Digging Into the Art of Classroom Dialogue

Photo of dialogue session

In April 2019, the we hosted a seminar featuring a dialogue among four seasoned education professors associated with the Center: Deborah Donahue-Keegan, Steve Cohen, Stephen Gould, and Jason Goulah. The themes for the discussion was inspired by Dr. Cohen’s chapter in Peacebuilding Through Dialogue, “Race, Identity, and Classroom Dialogue.”

By Mitch Bogen

Above all, dialogue is a process. So is learning to value dialogue and successfully facilitate it in classrooms. These were two of the guiding themes for our April 19, 2019, Ikeda Center seminar featuring discussion among four seasoned education professors. On hand to discuss and explore their experiences with dialogue in education settings were: Deborah Donahue-Keegan, Lecturer in the Department of Education and Associate Director of the Tisch College Initiative on Social-Emotional Learning and Civic Engagement at Tufts University; Steve Cohen, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Education at Tufts University; Stephen Gould, Assistant Professor and Director, PhD in Education Leadership and Human Development and Learning at Lesley University; and Jason Goulah, Associate Professor of Bilingual-Bicultural Education and Director of the Institute for Daisaku Ikeda Studies in Education at DePaul University. Also in attendance were Center staff Mitch Bogen (who moderated), Anri Tanabe, Kevin Maher, and Virginia Benson.

The seeds for this gathering originated with Dr. Cohen’s contribution to the Ikeda Center’s new multi-author volume, Peacebuilding Through Dialogue: Education, Human Transformation, and Conflict Resolution. In his chapter, “Race, Identity and Classroom Dialogue,” Cohen explored topics such as how to create a trusting atmosphere conducive to dialogue and how transformative learning, in this case about history and social issues, emerges through ongoing, sustained discussion both between the teacher and students and among the students themselves. These ideas and many closely related ones figured prominently in the personal “dialogue narratives” that each participant shared to open the seminar.

Jason Goulah: Life-to-Life Exchanges

First to share his story, Professor Goulah, who is also Executive Advisor to the Ikeda Center, opened with a quote from Dr. Cohen’s chapter that he found especially apt and inspirational: “How we talk to each other can determine what we talk about.” Quite simply, said Goulah, “I owe everything, every aspect of my journey and profession,” to his formative experiences with a high school language teacher. He got to know his teacher outside of school, when the teacher needed someone to drive him to dialysis treatments. In the course of driving, they would “engage in dialogue about everything,” and his “mind really opened” to many things that he had never considered, such as learning Japanese and Russian, pursuing higher education, and studying and living overseas. Tragically, after he had achieved these unexpected dreams, Goulah’s mentor died. Upon his death, Goulah actually returned home and took his position at the high school, thus launching his career in education.

During his later graduate school studies Dr. Goulah’s understanding of dialogue was greatly informed by his encounters with the works of the Russian theorists Lev Vygotsky and Mikhail Bahktin while studying with a professor from Moscow State University. For example, one idea he found especially “profound” was Vygotsky’s insight that dialogue first takes place on an inter-psychological plane and then on an intra-psychological plane, followed by a return to the inter-psychological. This is how meaning is created, he said.

As for classroom dynamics, the “how we talk to each other” part, Goulah said he has always liked courses where everyone is arranged in a circle. The physical space matters, so you cannot have even one person “sort of” outside the circle. “It must be a perfect circle,” he emphasized. “Everyone must have equal power, equal distance to engage in dialogue,” adding “I still do those things in my classroom.” As a language teacher, Goulah has also worked to shift classes away from the “scripted dialogues” that have dominated language education, toward more natural, if more difficult, exchanges in which students “own” the words they speak.

To conclude, Professor Goulah touched on the role of dialogue in the Soka heritage extending from Makiguchi to Toda to Ikeda. Like Bakhtin, said Goulah, Daisaku Ikeda believes that “the self only emerges in the dialogic space of the other, of real difference.” How we grow, he added, “is in those life to life, person to person, heart to heart exchanges” that characterized his exchanges with his early mentor. This is what he researches, and what he tries to do with his students, even if he sometimes ends up inadvertently becoming “arrogantly monologic.”

