Student voice as classroom dialogue

Interestingly a lot of American bloggers, writing about student voice, are actually talking about classroom dialogue.

Traditionally (and perhaps in America and other places still), classroom talk was frowned upon and seen as a sign of poor teacher control. Fortunately times are changing and as we understand the social nature of learning and the role of dialogue, talk is emerging from it’s dark shroud - thank goodness! I wouldn't though, see classroom talk as necessarily student voice. It's an aspect, and obviously essential if students are to have a voice, but it is just a subset of student voice using the definition I am in my research.

In their 2002 APMC article, ‘Pedagogy as Conversation: a way of experiencing learning’ Tracey Smith and Tom Lowrie emphasise the role of conversation in the classroom, introducing ‘pedagogy as conversation’.

I really love the idea of ‘conversation’ in the classroom, there is a stronger sense of seeking deeper, shared meaning and commitment to listening and learning from each other, than is apparent in the term ‘discussion’.

Smith and Lowrie say:
'An important characteristic of conversations is their open-ended nature that allows for unexpected revelations and destinations. Pedagogy as conversations requires a reflective and open approach towards learning so that learning can be shared conversationally … to strengthen caring relationships in the classroom.’

They go on to say that there are inner and outer conversations in the learning process. Outer conversations ‘bring thinking out’ so that meaning is communicated through oral conversations. Inner conversations are more metacognitive (thinking about one’s thinking) and ‘students begin to take ownership of their own learning by reflecting on, and monitoring their own progress, or thinking about their own ways of knowing.’

This blog post recognises the critical role of dialogue and conversations in learning, and highlights 8 strategies that are helpful in bringing purposeful conversation into the classroom and teaching students the skills of dialogue.

Hearing students’ ideas with digital tools

Teachers need to know what students are thinking (inner conversations), to support outer conversations. In this Teach Thought blog post, a range of digital tools are introduced for exploring students’ ideas, thinking and opinions. Such tools make it ‘ok’ for students to speak up where it hasn’t been the norm, and also enable the quieter students to add their voice. This ideas/opinion collection from everyone, then becomes the basis for classroom conversation (not a substitute for it).
I have used and appreciate Survey Monkey, Kahoot! and Socrative. What have you used?

Class Concept Maps

Smith and Lowrie use class concept maps to begin outer conversations. They establish shared vocabulary and the teacher questions students to begin conversations and elicit prior knowledge. The teacher might ask: ‘Tell me what you know about…’ to elicit and model and promote rehearsal and practice of language. 

Graphic Organisers

Graphic organisers are a terrific way to support students to be more aware of their inner conversations, in order that they become more self aware, and are able to share their thinking in outer conversations. Mind maps, What I Know/What I want to Know, Story Maps, PMI (Plus, Minus, Interesting) and Y-Charts are all good examples.


One of our workshop favourites, think-pair-share is a great way to support outer conversations. Having a chance to listen to one’s inner conversation (or as Smith and Lowrie describe ‘initially talk inside their heads’, and then discuss these thoughts with a peer, builds confidence for the process of sharing in class or group conversations.

Critique Protocol

We love structured protocols for their capacity to deepen thinking, ensure everyone has a voice, to bring out and explore thinking and to shift classroom talk from discussion to dialogue. 
In this Edutopia post you’ll read about the Two Rivers Public Charter School’s 7 step Critique Protocol.
Identify the critique norms (be kind, be specific, be helpful)
Model identifying strengths and recognise effort
Analyse exemplary work as a reference point
Choose what work to show students - to move their understandings forward
Choose a critique focus
Have students identify their insights from the critique process
Repeat the process.

As you’ll see from the video, this can be a teacher directed process initially, but as students become more comfortable with the protocol and develop the vocabulary to provide feedback, their role increases and students will bring these skills into learning conversations.

Writing Partners

In her Intentional Talk with Writing Partners’ blog post, Betsy Hubbard describes in detail the scaffolding she puts in place to encourage students to intentionally talk about their writing. 
“Intentional talk throughout the process lays the groundwork for students to become flexible within their process, planning throughout, drafting and re-drafting, reading and re-reading. However, like everything, it has to be built into the routine and structured to work. We can’t just say, “Go talk about your writing with someone,” and expect it to go well. If we are intentional about the partnerships, provide visuals, model, and build it slowly I can guarantee you will never say it is a waste of time.”

Jigsaw for Groups

The idea with the jigsaw strategy is to ensure all students within a group have a piece of critical information or a specific role in the learning process/task. Within a group, each student might for example have a different piece of information. Time is allocated for them to understand their piece of information. This might occur in ‘expert groups’ where all of the holders of each piece of information meet to clarify, establish important facts and practice summarising. Then the group listens to each member report back on their piece of the jigsaw, asking clarifying questions, and listening to understand. Once all have reported back, the group then works to present their information in a new format or in response to a specific challenge. 

Teacher Strategies

I think one of the most important strategies I learned to use was ‘wait time’. Years ago, I had a significant ‘ah ha’ moment after listening to a recording of myself working with a group of students. In my attempts to be upbeat, energising and enthusiastic, I was jumping into silent spots, feet first and way too quickly. I discovered that just a three-second pause (boy that seemed SO long when I started) opened up dialogue where I had previously dominated the conversations.
In the spirit of supporting students to come into the world of the teacher (see my post on metacognitive-teaching for more information), I’d share this strategy with students too, helping them to clear talk space for others in conversations.

Another powerful teacher strategy is ‘modelling’. Many of us are happy to model writing in the classroom. Equally important though, is the process of modelling thinking. ‘Think aloud’ to model strategies, problem solving, grit, solution finding etc can be teacher or student driven. Great way to learn from each other, and wonderful inner to outer conversation strategy.

Suggestions for more ideas:

This Edutopia post on developing Oracy in your classroom is an excellent resource for building more intentionality in talk and exploring different types of learning talk.


And this Edutopia post has a range of ideas for reluctant speakers and introverts.

‘Pedagogy as Conversation: a way of experiencing learning’ Tracey Smith and Tom Lowrie, APMC 2002