Letting go, shedding skins and teaching as trapeze….

One of the great privileges of my job is bearing witness to the process of ‘reconstruction’ that teachers experience as they transit to more inquiry-based practice.  Becoming an inquiry teacher can mean a significant degree of ‘unlearning’ as beliefs and roles are reconsidered and re-shaped.  In a series of conversations I held with groups of teachers last week,  I asked what they were noticing about themselves and how they were changing as they engaged in a year of learning about and through inquiry.  We discussed the struggles and the joys of working this way and the new questions and goals that were emerging.  Taking time to do this – to press the pause button,  look back over the year and identify new growth makes us better teachers, I am sure of it.

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Something to talk about: Dialogic teaching – putting classroom talk at the centre of inquiry

I am delighted to share this guest post from a long time colleague of mine - Julie Hamston. Julie and I have written a number of books and articles together over the years and I continue to learn a great deal from our conversations about inquiry, teaching and learning.  Julie's expertise is in the area of language - and, as you will see from this post, she is particularly fascinated in the role of talk in the inquiry classroom.  I have previously posted some thoughts on the language we use with students and am in no doubt that one of the most important things we can do for learners is to strengthen our understanding of and skill in managing dialogue to support their' thinking.  Talk is our central and perhaps most powerful  'tool of trade',  as Peter Johnson reminds us:  "Teachers' conversations with children help children build the bridges from action to consequence that develop their sense of agency" (Choice Words, 2004:30)  I know you will find Julie's post thought provoking - I hope it gives you something to talk (and wonder!) about at your next team or staff meeting. Effective teachers of inquiry operate with a finely tuned set of strategies to encourage students to make their thinking visible and to share their understandings with others.

Although these strategies have sharpened our attention on the relationship between language and thinking, I suggest they are limited unless we better understand the way that classroom talk is intimately connected with student learning. Deep and meaningful inquiry is dependent upon the linguistic leverage teachers provide to students through language that is modelled, generated, recycled, consolidated and stretched within the context of inquiry. The explicit pedagogic language of the teacher, consciously focused on deepening and expanding the linguistic content of student responses, combined with strategies for exploratory and collaborative talk, helps students develop the discourse practices (such as predicting, reasoning, explaining, justifying, interpreting, problem solving) fundamental to inquiry.

This view is not a new one. Classroom-based researchers from all over the world have demonstrated through close analysis of teacher-student talk and student-student talk that the quality of linguistic interaction and feedback in the classroom impacts on the quality of learning. That said, I strongly believe that more time and patience needs to be devoted to authentic dialogic interaction in inquiry classrooms and that teachers make a stronger investment in the language both they and the students produce.

This dialogic approach to teaching involves two integrated foci on language:

  • the language-specific routines that teachers draw upon within any inquiry focus: questioning; prompting; eliciting and cuing student responses; ‘pressing’ for more clearly articulated detail, information or explanation; repeating, reformulating and elaborating on student responses; and recapping what has been learnt.
  • the collective, purposeful, and reciprocal language exchanged between students and between students and the teacher.

When we think of inquiry-based learning and the emphasis placed on shared work, problem solving, making connections and thinking through complex issues, the importance of dialogic teaching is clear. Neil Mercer and others view talk as helping students do the hard work of learning. Dialogic inquiry involves students in seriously working with the ideas of others, considering and challenging evidence, worldviews and perspectives, and reaching logical conclusions.

My recent work on dialogic teaching

 Throughout 2014, I have been working with the Principal and staff of Meadows Primary School in Victoria, Australia to establish a whole school commitment to dialogic teaching, initially around inquiry-based learning. The student demographics at this school are shaped by generational poverty; household and neighbourhood disadvantage due to chronic unemployment and a high proportion of sole parents; significant ethnic diversity in the community, including Indigenous Australians and new and settled migrants for whom majority English is an additional language; as well as widespread first language ‘impoverishment.’

We were interested in the quality of teacher and student talk in the classroom. We wanted to see, more clearly, the ways in which teachers used language to scaffold thinking and learning, to build, deepen and extend their students’ language repertoire so they could make their reasoning ‘visible.’ I designed a program that combined professional learning on dialogic approaches in the classroom, analysis of classroom transcripts and videos, classroom observations, feedback and evaluation.

Teachers were also required to collect data of their own talk interactions with students and to analyse these in terms of the language techniques they were using (for example, did they reformulate students’ responses? Did they put a ‘press’ on students’ language? Did they cue students into possible answers?). In addition, they were encouraged to introduce exploratory talk techniques to their students (the Thinking Together project coordinated by Mercer and colleagues at the University of Cambridge formed the basis of this task https://thinkingtogether.educ.cam.ac.uk).

 Teacher volunteers were then invited to be involved in a pilot project involving the trial of dialogic approaches within the context of inquiry-based units of work. Two year levels responded: the Foundation Year (consisting of four teachers, led my me) and Years 3 and 4 (consisting of four teachers and facilitated by the school’s lead teacher, Adam).

photo 2.JPG

From: Tayla Cosaitis’ Year 3/4 class: Ground Rules for Talk.

