DIALOGIC INSTRUCTION is premised on a view of instruction not as what teachers provide or do to students but rather as what teachers and students collaboratively negotiate. High quality classroom discourse is characterized by substantive reciprocity between teachers and their students. In such instruction, students and not just teachers have a lot of input into the business of the classroom and hence what is learned. Our companion computer program, CLASS, provides a number of measures designed to assess the quality of interaction between teachers and their students.
In other words, dialogic instruction is talking to learn, in the words of James Britton, "A struggle to organize . . . thoughts and feelings, to come up with words that . . . shape an understanding." According to Martin Nystrand, dialogic instruction is "about figuring things out—in class, face-to-face, teacher and students together" (Martin Nystrand, Opening Dialogue, p. 2)
In dialogically organized instruction, teachers engage their students in probing and substantive interactions, and the talk is more like conversation or discussion than recitation (Nystrand & Gamoran, 1991a, 1991b). In these classrooms, teachers validate particular student ideas by incorporating their responses into subsequent questions, a process Collins (1982) calls "uptake." In the give and take of such talk, student responses and not just teacher questions shape the course of talk. The discourse in these classrooms is therefore less predictable and repeatable because it is "negotiated" and jointly determined—in character, scope, and direction—by both teachers and students as teachers pick up on, elaborate, and question what students say (Nystrand, 1990a, 1991a). Such interactions are often characterized by "authentic" questions, which are questions asked to get information, not to see what students know and don't know; i.e., authentic questions are questions without "prespecified" answers (Nystrand & Gamoran, 1991a). These questions convey the teacher's interest in students' opinions and thoughts. Hence, in contrast to the "test questions" of recitation, they indicate the priority the teacher places on thinking and not just remembering. These "instructional conversations," as Tharp & Gallimore (1988) call them, or "substantive conversations," as Newmann (1991) calls them, engage students because they validate the importance of students' contributions to learning and instruction. The purpose of such instruction is not so much the transmission of information as the interpretation and collaborative co-construction of understandings. In this kind of classroom talk, teachers take their students seriously (Gamoran & Nystrand, 1992).
Our project builds on 20 years of research by Martin Nystrand in collaboration with former WCER Director and sociology professor Adam Gamoran examining the role played by classroom discourse in student achievement in reading and literature. We know from this work that student learning is nurtured by open-ended discussion, open-ended teacher questions, and follow up teacher questions. Indeed our work was the first large-scale empirical study to show that open-ended discussion actually improves student learning in English.
This work is known in the literature as dialogic pedagogy with foundations in the work of Mikhail Bakhtin and Valentin Voloshivov. Nystrand's own foundational research will be found in The Structure of Written Communication: Studies in Reciprocity Between writers and Readers (Academic Press, 1986) and Opening Dialogue: Understanding the Dynamics of Language and Learning in the English Classroom (Teachers College Press, 1997; and now being translated into Korean).
Our method of analysis is multiple regression where the dependent variable is growth in achievement. Because measures of achievement are affected by more than test performance, especially including background and sociological and demographic variables such as initial achievement, race, and ethnicity, we collect these data to improve the precision of our measures. Our multiple regressions proceed testing our various measures in batches. We begin by running analyses of the effects of the sociological and demographic variables, which typically find negative effects for race and ethnicity. We then rerun our regressions adding in our classroom discourse variables. Such analyses have revealed (a) positive effects for time spent in discussion and numbers of open-ended questions an follow up questions and (b) the ameliorating effects of the classroom discourse variables on the background variables. In other words, we understand not only what kinds on instruction affect achievement growth in English Language Arts but also what teachers can do to improve their teaching.
Our current research now seeks to automate CLASS, which is the program we use to collect and code classroom discourse. If successful, our work will allow for "do-it-yourself" professional development providing expert inexpensive (and private) profiles of teaching practices.