In Dialogic Inquiry, Wells (Wells, 1999) draws on the twin sources of Leont’ev’s activity theory and Halliday’s systemic functional linguistics to formulate the concept of dialogic enquiry, in which knowledge is co-constructed by teacher and students as they engage in joint activities. Bringing together insights from the two theoretical traditions, he offers the following definition of discourse (p. 174):
the collaborative behaviour of two or more participants as they use the meaning potential of a shared language to mediate the establishment and achievement of their goals in social action.
He illustrates what the practice of dialogic enquiry might look like by a detailed examination of transcripts of classroom discourse, chiefly discussions between the teacher and small groups of students, recorded in Canadian primary school classrooms. Discussing the relationship between discourse and the development of knowledge in schools, he posits the idea that classes of students can form ‘communities of enquiry’, in which the dialogic nature of discourse is exploited to enable knowledge to be co-constructed. Through discussion, ideas can be refined and clarified, in a process which Bereiter calls ‘progressive discourse’, in which contributions refer to and build upon what has gone before (by agreeing, disagreeing, adding, qualifying etc.), thus enabling an advance in the collective understanding of the topic in question. From this point of view, schooling can be seen as a ‘semiotic apprenticeship’ (p. 137), in which students gradually appropriate the technical register of, for example, science, by trying out new concepts and vocabulary in the course of discussion. Wells puts forward a model of an enquiry-oriented curriculum, in which a class theme is selected by the teacher, such as ‘energy’ within the science curriculum (though the choice of theme may also be constrained by external mandates e.g. government policy prescriptions). Within this broad theme, in Wells’s model groups of students have considerable latitude to choose their own specific topics and methods of enquiry, in negotiation with the teacher. The relationship thus constructed between teacher and students is dialogic, but is ‘not a dialogue between equals’ (p. 242): in the advance planning of classroom activity, the teacher retains leadership responsibility for selecting themes and associated activities; but once student investigation is under way, the teacher adopts a more responsive and consultative role, in which his/her interventions are contingent upon student progress.
One particular contribution that Wells makes in this book is his re-evaluation of the IRF (Initiation-Response-Feedback) sequence, a characteristic structure of classroom discourse which previous research has often criticised (p. 167 ff.). In an analysis of a series of episodes from a science investigation, he argues that this exchange structure can be put to different uses. As much previous research has documented, the follow-up (F) move is often used to provide an immediate evaluation of the student’s response (e.g. ‘Correct!’), producing a pattern of teacher-led recitation which tends to reinforce the teacher’s authority as the transmitter of received wisdom and severely restricts the possibilities open to students to contribute thoughtfully to classroom talk. However, Wells shows that the teacher’s follow-up move can also be used to clarify, exemplify, expand, explain, or justify a student’s response; or to request the student to do any of these things. When this kind of exchange is found in classroom discourse, therefore, it may indeed result in a quiz which requires students to do little more than display their recall of knowledge got by rote; but it can also be used by the teacher to help students plan ahead for a task they are about to carry out, or to review and generalise lessons learnt from tasks they have already performed. Wells’s point is that, within limits, teachers have the discretion to choose between alternative modes of interaction which affect the climate of learning in the classroom, for example by adopting a style of speaking which minimises or maximises the social distance between participants.
Wells’s account of the concept of dialogic enquiry is both theoretically sophisticated and informed by evidence of possible forms of pedagogic practice gathered under naturalistic classroom conditions. His work undoubtedly helps to advance thinking beyond the sterile dichotomy between ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ concepts of education which has bedevilled much of the debate in this area. His model of an enquiry-oriented curriculum provides a welcome alternative to the rigidity of the centrally-prescribed, content-based model which has dominated government policy-making in the UK since the 1988 Education Act. Whilst his nuanced analysis of examples of classroom discourse sets the standard for work in this field, however, the theoretical position he sets forth in this book raises certain questions which merit further exploration.
For example, we would ask whether, in his concern to rehabilitate the IRF sequence, Wells has not been led to exaggerate the centrality of teacher-led discourse and to underestimate the educative potential of student-student talk. He argues that the IRF sequence can be seen as ‘the prototypical action structure for the achievement of the overarching goals of education’ (p. 206). Yet, much of the early work on classroom discourse was concerned to show how structured group work could provide a site for exploratory dialogue betweenstudents(Barnes, 1976); sometimes this tentative, probing sharing of ideas was better facilitated by the absence of the teacher than by their presence. If this is so, it seems paradoxical to suggest that an enquiry-oriented curriculum should rely on the IRF sequence to the exclusion of talk between students which is unmediated by the teacher. A more balanced conclusion would view triadic dialogue led by the teacher as one moment in a dialectical process of enquiry, which may shift at different times along a continuum between the poles of teacher direction and student self-activity depending on the degree of understanding and competence evinced by student performance.
Secondly, we might ask how far the concept of enquiry developed by Wells is appropriate to other areas of the curriculum which do not share the same epistemic base as the natural sciences (e.g. the language arts and humanities subjects). A key characteristic of Bereiter’s notion of progressive discourse, as Wells notes, is that it is concerned with ‘expanding the body of collectively valid propositions’ (p. 112). At this point, the theory of dialogic enquiry seems limited by being based on a science-led model of the curriculum. If we consider the case of creative writing in first language teaching, for example, then this seems to share the exploratory character of enquiry-based activities in the sciences, but not to be geared towards producing a set of verifiable hypotheses as its outcome. We would argue that we need to expand the concept of enquiry to include areas of learning like these, in which student development is better seen in terms of increased confidence in handling a repertoire of expressive genres. The texts students produce in creative writing can certainly be treated as ‘improvable objects’ in the same fashion as, say, the report of a science investigation, but there are other kinds of understanding which education aims to develop besides the scientific, such as the affective understanding of social experience. Discussion and revision of student work in this context may be progressive in the sense of achieving an enhanced collective understanding of the topic being explored, even though this knowledge may not be expressible in terms of ‘valid propositions’.
In Culture and Pedagogy, Alexander (Alexander, 2000) presents and interprets evidence from a large-scale comparative study of primary school teaching in five countries (India, Russia, France, England and the United States). The project sought to explore how national cultural traditions influenced the processes and practices of teaching at the classroom level. The analytical core of the book lies in a discussion of 17 transcripts of extracts of lessons from different schools in the various countries. On the basis of this analysis, Alexander sets forth a typology of classroom discourse, distinguished along the dimensions of: classroom organisation (whole class, group, individual); pedagogic mode (direct instruction, discussion, monitoring); pedagogic function (rote learning, instruction, scaffolding, assessment, information sharing, problem solving, scaffolding, supervision); and discourse form (interrogatory, expository, evaluative, dialogic). The evidence of the study suggested that interrogatory whole class direct instruction is ‘probably the dominant teaching method internationally’ (p. 516). However, there are moments in the data where the talk takes a different form and the teacher treats the students as fellow discussants, striking a ‘less unequal’ relationship between them for the time being. In a formulation indebted to the theoretical work of Bruner, Alexander proposes the following definition of ‘scaffolded dialogue’ (p. 527):