The Foundation teachers, working with 5 year olds (Sarah Lynch; Laura Di Lizia; Stephanie Webster and Libby Morris) collaborated closely with me on building students’ capacity to share their thinking, using longer stretches of language incorporating reasoning words such as ‘because’ and ‘if.’ In consultation with the research literature, we designed language frames relevant to their students’ inquiries (“ I like your idea because…” ; “ I will build a …. because….”; “I will use… because….”).

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From: Laura Di Lizia’s Foundation class: Design, Creativity and Technology Unit – Building a House for Buddy Bear.

The teachers also ‘planned in’ their own and student language to their inquiry units, established ‘talk buddies’ for an initial foray into exploratory talk, and introduced students to the ground rules for active listening, talking and sharing with others.

The analysis of transcripts was central to the teachers’ professional learning. Examples such as this one were used to identify (i) the language repertoires used by each teacher and (ii) any growth in the students’ linguistic reasoning:

Teacher:          Sofia, can you tell me what you have used to make your couch? (Eliciting a response)

Sofia:               I have used material. We used cotton balls and we got the Buddy Bears to test them out on them… and we used cardboard and we used bubble wrap.

Teacher:          Great. You used lots of things. Can you tell me why? (Request for student to provide a reason). So can you say “I used cardboard and bubble wrap and material because… (Providing a language frame as support).

Sofia:               Bubble wrap.

Teacher:          Put it in a full sentence. “I used …” (Putting a ‘press’ on the student’s language in the hope for a more comprehensive and reasoned response).

Sofia:               We used materials because to make it comfy (sic). We used cotton balls to make it even more comfortable. We used cardboard to make it strong. We used bubble wrap to make it soft. We used glue to glue it together (Putting language and thinking together).

The explicit apprenticeship of students into the discourse practices of inquiry has been so positive that teachers report a shift in students’ capacity to use talk to provide evidence and justification, and to think through alternatives. Importantly, the teachers say they are more focused on their own language use. Great examples of this from the teachers in Foundation year include:

  • Reformulation of student responses (Did you mean…?)
  • Direct elicitations – (“Can somebody …? Who knows…?: “I want to know what you know about sketching.”)
  • Exhortations (“Who is thinking the same/different?”)
  • Repeating student responses to consolidate learning (“Well that’s a lot of information there. I’m going to break it down for everyone. Shreya said …. Shreya went on….. and explained more………………….)
  • Recaps to consolidate understanding (“OK, so we have used our observation frames to look at the weather…”)
  • Connecting feedback to inquiry (“Great thinking!; “I love the connection you just made.”)
  • Building on student responses (“I just want to bring it back to what Louie was saying.”)
  • Requests for reasoning (“You have to tell me why. Remember to make a prediction and tell me your reason.”)
  • Putting a ‘press’ on student language (“Can you put your answer in a full sentence?”; “Can you begin by saying ‘I think…”; “Remember our language frames: “I predict…because…”)

Work continues on dialogic teaching at Meadows Primary School in 2015 and 2016 – watch this space?


 Dr Julie Hamston is an education consultant and a Senior Fellow in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne, Australia. She can be contacted by email at: j.hamston@unimelb.edu.au

If you are interested…

Alexander, R. Dialogic teaching. Retrieved from http://www.robinalexander.org.uk/dialogic-teaching/

Dawes, L. (2008). (Chapter 2 ‘Talking Points’) The Essential Speaking and Listening: Talk for learning at Key Stage 2. Retrieved from https://thinkingtogether.educ.cam.ac.uk/resources/About_Talking_Points.pdf

Hamston, J. (2006). Bakhtin’s theory of dialogue: a construct for pedagogy, methodology and analysis. The Australian Educational Researcher, 33, 1, 55-74.

Haneda, M. W., G. (2010). Learning science through dialogic inquiry: Is it beneficial for English-as- additional-language students? International Journal of Educational Research, 49, 10-21.

Haneda, M. W., G. (2008). Learning an additional language through dialogic inquiry. Language and Education, 22, 2, 114-136.

Mercer, N. (2008). Talk and the Development of Reasoning and Understanding. Human Development, 51, 90-100.

Mercer, N. D., L. (2010). Making the most of talk: Dialogue in the classroom. EnglishDramaMedia, 19-25.

Taggart, G., Ridley, K., Rudd, P. & Benefield, P. (2005). Thinking Skills in the Early Years: A literature review. Retrieved from http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/73999/1/Thinking_skills_in_early_years.pdf

Zhang, J. D. S., K.A. Collaborative reasoning: Language-rich discussions for English learners. The Reading Teacher, 65, 4, 257-260.


What teachers say about being inquirers.

