research questions, the clips from their lessons, and the accompanying transcripts. After presenting, they write reflection papers highlighting their findings, summarizing the peer feedback, and outlining next steps. The teachers often remark that they greatly appreciate their peers’ observations and suggestions.
Throughout the semester, we read and discuss various articles (e.g., Aukerman 2006; Reninger & Wilkinson 2010; Santori 2011) and texts (e.g., Nystrand 1997; Johnston 2004) that espouse the benefits of dialogic teaching. In dialogic teaching, classroom talk is often used to stimulate and extend students’ thinking and advance their learning and understanding. The following six principles (Alexander 2008) characterize dialogic teaching:
- Collective: Participants address learning tasks together
- Reciprocal: Participants listen to each other, share ideas, and consider alternative viewpoints
- Supportive: Students express their ideas freely, without fear of embarrassment over incorrect answers, and help each other reach common understandings
- Cumulative: Participants build on answers and other oral contributions and chain them into coherent lines of thinking and understanding
- Purposeful: Classroom talk, though open and dialogic, is also planned and structured with specific learning goals in mind
Even though we spend quite a bit of time unpacking dialogic teaching, when the graduate students return to their young learners, they often have trouble relinquishing control to the children, particularly during text-based discussions. These teachers are not alone. Educational researchers (Nystrand et al. 2003; Reznitskaya et al. 2009) have clearly articulated the need for and value of dialogic teaching; yet many teachers encounter difficulty when attempting to incorporate dialogic instruction (Juzwik et al. 2008). Studies of classroom discourse have demonstrated that students’ participation in classroom discussions is usually highly constrained (Dillon 1990; Nystrand et al. 2003).
Keri, a former student of mine, provides an example. I asked Keri to describe her purpose for small group guided-reading discussions in her third-grade classroom. She alluded to each of the principles of dialogic teaching in the following transcript excerpt (the principles are identified in bold):
Keri: The purpose is for the students to be more self-sufficient in finding their own knowledge [purposeful]. I think that, especially [given] what we learned in your class, . . . I don’t . . . give them a chance. If they’re able to find it themselves, it’s more meaningful for them. . . . The tendency is for the teacher to give the knowledge, and I’m guilty of it. I still do it.
Diane: Mm hmm. Me too.
Keri: I think they are able to have discussions themselves [collective, reciprocal], and I love when I can see them bounce their ideas off of each other [cumulative]. If they disagree, . . . they are brave enough to say, “No, I disagree” [supportive]. I think the purpose of the discussion would be for them to find meaning in the text. I don’t know if I am always giving them that opportunity.
Keri had a clear purpose in mind and precise learning goals for the discussions. However, she also struggled to make space for her third-graders to construct their own meanings from the text, even though she valued this practice.
Classroom talk stimulates and extends students’ thinking and advances their learning and understanding.
I understand how challenging it can be for educators to provide space for students to explore their own text-based inquiries and consider alternative viewpoints. When I hear myself doing most of the talking and leading my graduate students to my interpretation, I frequently stop and explain to them that I have lost my way. We then regroup, and I encourage the students to take the lead, share their ideas, and listen to one another.
To give all of the educators in my course more practice in dialogic teaching, the final course assignment is an analysis of a classroom discussion. The teachers are required to plan, teach and record, transcribe, and reflect on a lesson in which they take a back seat during the children’s discussions about a text. Text is broadly defined; it could be a poem, a nonfiction article, a picture book, or a mathematics word problem.
I explain that for this assignment, teacher talk should be kept to a minimum. Children’s voices are prioritized so that they have the opportunity to control the direction and the content of the discussion. For example, some primary-grades teachers chose to do interactive read-alouds; I encouraged them to read the text aloud and stop frequently to collect their students’ thoughts, reactions, and questions—without asking predetermined questions. Regardless of grade level and text selection, the transcript analysis focuses on (1) their students’ use of language, (2) their students’ meaning making from the text, and (3) group power dynamics and interaction issues (including gender, socioeconomic status, race, and culture).
When teachers complete their student discussion analysis assignments, many of them are amazed by the rigor and depth of their young learners’ discussions. Most come to realize that their students often pose valuable questions, and the students respond to one another in such a way that the group’s overall comprehension of the text is enhanced. Even the kindergarten teachers are impressed by the questions the children ask and answer during the interactive read-aloud as they collaboratively construct meaning.
