Scaffolded dialogue [is] achieving common understanding through structured and sequenced questioning, and through ‘joint activity and shared conceptions,’ which guide, prompt, reduce choices and expedite ‘handover’ of concepts and principles.
Citing Bakhtin, he draws a distinction between dialogue and conversation, arguing that dialogue possesses a greater degree of structure, and is differentiated from conversation by the purposeful use of questioning in the pursuit of enquiry. Despite the ubiquity of transmission styles of teaching demonstrated by the study, he argues that macro-sociological theory tends to underestimate the potential autonomy of teachers to reshape classroom discourse along dialogic lines. For Alexander, such dialogic discourse is the main method for fostering a ‘pedagogy of mutuality’, which treats students not as empty vessels to be filled with received wisdom by the teacher, but as competent thinkers in their own right.
The concept of scaffolded dialogue adumbrated in Culture and Pedagogy is developed in a later booklet which elaborates a model of ‘dialogic teaching’ (Alexander, 2004). Alexander describes the principles of this approach as teaching which is: collective; reciprocal; supportive; cumulative; and purposeful (p. 29). He goes on to specify a lengthy list of indicators which can be used to identify dialogic teaching in the classroom (pp. 31-34). The first 14 of these refer to contextual conditions rather than to characteristics of the discourse per se (e.g. lesson transitions are managed economically). The remaining 47 indicators relate to more concrete properties of classroom interaction, and are grouped under seven headings: teacher-pupil interaction; pupil-pupil interaction; teacher-pupil monitoring; teacher questioning; pupil responses to questioning; teacher feedback on responses; and the functions served by pupil talk. For example, Alexander suggests that dialogic teaching is indicated by teacher-pupil interaction in which turns are managed by shared routines rather than through competitive bidding. In the final section of the booklet, he summarises the interim findings from development projects aimed at promoting the use of a dialogic style of teaching in two Local Education Authorities in England. The findings indicate that shifts in the prevailing styles of interaction had taken place in some classrooms, and there was evidence of improvements in oracy among students. In particular, where these shifts had taken place, the classroom climate had become more inclusive, as the changed dynamics of teacher-student interaction furnished greater opportunities for less able students to participate competently in lesson activities. Against these positive outcomes, the projects also demonstrated the ‘staying power’ of recitation as the default mode of pedagogy, as there were many classrooms where little or no change in the conduct of discourse had taken place.
One of the most significant insights to emerge from Alexander’s work is that the kind of communicative competence which students are required to display in the classroom is culturally specific, since different norms of interaction are valued in different countries. For example, his analysis shows that in Russia and France it is more common for one student to participate on behalf of the class in a conceptually complete cycle of exchanges with the teacher, whereas in England and the United States whole class discussion tends to be managed by students bidding competitively for each turn, with the teacher rotating turns by nominating the next speaker, each successive response slot typically being allocated to a different student. For Alexander, these differences in the management of classroom discourse are linked with different cultural traditions in the philosophy of pedagogy: a central European tradition of collectivist pedagogy, on the one hand, which encourages a convergence of learning outcomes whereby the whole class moves forward together; and, on the other hand, an Anglo-American tradition which treats the class as an aggregate of individuals, and fosters a divergence of learning outcomes within the group. These observations lead him to make a welcome critique of the concept of ‘interactive whole class teaching’, which was heavily promoted in government policy in the UK in the 1990s, for its failure to distinguish between the cognitive pace of teaching and the pace of interaction exchange. Quick-fire questioning around the class may appear to lend pace to a lesson, but since it typically elicits a sequence of short, undeveloped responses from students, it may do little to extend their thinking. Alexander commends instead the development of discourse strategies aimed at encouraging students to ‘think aloud’ and develop their ideas at greater length, for example by the teacher pitching a question at a particular, named individual (managing turn-taking by nomination without competitive bidding), and the use of follow-up questions directed at the same student (extending the teacher-student exchange on a given topic rather than rotating successive turns around the class). He emphasises that speech should not be seen as an inferior, less developed form of language use than writing, but that the development of oracy is an important goal of education in its own right, and that increased competence in oracy accompanies and contributes to the development of competence in literacy rather than being in competition with it.
