“As Teachers, we choose our words and, in the process, construct the classroom worlds for our students and ourselves.” Peter Johnston, Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives
Developing dialogic teaching and learning is not easy. Dialogue is not predictable and requires vulnerability on both the part of the teacher, as well as the learner. It’s a two-way street and power is shared. The teacher must stand in front of a group of people and be able to stomach uncertainty and wade through awkward silences. The learner risks just as much speaking up and becoming the center of attention while risking being misunderstood or saying the wrong thing. We believe that when we bring together our different points of view, we build more complex understandings of the world and ourselves. But we all have to trust each other that we’ve come together in the interest of a common goal - transformation.
In my experience as a student, teacher, and observer via roles like being a university supervisor for student teachers, far too many classrooms are monologic rather than dialogic. What’s the difference? “The difference...can be thought of as a shift from asking whether something is true to asking when something might be true.” Therefore in the dialogic classroom, students must rely on inquiry, critical thinking, and creativity in making good judgements. When we focus on trivial facts rather than dynamic mindsets, our students suffer in a number of ways. It becomes easy for the teacher to rely on the lowest common denominator, such as memorizing or reproducing the color wheel, and in turn students learn that knowledge is about being right or wrong and that you can either be smart or dumb. This makes them ultimately less resilient and able to overcome challenges in the future, not to mention distorted views of self. When we dialogue with our students, we are embracing active engagement and growth, as well as acknowledging the often contextual and conditional reality in which we all live.
I’ve seen classrooms where students were not allowed to talk with each other, even in the art room, even while working on projects and sitting in groups. I’ve seen classrooms where students did not discuss art, theirs or anyone else’s. I’ve seen classes where students respond to canned, disconnected questions with canned, disconnected answers. Such classrooms break my heart. I have struggled through many a class in my (long) college career where the teacher abused their captive audience and where it seemed the only voice the professor was interested in hearing was their own. This is not just monologic - it’s anti-democratic. And I’m sick of such behaviors being justified by “benevolent dictators.” And it’s all too easy to slide down the slippery slope of student compliance. In “Calling for Response-ability in Our Classrooms” by Maureen Boyd, she states:
“What do we really mean when we say, “You’re not listening to me”? In the constrained world of the public school classroom, with its lopsided power relations, it really means, “You need to do what I am telling you to do. You need to comply.”
But of course there are many wonderful classrooms as well that are full of engaged learners (including the teachers)! I’ve seen classes where students engaged with each other and their teachers, cooperating in the pursuit of curiosity and understanding. Boyd calls this kind of talk “response-able.” She states, “Response-able teacher talk practices cultivate student exploration and articulation as they frame and connect material to local experiences and student funds of knowledge, guide critical exploration, and cultivate openness to perspectives.” Additionally, there is evidence that the ability to communicate effectively is one of the most important characteristics for a teacher to have.
Guiding teachers towards becoming dialogic with their students has become my passion as a teacher educator. At my last position as the coordinator and sole professor of a regional university’s art education program, I redesigned our Elementary Methods course to almost entirely focus on talking about art. As I saw it, being able to talk about and lead discussions surrounding art is an essential skill for every art teacher. Despite identifying as an artist myself, I tend to agree with Dr. Terry Barrett, author of Talking About Student Art (the textbook for my course), when he says “learning to talk thoughtfully about art is especially valuable, perhaps more valuable than learning to make art.” Or course I believe making is important! But, in my current position, when I think of whether or not classroom teachers will be more likely to look at and talk with their students about images or get out art materials and engage their students with authentic artmaking, I would wager that they will be willing to provide many more opportunities to talk and look together than make for their students.
I don’t expect my early-childhood teachers to become art teachers. I do hope that they will become fearless classroom teachers that are more open to making with their students, more supportive of creativity broadly, and will talk more frequently and thoughtfully with their students about images and objects in general. It is my belief that learning to dialogue with art will transfer to other areas of their teaching and gradually lead to more them becoming more dialogic in their own teaching generally. I know there will be plenty of pressures to not engage their students in dialogue - test scores and pacing guides for a couple of examples. But above all, I want them to be brave by resisting the temptation to talk at their students. Not engaging students in discussion, I believe, is a fear-based pedagogy. Art, like teaching, requires vulnerability and risk at its core. So how do we become braver? We practice.