My graduate students are often taken aback when they witness the way that providing children an opportunity to generate and ask their own questions about a text can radically shift a discussion. Each semester, I am reminded of how important this practitioner research is. While I see value in the multiple readings I assign about student inquiry and dialogic discussions, I also know that it is not until teachers analyze their own students’ discussions that they truly come to understand the benefits.
Graduate students become research partners
By the end of each semester, most of the graduate students value dialogic discussions. They have become more comfortable facilitating such discussions and profess a desire to continue their journey toward a more dialogic approach to teaching. I have often wondered how I could assist them once the course has ended. Fortunately, I received a grant to conduct research with my graduate students on this topic. Two former students who taught third grade, Keri and Kelly, volunteered to continue investigating their classroom discourses.
Our collaborative research project began with teacher interviews during which I asked each graduate student to identify her questions about facilitating dialogic discussions in her elementary classroom. While the teachers’ questions centered on their participation in their third-graders’ small group guided-reading discussions, my inquiries were focused on my role as a research partner. I was particularly interested in exploring how I might help teachers enhance their understanding of dialogic discussions and become more confident as they learned to be skillful facilitators of dialogic inquiry (Hogan, Nastasi, & Pressley 1999). I wanted to provide the teachers with an analytic tool that could better support their practitioner research efforts and possibly lessen the need to transcribe excerpts of their classroom lessons (since transcription is time consuming).
I showed Keri and Kelly the Dialogic Inquiry Tool (DIT), an observational scale designed “to engage practitioners in a systematic assessment of their practice and to inspire reflection on the role of language in student learning” (Reznitskaya, Glina, & Oyler 2011, 5). They agreed to use the DIT to analyze teacher–student interactions in the small group guided-reading discussions in their classrooms. (See “More about the DIT.”).
More about the DIT
The Dialogic Inquiry Tool (DIT) is a classroom observation scale designed to help teachers examine and rethink the quality of talk during discussions. The version we used in this study listed 11 moves that teachers and students might make while participating in discussions. Some examples are sharing the floor, requesting/providing justification, prompting for/considering alternatives, and connecting ideas. The teachers evaluated their participation and their students’ participation by using a continuum to score each of the 11 moves. They also took notes while viewing the videotaped discussions.
Keri shared that she watched the videos of her discussions three times and took various notes each time. During the first viewing, she focused on the overall content of the discussion; the second time, she primarily listened to the student talk and noted interesting/important segments with time stamps. The third time, she focused on her teacher talk.
The revised and complete version of the DIT is now published in The Most Reasonable Answer: Helping Students Build Better Arguments Together (Reznitskaya & Wilkinson 2017).
While Kelly taught in a wealthier, suburban district, Keri worked in an urban district where 85 percent of the students received free or reduced lunch. Each teacher videotaped five guided reading discussions over the course of several months and shared their recordings with me prior to our research meetings. I met with them separately seven times each and conducted interviews during our initial and final sessions. We also communicated by email.
Before our meetings, each teacher and I viewed the classroom videos separately, wrote analytic notes, and used the DIT to analyze the student talk and the teacher talk. Although the focus of our meetings shifted over time, both teachers consistently discussed their scores on the DIT, reflected on their teaching practices and beliefs, raised questions, and developed plans for future guided reading discussions. I supported the teachers by answering their questions (when possible), offering suggestions, and sharing my observations. I also frequently asked my own questions in an attempt to understand how they used the DIT, made instructional decisions, and determined when to enter the children’s discussions.
Investigating my role
One of my self-study goals was to examine how the teachers’ participation in research influenced their understanding and facilitation of dialogic discussions. I knew that graduate students in my Language, Literacy, and Learning course had a foundation on which they could build, but I was curious about what teachers could learn from a prolonged investigation of classroom discourse. Additionally, I wanted to explore my role in the teachers’ research as they worked toward becoming more dialogic. While I believed that the course assignments helped teachers take an inquiry stance, I wondered whether there was more I could do both during the course and afterward. I also wanted to guide Keri and Kelly away from asking “known information questions” (Mehan 1998) and toward prioritizing their third-graders’ inquiries in classroom discussions to foster coconstruction of meaning.
Throughout this project, I engaged in self-study to improve my work as a teacher educator. Three essential features of self-study are the importance of the self, the use of teacher educators’ experiences as research, and the focus of the self-researcher’s critical eye on his or her own techniques (Feldman, Paugh, & Mills 2004). I hoped to gain knowledge that would enhance my teaching in the graduate course and possibly in future teacher research collaborations as well. In each of the meetings that I had with Keri and Kelly, I closely examined my talk and techniques to determine how I was (or was not, in some cases) supporting the teachers; thus, my analysis was a critique of my own teaching.