Last week, I was fortunate to spend some time in a school with which I have had an ongoing partnership for a few years now. - Macquarie primary School in Canberra, Australia.  As their work on developing approaches to inquiry in the classroom grows, there is a simultaneous interest in the ways in which inquiry can drive teacher learning.  Schools as ‘communities of inquiry’ is not a new concept – but can be a challenging one to put into practice. This school has taken the bold step of appointing a teacher with expertise in higher degree research to act as a mentor teachers who are each engaged in an inquiry project of their choice. Like a growing number of schools, Macquarie is recognizing that in order for teachers to fully bring this ethos to their work with children – they need to see themselves as inquirers. Each teacher has selected an issue, problem or challenge to inquire into. The foci for their projects is, in most cases, is directly relevant to an identified area of need for their students as well as being something that they have a personal interest in as an educator. In many ways, these professional inquiries mirror the work we do with personalized inquiry for students such as ‘itime’ or ‘passion projects’ where we invite students to pursue questions of personal significance to them.  During my meetings with teachers, I asked them to reflect on how deep involvement in an inquiry project was influencing their thinking about the way they work with inquiry in the classroom. Their reflections were honest and insightful. In this post, I am sharing some of these reflections- and the potential implications for how we engaging students in quality inquiry. I am so grateful to the great staff of Macquarie for allowing me to share in their journey and their permission to include their thoughts in this post.

What teachers said about being inquirers What that got us thinking about how we work with kids
“It’s taking me longer than I thought it would.   I need time.” We need to provide kids with ample time for their inquiries. Let’s acknowledge that it DOES take more time to work this way and stop cluttering the path with too many 'activities'.
“I am passionate about this- so I am into it.   I am so glad I didn't get told what I HAD to inquire into.” Choice and voice are essential for motivation.   Being given an opportunity to investigate things that are important to us is a powerful motivator – this kind of interest-based inquiry must be part of the landscape in our classrooms
“It’s been so frustrating because I can’t find much information on this. Only really academic articles that make my eyes glaze over…" When kids can't access or understand the information they are gathering, motivation decreases and engagement is lost. We need to support students in finding relevant and accessible information. Frustration and confusion is inevitable, but if it goes on for too long it is counter-productive.
“At first felt like I lacked the skills to do this. I really needed our mentor to help me narrow my focus/use the right search tools and get me on track. Having those 1-1 conversations has been really helpful.” The teacher’s role is essential. This role is a skills and process-based one. We need to offer our learners explicit instruction on HOW to inquire – and this ideally comes at the point of need. Teachers can’t always be across the content of all students’ inquiries – but they help provide the tools and processes, feedback and questions that help maintain momentum. Time for students to meet and discuss their inquiries is so important.
“I’ve changed my mind three times – but I am on track now. Once I started, I realized I was less interested in that than this! I basically had to start again but I know what I am doing now.” We need to allow kids to change their minds!     As we confer with students we should be asking – “how are you feeling about what you are doing?” We should consider giving them permission to change track if they can justify why. It’s what researchers do.
“Well…I feel like I’m not doing this properly. I am not really researching because I am basically just trying stuff out with my kids and reflecting on it.” Kids often have a misconception about the term ‘research’ too! For many students, research is something you do when you ‘Google it’ or use a book.   In fact, we can research by DOING, experimenting, observing, interviewing, viewing….we need to keep the concept of research broader and value a range of methodologies.
“It was suggested that I  present this at a conference. It freaked me out! I thought, If I have to stand up at a conference and talk about this – I DON’T want to continue!”            AndIt's so exciting because, I was told that I could share this at a conference which is a great opportunity!” Do we stifle enthusiasm for investigation when we insist on public sharing of learning? For some children, I have no doubt that we do. Conversely, others will be highly motivated by the opportunity to bring their learning to a wider audience. Again – choice and diversity are the keys.
“I have made a start but I don’t think I really know what my question is yet.” It has been common practice to ask students to begin to design an inquiry by framing a question. Some inquiries, however, require exploration before we can figure out what it is we need to ask.   Do we model this to students?   Even when we use an inquiry cycle … we need to show students that starting points will vary according to context and prior learning.
 “It feels a bit all over the place. I am doing bits and pieces but I think that’s OK –I think it will come together. I'm finding out some fascinating things.” Inquiry is often messy. We need to acknowledge this as we engage in both guided and more open inquiry with students. While the process should be made explicit, we must show should the recursive nature of that process. Presenting the journey as a strictly linear one (e.g. “the scientific process’) can be misleading and unhelpful.
“I am working on something I am very passionate about – but it actually makes me feel quite vulnerable. What if people don’t care about it like I do? What if others think I’ve chosen something silly? What if I find I am questioned or challenged about it? How will I cope with that?” 





We can learn so much about inquiry by being inquirers ourselves. How often do we stop to reflect on our own experience of this process - both formal and informal?  And what connections do we make between our learning and our students' learning...?

Just wondering....


This beautifully honest comment made us all think about the flip side of allowing students to pursue their passions in the very public and collaborative context of a classroom. We need to remember that our passions often form part of our identity…they matter to us. Some students may choose to investigate things we deem less important or less worthy than others – but they matter to THEM. Permission to explore passions needs to be given alongside a commitment to respect and support the individual’s interests. Questioning needs to happen from a disposition of genuine curiosity rather than skepticism or judgment.