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Classroom Dialogue

Children with adult in class

Does it really make a difference for student learning?

Project Introduction Ever since Plato’s analysis of Socratic dialogue, the forms of talk that occur in classrooms have been spotlighted as critical for teaching and learning. How should teachers talk to their class, and how much should they do this? How much should children participate in classroom interaction, and what form should their participation take? How much should children respond to teachers or discuss ideas amongst themselves?

Over the years, theories have been proposed that seek to answer these questions, yet hard evidence remains elusive. Our project is attempting to provide this evidence. Our analyses will assess whether there is a positive relationship between patterns of classroom dialogue and student learning, reasoning and attitudes to school. Moreover if there is, we ask whether its magnitude is sufficient to carry significant implications for policy and professional development.

Project Methods Successive lessons are being video-recorded in Year 6 classrooms (students aged 10 to 11 years), with literacy, mathematics and science all covered. Recordings were made in 27 classrooms during 2015-2016, and when data collection is complete about double that number will have been recorded during 2016-2017. All classrooms are located in England, but cover a broad spectrum (e.g. urban vs. rural, north vs. south, low vs. high minority ethnic, low vs. high social deprivation).

Recordings are being coded using a scheme adapted from the Cam-UNAM Scheme for Educational Dialogue Analysis (SEDA), which was developed as part of a Faculty collaboration with Mexican colleagues. Our scheme involves coding each speaker turn to represent the detail, and rating whole lessons to represent the broader picture. Coding categories and rating scales reflect theories of what constitutes good dialogic practice, so jointly they allow recordings to be graded for approximation to theorized ideals. The focus is upon dialogue where teachers are involved (albeit with whole classes, small groups and individual students), but group work that is limited to students is also sampled.

Data obtained in 2015-2016 indicate considerable variation across classrooms over key features of dialogue. To assess the implications, variation will be related to student outcome measures, with around 2000 students providing data. The measures address: 1) curriculum mastery in English and mathematics (scores on statutory Standardized Achievement Tests -SATs) and in science (scores on a specially designed test of conceptual and procedural knowledge); 2) verbal reasoning (scores on a specially designed test that taps the ability, e.g., to differentiate facts from opinions and reasons from conclusions, to draw inferences, and to compare and evaluate reasons); 3) attitudes to schooling and self as learner (scores on the standardized Pupil Attitudes to Self and School scale - PASS).

To interpret dialogue-outcome relations, we shall need to consider other factors that are related to student outcomes. We have identified over 30 such factors, and we are assessing them using questionnaire and observational data. They include student prior attainment, socio-economic status, mastery of English, parental involvement, school mobility, and initial attitudes and engagement, and teacher approaches to homework, testing, feedback, lesson structure, technological aids, behaviour management, and group work.

Overall, our project will make a unique contribution to the field through offering a systematic, large-scale analysis of the relationship of classroom dialogue across core subjects with student learning and attitudinal outcomes and through informing researchers and practitioners about which dialogic moves are the strongest predictors of growth. A series of professional development workshops is planned for the participating teachers after the analysis phase in order to disseminate the findings in a concrete way as regards classroom practice.

Principal Investigator
Professor Christine Howe
Dr Sara Hennessy
Professor Neil Mercer
Research Associates
 Dr Maria Vrikki  Dr Lisa Wheatley

ESRC Research Grant no. ES/M007103/1