All five of the research meetings and the pre and post interviews were audio recorded and transcribed; these were my primary data. Additionally, I kept a journal in which I recorded my observations, questions, comments, and reminders. I used grounded theory (Strauss 1987) to identify and document patterns and themes in the transcripts and in my journal.
My initial analysis began with open coding (Strauss 1987) of all written data as I read each transcript and my journal several times. I identified patterns in our talk that provided insights about the support I gave Kelly and Keri. I also examined the influence my talk turns had on each teacher’s subsequent talk turns. Weeks later, when I was able to read a clean copy of a transcript and see previously identified patterns and themes, I was satisfied with the analysis.
Working alongside Keri and Kelly gave me the opportunity to learn how to support teachers’ growth as they investigate the quality of discourse in their classrooms. The research meetings provided us with a dedicated time and space to reflect on our practices and examine our roles and beliefs. While Keri and Kelly focused on their participation in guided-reading discussions with their third-graders, I concentrated on my contributions in our research meetings.
Many teachers are amazed by the rigor and depth of their young learners’ discussions.
First and foremost, I discovered how challenging it can be to uphold the principles of dialogic teaching (Alexander 2008), even when working with only one other person. When the project began, I fully intended to serve as a model for dialogic pedagogy and to foreground the teachers’ questions and concerns; unfortunately, I did the exact opposite in some of our meetings. After reviewing the recordings and/or the transcripts, it was clear that sometimes I interrupted the teachers and privileged my agenda rather than following their leads in our conversations. When I realized this, I became more intentional about holding back and encouraging the teachers to control the conversations so that their inquiries were front and center. I also shared with Keri and Kelly my frustration about my participation so they could understand that at times this work can be hard for all of us.
Providing Keri and Kelly with the Dialogic Inquiry Tool was incredibly valuable. In the initial research meetings, we spent quite a bit of time discussing our analyses of their videotaped lessons, based on the DIT. The teachers and I shared our scores and explained how we had arrived at those scores. While each of us had approached the task of scoring somewhat differently, we all found that the tool gave us common language for naming what we saw and did not see happening in the guided reading discussions. This led to rich conversations about what the teachers valued and provided opportunities to probe our thinking. We also critiqued the tool and determined which elements were useful for our purposes.
Practitioner research is an incredibly powerful form of professional development at all stages of one’s teaching career.
Much of my talk during the meetings was in response to the teachers’ questions. Their inquiries ranged from “What text should I use next?” to “How much guidance should I be providing during poetry discussions?” At times, my answers were precise and direct (e.g., suggesting a text); other times, I responded with questions such as, “What are your goals for the poetry discussion?” and “What happens if students’ understandings do not match yours?” Both Keri and Kelly seemed to want guidance from me, and I offered it when appropriate; but I also reminded them that there was no one right way to facilitate a dialogic discussion.
Reviewing the transcripts from the meetings, I noticed that when my conversational turns were lengthy and involved my giving the teachers information, their responses were generally brief. In some ways, these exchanges resembled the traditional, commonly found, discourse pattern Initiation-Response-Evaluation (Mehan 1998); the teachers initiated with a question, I offered a long, often explicit, response, and the teachers evaluated (e.g., “Right, okay”).
While the teachers asked the questions, I often played the role of “primary knower” (Berry 1981) by imparting my knowledge in response. Yet there were also occasions when I revoiced a teacher’s question and pressed the teacher to share her thinking; in these instances, the teacher’s turn was lengthier as she verbalized her understanding or confusion. Additionally, I found that if I simply replied mm hmm after a teacher turn, both Keri and Kelly frequently elaborated in their next conversational turn. During several of these exchanges, both teachers appeared to clarify their thinking and gain insight.
Finally, I noticed that my support often took the form of praise. Keri and Kelly could sometimes be incredibly hard on themselves. However, I frequently witnessed their students’ high levels of engagement and rich participation as the children collaboratively constructed meaning from a text. The students used various comprehension strategies authentically and independently; they asked meaningful questions and held each other accountable to the text and to one another. At times, the teachers did not notice the intellectual rigor of their students’ discussions or the incredible work their students were doing. When I shared my observations with Keri and Kelly, they beamed with pride and seemed to breathe a little easier.