Practicing bravery was exactly what I wanted from my students for their midterm assignment. More explicitly, I wanted them to practice conversation, specifically involving art in some way. The assignment was Two Conversations, one with a loved one and the other with a stranger or acquaintance. Both conversations would involve art in some way, either looking or making, but both would require talking. This would be many of their first experiences planning and/or leading an art experience which is why I wanted them to have someone they’re close with to be a friendly audience. However they need to operate at the edge of their comfort zones, hence asking them engage someone they know little if at all. I explained that they could think of their mini-lesson plan which they’ll be creating for their final project as simply scaling up their conversations from one-on-one to a group while maintaining that conversational style. In 3-6 pages, double-spaced, I asked them to explain who they chose and what they did and reflect on the experience, comparing and contrasting the two conversations, while thinking about what they might change, what they learned and felt, and what specific characteristics of creativity they explored.
One thing I was not expecting was just how much I would enjoy reading their reflections! I was so impressed with them all - their thoughtfulness, their risk-taking, their ambition, and their self-awareness. Their writing seemed to flow naturally as they considered how their plans had unfolded and how they might apply this experience to their future classrooms and students! My biggest problem was trying not to give them too much feedback as I enjoyed their reflections so thoroughly and I wanted to dialogue with each of them at length! Again, I must do better practicing less is more with my descriptive feedback. I was so proud of all of them and it was so self-affirming to see what I perceived as our efforts in class and my efforts behind the scenes paying off. Probably a third or so of the group opted to make art with folks which really impressed me, since I know most of them don’t have much experience making. Most of all, it was touching to see them strengthening their bonds with family, friends, and partners while forming new relationships and friendships with friends of friends, neighbors, and complete strangers, all because of a midterm! How often can anyone say that? So many saw the power of art in action! Now that they know they can do it, I believe that ‘proof-of-concept’ will carry over to their final lessons and I can’t wait to see how they impress me!
As I wrote about in a previous post, I like to play with data. Data can come from a number of sources and in a number of forms. So after I responded to all of my student’s midterms, I became curious about the story inside of the stories. What words or ideas occurred most frequently in their reflections, for example? And what, if any, story did my feedback tell? I turned again to the website Wordsift.org. The story it revealed was fascinating!
When all of their combined 32,099 words were reduced to the 25 most frequently occurring words in their responses, “conversation” and “art” were the frontrunners unsurprisingly. Next “question” was very frequent, followed by “thought” and “think.” After those, words like “asked,” “person,” “make,” “like,” “see,” “different,” “interesting,” “experience,” “know,” “activity,” “time,” and “felt” were most prevalent. Can you see a story? The story I see is one where inquiry is emphasized and that joins actions like making with feeling, looking, and thinking through experiences interacting with people that were both different and interesting. When I expanded the number of words from 25 to 75, I felt that the additional words supported my initial story. Do you agree or disagree?
Next I analyzed my own descriptive feedback. I utilize some common phrases and questions but each response is unique and personalized, so I wondered what story I might be telling the entire class. What were the results? Of the 25 most frequent words in my feedback, “think,” “art,” and “like” were top. Those words were followed by “experience,” “well,” “thank,” “great,” and “thought.” Next were words including “looking,” “student,” “person,” “other,” “maybe,” and “might.” Others were “enjoyed,” “sharing,” “idea,” likely,” “writing,” “someone,” “proud,” and “reflection.” What story do these words tell you? For me, they tell me that I’m encouraging in my use of language but also pushing students to consider various possibilities and conditional knowledge. I can also see my students and I using several of the same words, suggesting we’re effectively speaking the same language. My words to emphasize the interaction and construction of knowledge between people. Again, I increased the number of words from 25 to 75 to see if more information would contradict or verify my first account. For me it did, painting a more detailed portrait of what I suspected. Does that match the story you saw?
Together the world I’m creating with my students is one that prioritizes people over content and active construction and exchange of shared knowledge over impersonal, standardized transmission. We are building a space for thinking and feeling and above all, dialogue. A place where we can be heard and seen and all of this through and with art and artmaking. Many people say art is a language. I disagree. Language is language and art is art. T-shirts communicate but they aren’t a language. Art is a medium - but not just a medium for us to only look at, but a medium through which we can interact and learn to talk with each other as well. I believe that when we talk about and make art, we learn perhaps more about ourselves and each other than we do about the objects themselves.
While I continue to struggle with the demands of my first completely dialogic classroom, I see the rewards so clearly now and I believe there are more on the way for me, but even moreso for my students.
Here is a link to my day 7 outline
I'll mostly be blogging about my experience teaching pre-service teachers about creativity and artmaking. I teach a class called Art Curriculum & Concepts for Teachers where future classroom teachers learn about visual art-integration. Among other things, I'm attempting to "Go Gradeless" while also experimenting with a hybrid in-person / online curriculum.