Facilitating dialogue in the classroom

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Guidance for educators of 10 to 18 year old learners.

Talking openly about difficult events can make them seem less overwhelming, give reassurance and help broaden understanding in a safe space for learners.

Below are suggestions to support educators in addressing and responding to challenging and sensitive issues with learners through facilitated dialogue. The process can be modified and simplified based on the needs of younger learners.

Why dialogue matters

 Facilitated dialogue offers learners opportunities to:

  • seek the information they need to make sense of the world in a safe and respectful way
  • share their knowledge, conceptual understandings and diverse perspectives and experiences
  • construct emerging questions and ideas in response to a range of diverse views, helping to avoid potential bias
  • make informed opinions and generate speculations to further develop their thinking and make informed decisions.

Preparing to facilitate dialogue

It is strongly recommended that educators and learners take the needed time to prepare for the dialogue.

  1. Build relationships to create an open and safe classroom community where learners feel they belong, are comfortable and have the confidence to share and explore their thinking:
    • Build rapport and trust: spend time getting to know your learners and support them in getting to know each other and you. Get to know what concerns them? What issues do they care about? What are the perspectives in the classroom/broader community? 
    • Establish discourse expectations or norms: help learners engage positively and constructively with each other by promoting respectful and active listening, questioning and responding. Have clear processes in place should a learner wish to step-out or not partake during the dialogue.  
    • Be strength focused and encourage taking risks: show compassion and reassurance that mistakes, questions, diverse and divergent thoughts are valued and enable growth and learning. 
    • Ensure students are aware of the various sources of support available to them.
  2. Start with foundational discussion skills and build on students’ skill development accordingly. With your learners, create clear guidelines and success criteria for the skills that need the most improvement. Skills might include:
    • note taking
    • recognizing what a question is asking by knowing the intent (g. what is the difference between explain, respond, analyze, describe, discuss, compare, evaluate, justify) 
    • sharing concise yet comprehensive responses
    • general discussion skills (g. probing, agreeing or disagreeing, paraphrasing, quoting, asking open questions that deepen the dialogue, building on ideas, clarifying, summarizing key ideas) 
    • participating actively without straying off course
    • giving feedback
    • listening actively, body language and providing adequate thinking time.
  3. Inform yourself on the issue/topic to be discussed and determine possible questions to consider while keeping your learners in mind. It is helpful to:
    • inform yourself on the multiple perspectives, root issues and complexities of the issue/topic and determine how to approach content for age and stage of your learners
    • thoughtfully select balanced, reliable text materials that learners can use 
    • anticipate the experience from a learner’s perspective and consider the possible perspectives they may raise 
    • collaboratively review with colleagues and school leadership to gain their insights
    • choose, adapt, create a discussion protocol that lends itself to unpacking the issue/topic (g. fishbowl discussions, four corner debate, Harkness discussions, Project Zero thinking routines, restorative circles, Socratic seminars, Spiderweb discussions, story circles, town hall meetings)
    • be aware of your own strengths, limitations and biases. Consider your role. Weigh and determine whether or not you will share your own thoughts or stance. What will you do if there are signs of groupthink? How will assumptions be challenged? How will diverse perspectives be included?
    • When creating stimulus questions, seek to make them open, unbiased, and suited to your learners’ needs and context. Consider the following:
      • Is the question leading and/or telling?
      • Is the question negative or positive? Try to be as objective as possible.
      • Would learners have the necessary knowledge to begin unpacking the question?
      • Will the words have the same meaning for everyone?
      • Does the question maintain the focus? Is the question too open or too specific?
      • Will the question help deepen understanding of the issue/topic? 
  4. Trial and test the discussion protocol with your learners. Before jumping into more challenging or more sensitive topics, it is helpful to model, trial and test criteria with a topic that is familiar, comfortable and safe for your Ask learners to provide feedback to each other and modify the criteria accordingly.
  5. Collaboratively with learners, determine the purpose of the dialogue and the specific skills to be developed.
    • Maintain a clear focus on learning and thinking critically
    • Establish the goal(s) or purpose(s) of the dialogue and how learners will know if they are moving towards it (g. learner profile attributes, conceptual understanding, critically explore complexity/root causes/possibilities, understanding different perspectives)
    • Establish which discussion skill(s) learners will be focused on during upcoming dialogue and review the criteria that helps learners know how well they are doing as a collective.
  6. Ensure learners are prepared. Learners need time to prepare for issues/topics that might be more sensitive or challenging. Along with reviewing balanced, reliable pre-readings/text materials, it is helpful to survey or ask learners to:
    • examine what they think and how they feel about an issue
    • consider what might underpin their thoughts and feelings and why (g. part of their identity, pressure to conform, what they’ve learned) 
    • reflect on if they are willing to hear diverse thoughts and perspectives
    • reflect on and acknowledge their intentions for the dialogue (g. seek approval, alignment, promote their viewpoint, share the depths of their knowledge)
    • generate their own open questions to share. 

During the facilitated dialogue

The most important responsibility educators have is to ensure that the space is safe and that there is a focus on learning.

  1. Maintain a safe space that supports participation and a culture of belonging and inclusivity. 
    • Review with learners the purpose(s) of the dialogue, discourse expectations and protocol. 
    • Reassure learners that they may at times feel discomfort when discussing sensitive issues/topics. Remind them that this is to be expected and review the range of supports available to them both during and after the dialogue. 
    • Address tensions and issues as openly and honestly as possible as they arise. 
    • Help learners understand and make explicit their assumptions, influences, prejudices.
    • Reinforce learners’ ability to pass or step-out if they are feeling overwhelmed or unable to engage.
    • Monitor and intervene, if necessary, to ensure no one feels threatened and be prepared to stop the dialogue if this is no longer possible.
    • Note individual needs and concerns that arise and follow up afterwards to support student learning or well-being.
  2. Maintain a learning environment that encourages open and meaningful interactions that deepen learning in critical, creative, and reflective ways.
    • Ask, explore, challenge and probe with open questions where the level of challenge increases as the dialogue proceeds. Ask knowledge and comprehension questions first to ensure learners have a common understanding of vocabulary and concepts before moving to analysis and evaluation questions. 
    • Keep the dialogue focused on the issue/event, while supporting learners’ natural curiosities.
    • Check-in throughout dialogue to see if learners feel they are working towards the agreed upon goal. If not, support the learners in determining steps to redirect.
    • Use question prompts to explore and broaden thinking and generate further questions, such as:
      Why...? How do we know...? How else might...? What makes you think that?
      Tell me more about..., Can you give evidence for...? What trends…? What would you advise to…?
      What is our responsibility? How might we account for…? What assumptions are we making? What are other points of view?
      How else might we inform ourselves? How is this connected to...? How might it change? What are other possibilities?

After the facilitated dialogue

It is important to provide allocated time for individual and whole-class reflection, debrief and feedback. Preferably this is done immediately after as well as after some processing time to:

  1. Ensure learners’ well-being needs are met:
    • follow up and act on individual or collective learner concerns or needs that arose to support safety, sense of belonging and well-being as well as student learning and potential action.
    • ask for specific reflections and feedback (g. exit slip, survey, written responses) on how learners felt about the overall experience and dialogue process (e.g. Did they feel positive relationships were nurtured? What could help improve the process?)
  1. Inform current and future learning, teaching and community building:
    • seek and provide ongoing individual and collective learner reflections and feedback on learning, including the purpose, goals, and skill development  
    • reflect on whether the dialogue met the criteria, purpose, and goals and supported learning and consider how improvements could be made
    • adapt dialogue process/protocol accordingly.