The trans-national scope of Alexander’s study enables him to compare the norms which govern teaching in different countries. This comparative approach is helpful in defamiliarising the taken-for-granted rules and rituals of classroom life in the national contexts which classroom discourse research has most often examined (England and the United States). This draws attention to the fact that teacher-led, whole-class discussion can be managed in ways which depart from the characteristic ‘recitation script’ which studies have found to be prevalent in these countries (for example by the teacher directing a sequence of questions towards one student rather than rotating successive turns around the class). By analysing several examples of classroom discourse from different schools within the same country, he also warns us against the risk of stereotyping national pedagogical traditions by portraying them as monolithic – he finds considerable variation at work in US primary school practice, for instance. Finally, he locates extracts of discourse within summaries of the whole lesson from which they are taken, reminding us of the importance of sequential context for understanding the educational import of a particular exchange. Granted the international significance of his study, however, some questions remain to be resolved by future enquiry in this area.
First, the elaborate typology of learning discourse proposed in Culture and Pedagogy masks the central fact that interrogatory, whole-class direct instruction is ‘probably the dominant teaching method internationally,’ according to Alexander’s own findings (Alexander, 2000, p. 516). In multiplying the dimensions along which the theoretically possible permutations of classroom discourse can be categorised, there is a danger that we lose sight of the wood for the trees: on the evidence of a series of independent studies, teacher-led recitation is the preferred mode of classroom interaction, at least in England and the United States, and moments of dialogic exchange are rare (Applebee, Langer, Nystrand, & Gamoran, 2003; Mroz, Smith, & Hardman, 2000; Skidmore, Perez-Parent, & Arnfield, 2003). This interpretation is confirmed by Alexander’s later work on dialogic teaching, which leads him to remark on ‘the sheer staying power of recitation as the default mode of British and American pedagogy’ (Alexander, 2004, p. 47). There seems to be a tension between this conclusion and the sanguineness of his earlier affirmation of teachers’ ability to ‘interpose their own “critical pedagogies” between the child and the transmission pedagogy of the state’ (Alexander, 2000, p. 553). Again, we are brought back to the question of why recitational approaches remain so prevalent, in spite of evidence that more dialogic modes of managing classroom discourse help students learn better. Here, we think Alexander’s model of dialogic teaching runs into limits imposed by its own empiricist foundations. The list of 47 indicators set out in Towards Dialogic Teaching seems too complicated to be useful as a tool for teachers to monitor their real-time decision-making in the classroom, and there is a risk that the quest for an exhaustive catalogue of the measurable properties of dialogic teaching will mirror the fetish for arbitrary checklists of factors produced by the tradition of school effectiveness research in the 1980s and 1990s.
Secondly, the feasibility of some of Alexander’s preferred discourse strategies is surely affected by features of school organisation which lie beyond the control of the individual teacher. For example, in the primary schools in which his research was conducted, the teacher normally remains with the same class for all or most of their lessons over the course of a school day (and year). However, in secondary schools, one teacher is typically responsible for teaching many different classes, and during the day classes move from teacher to teacher for lessons of a determinate, relatively short period defined by the school timetable; it would not be unusual for a teacher of English in a UK secondary school to see 250 students in a week. This means that the task of pitching a question to an individual student places considerably greater demands on the teacher under the normal conditions of secondary schooling than in primary schools. We would suggest that those who advocate a shift to more dialogic modes of classroom interaction should not under-estimate the powerful constraints placed on possible forms of practice by the structural conditions of schooling and by state education policy, of which the use of educational assessment as a political weapon to stigmatise schools serving disadvantaged catchment areas is one of the most insidious forms. The struggle for a dialogical pedagogy is not reducible to a formulaic set of techniques; rather, it is concerned with the quality of the human relationship established between a teacher and his or her students, and the limits placed on this by prevailing social circumstances.