Why is Classroom Dialogue so Important? Constructivism and Knowledge Mastery

  • Knowledge – understanding information and experience in order to act upon it.
    (know what, know who, know how)
  • Mastery – the journey from apprentice to disciplined sense-maker and knowledge catalyst.
    (masters do not need to be managed)

There is no doubt that the impact of classroom dialogue has propelled its way to the forefront of modern teaching discussions. From my recent posts, it may be evident to you that I am an advocate of the dialogic classroom and regularly apply teaching approaches such as coaching and Harkness in my practice; classroom activities that utilise exploratory and discriminatory talk for effective learning, teaching and feedback.

What is sometimes overlooked is the limitless amount of articles and research that provides evidence to support why classroom dialogue is vital in assisting pupils’ learning and how constructivist approaches to teaching can result in greater knowledge – not simply knowledge transference, but knowledge mastery.


What is knowledge?

The most philosophically accepted definition of knowledge is if a person (P) knows something (X) then:

  • P believes X to be true.
  • X is true
  • P is justified in believing X is true.

It’s a little vague but for nearly two hundred years this definition was accepted as fact. That is, of course, until it was debunked by ‘epistemology loathing’ pupil Edmund Gettier in his short two-page paper simply titled: Is Justified True Belief Knowledge? Moreover, he discredited this definition of knowledge using an example of an irrational farmer that decided to dress his dog up as a sheep… I won’t go into it, but you’re welcome to further explore here.


What came from Gettier is this: knowledge cannot be defined this way. Having knowledge cannot simply be ‘knowing something that is justified as true’ and we should understand this as educators for we are aware that our teaching goes beyond simply encouraging pupils to regurgitate information but focuses on them being able to apply and transfer it across a variety of contexts.

 If knowledge cannot be solely defined as the transference of fact from teacher to pupil then our methodologies must also reflect this.


Classroom Approaches for Knowledge Transference

 Our most common approach to classroom practice heavily favours the definition that Knowledge is simply the transference of a concept or fact from Teacher to Student. Keith S. Taber conceptualises this far more effectively than I could explain in his paper Constructivism as Educational Theory (2011): 


In this view, when knowledge is transferred from the teacher successfully then a student has knowledge. Right? Not always. Robin Alexander (2008) asserts:

 Where talk is essentially one-sided and cognitively unchallenging are threefold: firstly, children may not learn as effectively as supposed; secondly, children’s potential to engage in dialogic interactions that challenge current perspectives or demonstrate their explanatory capacities may be inhibited or less developed; and finally, teachers may be ill-informed about students’ understandings, and as a consequence “lose the diagnostic element that is essential if their teaching is to be other than hit-or-miss.”

Now, it is important to recognise that this method of ‘instructed’ teaching – Taber calls it the ‘binary view of teaching’ – is a vital step in the learning process because a student must have knowledge before they are able to manipulate it or apply it to validate their understanding. It is also vital for the reasons that:

 Human learning is contingent upon the cognitive resources that are available to any particular individual to interpret – make sense of – information (Tiber, 2011).

 Our pupils are more able to make sense of basic information when we implement binary teaching and ‘instructive’ methods. It is through these pedagogies that we enable our students to create and establish relevant synaptic pathways to store the information given. Of course, it is not always stored effectively or accurately and we may need to repeat this process numerous times for this to occur in all our classes. We may also blend this binary view of teaching – teacher led pedagogies – with numerous memory-based approaches to strengthen these pathways. This enables our pupils to have the knowledge groundwork for further application.

 In her recent book, ‘Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning,’ Judith Willis (2016) asserts that the more ways something is learned, the more memory pathways are built:

“This brain research discovery is part of the reason for the current notion that stimulating the growth of more dendrites and synaptic connections is one of the best things teachers can learn to do for the brains of their students.

When children are between the ages of 6 and 12, their neurons grow more and more synapses that serve as new pathways for nerve signals. This thickening of gray matter (the branching dendrites of the neurons and the synaptic connections they form) is accompanied by thickening in the brain’s white matter (fatty myelin sheaths that insulate the axons carrying information away from the neuron and making the nerve-signal transmissions faster and more efficient). As the brain becomes more efficient, the less-used circuits are pruned away, but the most frequently used connections become thicker, with more myelin coating making them more efficient (Guild, 2004).”

 Here, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence to claim that the brain becomes more efficient – and that knowledge becomes more easily accessible – when our pathways are used more frequently.


How do we master knowledge?

