The project: Digitalised Dialogues Across the Curriculum (DiDiAC)
DiDiAC is an international research project that considers how a free, web-based micro-blogging tool (Talkwall, developed by the University of Oslo: talkwall.net) might mediate classroom dialogue. The project, which commenced in April 2016, is the result of a longstanding collaboration between research groups at the Department of Education, University of Oslo and the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, funded by the Research Council of Norway (FINNUT/Project No: 254761). The main aim of the project is to understand how students learn in contemporary digitalised schools and across three key knowledge domains – language, social science and natural science. Five secondary schools in Norway and two from the UK were involved with the first stage of the project. In the UK, one geography, science and English teacher was involved from each school. This article focuses on the preliminary findings from teacher-researcher analysis from one of the UK schools.
DiDiAC uses a research-based approach to technological and pedagogical development, with teachers working as co-researchers on the project. The research is underpinned by Vygotsky’s work, which recognises the place of language as a cultural tool for learning (Vygotsky , 1962) (Vygotsky , 1978). Specifically, DiDiAC aims to integrate the use of a micro-blogging tool and elements of the ‘Thinking Together’ approach (Mercer et al., 1999), which explores how dialogue can be used as a tool for learning and problem-solving.
A dialogic pedagogy is typified by extended student contributions and the co-construction of knowledge (Mercer et al., 2017), with students and teachers sharing and evaluating ideas, building ideas collectively, reasoning, providing justifications and elaborations, and using evidence to support arguments. Incorporating dialogue into classroom interactions has been shown to have positive effects on subject attainment outcomes (Jay et al., 2017) and can stimulate the development of key skills such as critical thinking (where there is a strong focus on the development of reasoning – (Kuhn , 2016)). In addition, there is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates how technology can enhance productive classroom dialogue in a number of ways (Major et al., 2018).
However, children need to be taught the necessary skills to talk in an educationally effective way, and Mercer (Mercer , 2000) has stressed the importance of establishing and respecting ‘ground rules’ for productive classroom talk. Establishing these ground rules collaboratively with students was an important first step in the research process in schools, and teachers and university researchers worked together in developing a common understanding of classroom dialogue, together with effective strategies for promoting it in the classroom.
Talkwall is specifically designed to engage students in collective classroom interaction. It aims to encourage genuine ‘thinking together’, as students are easily able to share, and build upon, each other’s ideas. Using Talkwall, a teacher formulates a question or a challenge, before students, usually following collaborative discussion in groups, post messages (via a computer or tablet, for example) to a shared ‘wall’ (typically on a large classroom screen). These messages can be interactively arranged in different ways. The use of hashtags and a short message format (a maximum of 140 characters) help to promote the identification of key concepts and the condensing of information.
Student ideas are immediately visible to all members of the class, which enables students to engage with, and build upon, ideas from others beyond their own group, whilst also allowing teachers to give immediate feedback on students’ responses. For further detailed information about how to use Talkwall, please visit digitaliseddialogues.co.uk.
How does Talkwall support classroom dialogue?
Technology has different functions and there are a range of possibilities for its use. The way these possibilities are realised depends, crucially, on the user’s perspective. For example, teachers with different pedagogic frames of reference will ‘see’ the possibilities of a tool for learning and teaching in very different ways.
Talkwall was designed specifically as a tool for use within the context of a dialogic pedagogy (though, as with any digital tool, any teacher may derive value from its use in the classroom). From the research lessons in the UK, two features that were constantly implicated in classroom dialogue were ‘browsing’ and the ability to reposition and edit posts. As students browse messages posted to the shared wall, they are able to bring other groups’ ideas into their discussions, thereby widening the learning community; usually, of course, a group working in a class is largely working in isolation from the ideas being generated by other groups in the same room. Ideas are also subject to change as discussions evolve. To this end, contributions can be edited so that their content can be changed, or their selection and position on the wall can be modified.
Preliminary findings from teacher-researchers
Boggis et al. (Boggis et al., 2018) identified their classes’ top six ground rules for talk, across their English, science and geography classrooms. These were:
- Show respect to everyone in the group by being mindful of body language, eye contact and tone of voice
- Listen to everyone’s point of view
- Strive to reach an agreement where possible but accept it is also fine to disagree
- Question others by asking ‘Why do you think that?’
- Explain your point of view by backing up your ideas with reasons
- Try to make the conversation flow by building on each other’s ideas.
They reported that the development and integration of ground rules for talk in the research classrooms also helped to instil ideas of respect and challenge into the students’ behaviour (Boggis et al., 2018). These are both fundamental to the development of a mutually supportive classroom environment (Barron , 2003) that underpins the successful implementation of a dialogic pedagogy.
These ground rules were also useful when formulating specific ‘dialogic intentions’, or ‘talk goals’, for each lesson. These dialogic intentions were specific learning intentions linked to talk for learning and they, either specifically or generally, reflected the agreed ground rules for talk. The teacher-researchers reported that having a detailed focus on learning intentions in their lesson planning helped them to focus on the dialogic element of the lesson. Having talk goals also helped students to improve their speaking skills (Boggis et al., 2018).
The teacher-researchers were asked to engage in an analysis of videos of their lessons, sharing what they regarded as ‘critical incidents’ (Angelides , 2001a), (Angelides , 2001b), with respect to the use of dialogue by their students, the use of Talkwall or a combination of both. This careful analysis of the learning going on in their classrooms was enhanced through discussion between teacher-researchers and university researchers in each school, enabling observations to be further explored, developed or challenged (Kleinknecht and Gröschner , 2016). Analysis of these sessions (the focus of an upcoming paper) highlighted how the dialogic use of Talkwall promoted the development of key skills within subject learning. Specifically, the teacher-researchers found that Talkwall led to:
- questioning and challenge between students
- tolerance and the acceptance of disagreement
- pride in presenting ideas, and immediacy of response to ideas as they appeared on the screen
- acceptance of making mistakes (their own and the mistakes of others)
- a safe environment in which to volunteer information which was particularly appreciated by the more timid students
- students feeling empowered – the immediacy of the results of their collaboration on the IWB led to some powerful closing the gap exercises and growth in confidence. (Boggis et al., 2018, p. 18)
Questioning and challenging are key aspects of critical thinking (Kuhn, 2016), whilst tolerance and the acceptance of disagreement are important aspects of effective communication skills. What these findings suggest, therefore, is that the dialogic use of Talkwall may promote the development of communication, critical thinking and collaboration within subject learning, helping students succeed both academically and in their lives beyond the school gates.