Dialogic Methods in the Classroom


This is the first post of a series on Progressive Pedagogy in which I very briefly summarize a pedagogical theory and offer an exercise (or two) that you can use in a classroom to put that theory into practice. View the original post, published on February 18, 2019 on HASTAC.org.

Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) advocates for a dialogue method in teaching. Ira Shor summarizes Freirean dialogue teaching as a way to reduce student withdrawal and too much “teacher-talk” in the classroom: “A dialogic class begins with problem-posing discussion and sends powerful signals to students that their participation is expected and needed” (Shor 23). There are many different ways of carrying out a dialogic class.

You might move desks in a classroom into a circle or semi-circle and sit at eye-level to engage in conversation more democratically. By working through problems together, students learn through dialogue how to engage in the critical methods of a discipline.

However, this formation can intimidate shy and introverted students less enthusiastic about speaking while every person in the room watches them. Also, it can quickly replicate the same hierarchies of a traditional classroom when individual students direct their answers at the instructor and don’t engage with the peers sitting next to them.

That is why I like using dialogic activities that involve pairs of students. Pairs are less intimidating than small or large groups, and they don’t leave room for students to hide, either. Here are two models you might use in your classroom.

Think-Pair-Share (TPS)

Hand out small pieces of paper or flashcards and give students a question to respond to. For example, “What’s one question you have about the homework?” or “What’s one thing from the homework you would like to discuss in class today?” or “What’s one thing not covered in the homework or that we haven’t talked about enough yet that we should talk about today?” Give students 90 second to write down their responses.

After time is up, divide into pairs and share with a partner what you wrote down. Allow 90 seconds for this paired time (and you might remind partners to switch around the 45 second mark).

Finally, come together as a class and ask each group to share what they talked about. This works really well in classrooms of 30 or fewer students. In a classroom of more than 30 students, you might randomly call on pairs or ask for volunteers willing to share with the class.

I often write their ideas on the board while students share or ask for a volunteer note-taker to keep track of the conversation that follows. If questions are posed to the class (or to me), I try to answer them or direct the class conversation to those topics to make sure we address them together. At the end of class, I collect the cards and read through them, sometimes responding in-line to things we didn’t get to in class. I hand them back on the next day or toward the end of the semester in a bundle (I do Think-Pair-Share in almost every class).

Adapting TPS for an Online or Hybrid Course

One way to do TPS with students online would be to assign pairs in advance (if the class size is small), give students time and instructions to set up a chat channel with their partners, either using Google chat or Slack (Slack is great for teaching online), and then use a community platform for class-wide sharing and commenting (e.g., Blackboard or Slack).

One way to adapt TPS for a larger class is to ask students to post tweets individually using a class hashtag. You might do something like require each student to respond to one tweet from their peers, and to like the top three tweets about topics they want to discuss the most. Then when you search for the class hashtag and organize by “Top” tweets (instead of “Latest”), Twitter will automatically put the most popular tweets at the top of the feed. Start at the top and work your way down.

For example, ask students to tweet a question about the homework, and then like their favorite three questions posted by their peers. Students will like the questions they want to discuss most, and by looking at “Top” tweets with the class hashtag, you can address the most pressing questions first (each like is similar to a vote, then questions are addressed in order of student-determined priority).

Listening Dyad

A Listening Dyad activity is a dialogic method I learned about from my colleague, Frances Tran. First, pair up, then give pairs something to talk about, either related to the course content or anything at all that seems reasonable to talk about for one minute. For example, “Talk about how you got your name, or what your name means (in general and/or to you personally).”

The first person to go talks for one minute about the topic while the second one listens without interruption (not even to ask a question). The person speaking learns how long a minute feels, becomes aware of how much time talking about oneself takes up, and must talk the whole time. The person listening practices good, engaged listening without interruption.

After one minute is up, pairs switch roles. The person who talked for a minute now listens for a minute without interrupting. The person who listened for a minute now talks for a minute, no more and no less.

In this activity, everyone gets time for speaking and being heard as well as time to practice good listening skills. This activity demands 100% participation from everyone in the room and it also bolsters trust and a sense of community. I highly recommend participating in the activity with students and practicing listening as well as speaking with them. Listening Dyads increase one’s sense of how much time one takes up while speaking, they require you to value the time others give you, and they give everyone a chance to practice the fundamental skills needed for a healthy dialogue.

After the Listening Dyad, volunteers may share what they talked about but only with permission from their partner in the activity. It is understood that what is shared in pairs is confidential until permission to share is granted.

All in all, a Listening Dyad or Think-Pair-Share takes as little as 3-5 minutes to do in a class of any size, and the conversation following the activity can go as short or long as you want it to. The bottom line is that students (and you!) engage in dialogue for at least a small part of class time, and hopefully for much longer than 3-5 minutes.

These activities are especially helpful warm ups for class-wide discussion, and they offer groggy students at 8am some dialogic caffeine early in the morning. The example questions above are just suggestions to get you thinking. You can try questions tailored more specifically to your course material as long as they seem reasonable to answer in 90 seconds or less.

Read the next post in this series.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Seabury, 1970.
Ira Shor, “Educating the Educators: A Freirean Approach to the Crisis in Teacher Education,” Freire for the Classroom: A Sourcebook for Liberatory Teaching, edited by Ira Shor. Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1987, pp. 7-32.

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