 Binary teaching and teacher-led approaches are a vital step in a pupil’s learning process but they should not be our sole focus. Sure, memory-recollection is also crucial in strengthening the information pathways in the brain but simply regurgitating groundwork knowledge by recalling is limiting in two ways: 1) knowledge does not become applicable in other contexts, and 2) higher levels of thinking are not reached. In other words, our pupils will still have not mastered knowledge because they have not shown an understanding of beyond its concrete application. It was cited by the Consolidation Guidelines FNQ Explicit Teaching Team (2014) that:

 Students demonstrate understanding by applying [knowledge] to other contexts. ‘Information learned and processed through higher-order thinking processes is remembered longer and more clearly’ (Brophy, Jere. “Probing the Subtleties of Subject-Matter Teaching.” Educational Leadership (April 1992).

 Therefore, we also have to work towards our pupils developing skills to adapt, manipulate and actively apply their information. We want to encourage higher levels of thinking and allow them to gain accessible, long-term understandings of information. Our classrooms must provide a platform for this; this is where the dialogical classroom plays a fundamental role.

 Gillies (2015) explores this view in a comprehensive study on the ways dialogue enhances a lesson. He claims:

 There is no doubt that talk, albeit by the teacher or peers, has the capacity to stimulate and extend students’ thinking and advance their learning. Teachers do this when they encourage students to engage in reciprocal dialogues where they exchange information, explore issues, interrogate ideas, and tackle problems in a cooperative environment that is supportive of these discussions. In turn, students learn to listen to what others have to say, consider alternative perspectives, and engage critically and constructively with each other’s ideas by learning how to reason and justify their assertions as they cooperate together. (Gillies, 2015)

 Question and conversation can be used not only to test a pupil’s factual knowledge but also encourages pupils to: 1) make their thoughts and judgements explicit and logical, 2) adapt their expression so it is appropriate and effective, and 3) engage in sustained interactions where knowledge is challenged, altered, shifted and confirmed – knowledge in this process is, at once, fixed and adaptable. The International Journal of Educational Research { Alexander, 2008; Mercer & Littleton, 2007; Webb, 2009) has also favoured the dialogic classroom. Gillies (2015) further confirms that a teacher’s role should be one that extends beyond transferring information as:

“fostering beneficial group dialogues is multifaceted and involves preparing students to work together, structuring the group task, and influencing student interaction through the teacher’s discourse”

Finally, this coincides with the constructivist approach to teaching. Constructivism preaches the approach that teacher practice is to effectively build knowledge and understanding in pupils. The teacher must:

  • Activate relevant ideas to encourage new knowledge in learners. Pedagogies such as Explicit Teaching, Pair Work, Memory-Based Learning, Memory Tests, High and Low Stakes Testing.
  • Enable students to build their knowledge through disagreement, questioning and guidance. Pedagogies such as Harkness, Debating, Coaching, Conversations, Independent Tasks, Controversial Tasks, Class Discussions. Group Work, Discriminating Oral Feedback.


What I like about the constructivism approach to classroom practice is the flexibility of when and how these pedagogies can be applied. As very explicitly stated by Taber (2011), successful teaching is not the approach of simply direct or minimal instruction. Rather, it is the application of optimum instruction. A good subject specialist should be able to determine when it is vital to explicitly teach and when it is essential to enable their pupils to grapple with the information and knowledge they have acquired – so they can master it.

Knowledge mastery, therefore, is dependent upon a teacher’s ability to not only deliver outstanding content but also to encourage conversation, discourse and dialogic approaches. Without doing this, the pupils’ knowledge may become limited to knowledge regurgitation, achieved through transference, and students may never achieve knowledge mastery. Dialogic pedagogies that empower pupils to debate and discuss ideas – such as Harkness – are most effective as they strengthen their ability to retain information in accessible long-term memory and ensure pupils use knowledge to the highest level.

Not sure how to get your quiet class talking? Read 5 quick strategies via @tes here: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/how-help-your-shy-class-find-their-voice


6 thoughts on “Why is Classroom Dialogue so Important? Constructivism and Knowledge Mastery

  1. Human Nature and Dialogical perspectives are two terms that are linked, since dialogue is part of the human nature. Indeed, individuals will tend to interact with each other, be surrounded by the most people possible, that’s the human nature. Dialogue is any type of communication between two individuals, which can be by the language, but also by gestures. There are different types of dialogue, even different ones than those two obvious forms to interact. We could also talk about the connexion between two individuals, who can understand each other, or guess each other thoughts by a single look. The contrast in there is that since we meant to understand each other and communicate, why not every human can communicate with another one ? If we take our history, we can observe that many conflicts occurred, at the international level and inside of a same country, where people should be in the same page. In fact, some dialogues can affect other people beliefs and ideas. That’s when our human nature disappears, and we enter in conflict where the communication is minimal, and aggressive behavior take place. Is the same way dialogue is important in a classroom.

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