How do we overcome the ‘reaction barrier’ of the term ‘Dialogic Teaching’?

7 July 2017

Author: Lorwyn Randall

Cracking the toughest nut of all – perception

With the publication of the EEF’s evaluation report on Dialogic Teaching this week, there will be lots of people in schools asking the question, ‘What is dialogic teaching?’. Given the report’s conclusion that the approach can add two additional months of progress in English and Science, and an additional month in Maths (two for Disadvantaged Students) at a ‘low cost’ per pupil, that question is unlikely to be a rhetorical one.

Essentially, dialogic teaching promotes a more dynamic model for the talk that happens in classrooms, particularly between teachers and pupils. Verbal exchanges in traditional teaching tend to slip into an IRF model – Teacher (i)nitiates / Student (r)esponds / Teacher provides (f)eedback and the exchange ends there.

In contrast, dialogic teaching involves talk that is cumulative, supportive, reciprocal, collective, and purposeful (Alexander, 2008).

To learn more about the specific approach used in the trial, the findings can be found here. However, the question as to how the report will be received will depend largely on how teachers respond to the very term itself, ‘dialogic teaching’.

Let’s consider two possible reactions and how we might address the barriers they present for engaging with this promising approach to teaching.

Reaction one: “Sounds like the theories of learning I was asked to look up and use as part of the theory-based part of my teacher training. The ivory tower it came from doesn’t understand the practical considerations of real-world classroom teaching.”

This response is not untypical and nor is it without foundation. Many of us who took traditional pathways through initial teacher training view terms like ‘dialogical pedagogy’ through the lens of our past experience – delving into a dusty journal to cherry-pick a quote or two for a looming learning theory assignment. Often the perception of research that teachers left their postgraduate course with was that of an ‘outside-in’ model. Research became seen as something that was done to teachers, rather than by teachers. On first impressions, ‘dialogic teaching’ has a ring to it that mean teachers may avoid engaging with it before they’ve even seen the summary report.

Today’s evaluation report, however, involved around 140 schools with hundreds of teachers trained to deliver the intervention. Whilst one teacher reported that the terminology used was understood more by academics than by them, all staff involved at every level in the schools were clear: they valued the project, will remain committed to the approach and would recommend it to other schools. In truth, the evaluation report itself is of course ‘research’, but as is the case with EEF trials – it was generated by teachers for teachers. And its teachers who will benefit if we can present the findings for what they are: evidence that tools for breaking the IRF teacher/learner response model can work. Let’s free ourselves from such linear patterns of predictable exchanges with students and create a more dynamic dialogue in our classrooms. Furthermore, if we are shown our questioning and receive peer mentoring to improve it in such a way as to bring about greater levels of cumulative dialogue between us and our learners, students overall thinking increases and learning skills develop faster. Schools might not have video recording equipment but some CPD on using the tools and an agreement between colleagues to be a critical friend who can take a look at our first attempts at dialogic teaching would be an excellent start. So is it ivory tower? Not really. Well, maybe a bit. But unlike the title itself might suggest, Dialogic Teaching is less scary than it sounds and with the help of a mentor with a trained eye you could start to transform the way that talk works for you and your students.

Reaction two: “It’s an approach to teaching that involves getting students talking to each other. I already do that.”

Some elements of teaching are regarded as principles. Principles are different to strategies in that the former are timeless whilst the latter are treated as transient or, by teachers with a certain number of years’ experience under their belts, as cyclical. Either way, what’s important to recognise here is the reflex that is present in this response. We all have it and we all exhibit it in different aspects of our lives. In teaching, it manifests as a process of aligning what we acknowledge to be a principle (in this case, ‘talk aids learning’) with a value we identify ourselves with: the oft-chanted mantra of ‘Quality First Teaching’. Few people will reject the idea that it’s high quality teaching in the classroom that makes the biggest difference to student learning and outcomes. Fewer still would want to omit QFT from their personal and professional mission statement. Interestingly, QFT originates in the DCSF’s guide to personalised learning published in 2008 which identifies ‘an emphasis on learning through dialogue, with regular opportunities for pupils to talk both individually and in groups’ as a key characteristic. It is precisely because most teachers know this and regard it as principle that our reflex response is to defend something that we identify ourselves with by announcing, “I already do that”. Of course we want to say this. To say anything otherwise would be to disalign ourselves with a principle that sits at the core of our professional values and thus our identity.

What the report provides us with is the permission to re-calibrate what we do, in light of what works. In my own teaching of Philosophy (a subject you would expect might require a dialogic teacher) I have myself slipped into the IRF model time and time and again in my teaching. Despite this, I was the first person to proclaim the learning in my classroom was talk orientated. Until I filmed verbal exchanges, trained students in dialoguing skills and showed them how to measure linear exchanges vs dynamic dialogue for themselves, I was not myself consciously aware of my questioning enough to avoid my default teacher-learner-teacher response model. Now, having seen the evidence for myself, been presented with student findings and read the EEF report, it is beginning to slowly make its way to the forefront of my mind when I’m teaching.

Without quality CPD delivered using an evidence-based model that meets with the CPD standards, very few teachers have been given the chance to learn about, enact and evaluate dialogue-driven learning in their own context. But talking happens in their lesson so why wouldn’t they think they are ‘already doing it’? We must give staff the time needed to engage with the evidence around dialogic teaching and develop ways to implement and evaluate this method in their own classroom context. Revisiting their professional learning and receiving follow up stimulus and support over time is key. If we do this, we stand a better chance of avoiding a flash-in-the-pan attempt at generating dialogue before inevitably slipping back into our automated IRF model.


In all likeliness, if you’re reading this blog, you weren’t put off by the term ‘Dialogic Teaching’ anyway. But we all know colleagues in our schools who might be. If we unpick the term and take a look at the project in a little more detail, we can find ways to support teachers in adopting a more dialogic approach. We might even be able to nudge leaders in our schools to invest time and energy into exploring this approach on a whole school level, depending of course on individual school need.

To those colleagues who claim to already be doing Dialogic Teaching, we must have the professional will to point to the evidence based approach for structuring it and the personal humility to accept that the IRF is a teacher-learner response model that is a long held default position for most of us. Changing our behaviours in the classroom is one of the toughest nuts to crack what lies inside if we can manage it is a practical model for embedding a key principle into our daily practice: dynamic dialogue with pupils improves their learning skills as well as their outcomes.

Posted on 7 July 2017
Posted in: Blog


  1. Roger Pope
    July 9, 2017 at 7:47 am
    Good stuff - it's frightening how often we do not do the obvious.
  2. Clare Hill
    July 21, 2017 at 11:14 am
    Such valid points Lorwyn. My article in Mathematics Teaching this month demonstrates how large whiteboards can be used to develop a dialogic approach without substantial changes in teacher practice. I realise that the point is - teachers need to change their practice! - but this happens much more naturally through the use of the whiteboard and is a sustainable low cost approach to creating a dialogic learning environment. Article is open access and relevant to all subjects.

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