Researchers have shown that dialogic discussions are difficult to enact and that they rarely occur in most classrooms (Nystrand et al. 2003). While I strongly believe in the value of and necessity for dialogic discussions in all programs, I also recognize how challenging it can be to facilitate these discussions. Conducting this self-study enabled me to see how at times I continue to struggle to remain true to the principles of dialogic teaching, and it reminded me how important it is to take a step back and examine my own practice.
Practitioner research is an incredibly powerful form of professional development at all stages of one’s teaching career. Listening to recordings of the research meetings and analyzing the transcripts provided me with a wealth of information regarding my strengths and my areas for growth.
Kelly and Keri talked about what they learned from participating in the research project. Kelly shared the following:
Taking the time to reflect on small group dialogic discussions helped me grow as an educator. At times, I still struggle with my role, specifically the quality and quantity of my teacher talk. The most important lesson I learned is that sometimes you need to listen more than speak. It’s about providing students an opportunity to have their voices heard. When I have done this, I [have] observed [that] rich, meaningful conversations and more learning took place. This research experience helped me see the value of shifting from a monologic approach to a more dialogic approach; however, it’s still a work in progress for me!
My participation in this collaborative research project enhanced my understanding of dialogic discussions and influenced my instructional practices. While I learned a great deal about the importance of dialogic discussions through my coursework in Language, Literacy, and Learning, I found that my one-on-one meetings with Dr. Santori, the additional videotapes of classroom discussions, and our analyses of those discussions using the Dialogic Inquiry Tool created a deeper understanding of dialogic discussions and how to effectively implement them in the classroom. At the beginning of the project, I was uncertain about the quality of the discussions in my classroom; however, with Dr. Santori’s guidance and input and with the use of the DIT, I learned ways to facilitate discussions where the students were the main contributors.
Although I found it challenging to relinquish control of the conversation to the students, I was amazed at how students of all academic levels interacted with each other in meaningful ways. I observed the students exhibit a higher level of discussion participation when given the space to do so. By becoming more of a discussion facilitator rather than leader, I was able to more clearly identify students’ meaning-making strategies and the roles they assumed within the discussions. When I asked the students for feedback on the dialogic discussions, they unanimously agreed that they enjoyed the opportunity to talk among themselves about texts.
Since the project has ended, I have continued to utilize dialogic discussions, especially during guided reading. I hope that we are able to continue this project to enable more teachers to learn about and implement dialogic discussions.
As I collaborated with Keri and Kelly on their research, I realized how naïve I had been to think that one graduate course would be enough to help teachers engage in a more dialogic approach to teaching. The course plants the seed, but prolonged investigation of classroom discourse is necessary for the roots of dialogic instruction to take hold and for dialogic discussions to thrive.
Moving forward, to sustain my graduate students’ professional development, I hope to establish teacher-research groups in a few of the schools where they teach and to invite other teachers to join them. Keri and I would like to create an inquiry group at her school, with a few other teachers who expressed an interest in learning more about dialogic discussions. Keri would lead the group and I could serve as a thinking partner and sounding board. Additionally, when my next group of graduate students completes Language, Literacy, and Learning, I will ask them if they would like to continue researching their classroom discourses and possibly facilitate inquiry groups at their schools.
In closing, I plan to introduce future students to the Dialogic Inquiry Tool because Kelly, Keri, and I found this observational scale to be an efficient instrument for analyzing teacher and student talk. If teachers understand how to use the DIT (or a similar tool), it could give them a means for evaluating and reflecting on their students’ classroom discussions long after the course has ended. This self-study influenced my teaching directly, and it may encourage other teachers and teacher educators to collaboratively explore their students’ classroom talk.
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Voices of Practitioners: Teacher Research in Early Childhood Education is NAEYC’s online journal devoted to teacher research. Visit NAEYC.org/resources/pubs/vop to
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Photographs: 1, 2, 3, 4 © Getty Images
Diane Santori, EdD, is a professor in the Literacy Department at West Chester University, in West Chester, Pennsylvania. She is also the graduate coordinator for the Literacy Department. Her research focuses on dialogic teaching and learning. firstname.lastname@example.org
Keri Ven, MEd, is an ESL teacher at Bywood Elementary School, in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. Keri previously taught third grade. She is completing her Master of Education in English as a Second Language.
Kelly Hennessey, MEd, attended West Chester University for undergraduate and graduate studies, minoring in literacy. Kelly has spent the past nine years teaching first, third, and fourth grades.