Steve Gould: Getting to Higher Ground

“I’ve been dialoguing a long time,” observed Dr. Gould to open his narrative, clarifying that his understanding of dialogue is derived from the ancient Greek definition of the word as “thinking together in relationship.” He then ran down some of the roles he has filled during his life as a musician and an educator working at all levels of the field. “As a jazz musician, improvisation is dialogue, it’s the back and forth, it’s the listening. As a teacher who believes in constructivism, it’s all about dialoguing in order to create meaning. And you’re doing it with others. As principal, you really need to provide feedback to teachers, and direction to students; and in both cases it’s a two-way street, it’s not like you’ve got the position and you’re talking and they’re listening, and there’s no two way conversation. Now I’m directing two doctoral programs, and working with doctoral students is all about inquiring; dialogue is essential to it. My latest, sort of indulgence in music, and inquiry, is playing the djembe, which is an African instrument. African music is all call and response. That in itself is dialogue, of course.”

To illustrate dialogue in practice, Dr. Gould shared a story from his time as an elementary school principal in Western Massachusetts. As principal, “you get kids sent to you all the time,” he said. In this case two boys were sent in for fighting. By this time, he had learned to “skip the usual admonishing and asking why,” practices he said “go nowhere” with kids. Here’s what he did instead. First he asked them each to tell their story of what happened and for the other to say what he heard and learned. Sometimes this dialogue “would need to be facilitated, other times not.” This phase went well enough, said Gould, but he wanted them “to get to even higher ground than understanding their difference.”

What he did was to take a piece of paper and draw a picture on it, saying to the boys, This is a puddle. I want you to calculate how much water is in there and work together to do it here in my office. Naturally, they said, What!? With this kind of challenge, explained Gould, the dialogue includes a discussion of “how they would even do this, or what they need to do for this to make sense.” When you have a project like this, “where people have to come together in order to liberate themselves,” they start to really listen and get creative about solving the problem. In Dr. Gould’s view, whether or not the kids “came up with an answer didn’t matter.” In this case, he added, the kids became really good friends!

Deborah Donahue Keegan: Being Co-Learners

Professor Donahue-Keegan’s journey with dialogue in education started as an act of necessity. After college, she had considered serving in the Peace Corp, but chose instead to become a teacher in the International Jesuit Volunteer Corps. All of this, of course, with “nary an ed course” in her background, or even “any thought of being a teacher.” To complicate matters, she was sent to teach in Kingston, Jamaica, which required her, “a young, white, privileged female,” to make considerable adjustments, given her received socio-cultural assumptions and modes of interaction. With three preps and 300 students, Donahue-Keegan was “beside herself” and clung to a treasured book by Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a text she had been introduced to during her last semester of college in a course with Dr. Edward Braithwaite called “Awakening Consciousness in the Third World.” (She still brings her “very tattered, highlighted” copy of the book to each of her classes, she said.)  

Specifically, there was a core idea in Pedagogy that was transformational for her and even “saved her” in the situation within which she found herself. Freire’s point was that teachers and students should be “co-learners” in every educational process. Basically, said Donahue-Keegan, she was “flailing” away in class when she realized that the students in her religious studies class, most of whom were quite religious, had a lot that they could actually teach her. And so they began to learn together. This first foray into classroom dialogue happened because “there just wasn’t any other way.” This experience very much “shaped who I am today as an educator,” she said.

Fast forwarding to her current work, Donahue-Keegan talked a bit about the core research and ideas that inform her work, especially in relation to social-emotional learning. For example, she learned a lot from working with the influential developmental psychologist Robert Kegan. She shared one idea in particular that sheds light on the phenomenon of internal dialogue. Kegan talked about “the movement from the socialized mind to the self-authoring mind.” Essentially we each have a “committee in our head” composed of many of the intellectual and emotional influences in our respective environments. The task for each of us is to become the chair of that committee. Another theme of her current work is that the “rational and logical” are privileged in our discourse over emotional, intuitive, or caring voices, thus “genderizing” our discourse in a debilitating way.

In terms of her classroom teaching, Professor Donahue-Keegan said she really resonated with Goulah’s observation that he is picky about making sure the circles students gather into for dialogue are as perfect as possible, saying she gets teased by her students for this, too. In terms of how dialogues are structured, she described one favored method like this: “We do a round where each person has the same amount of time, so we’ll do a check in, like one question, and then a question that gets us deeper in another round. I tend to be really flexible with that.” This structure can be used for many purposes, from academic inquiry to making connections to sharing learnings and findings on a given topic.

Concluding with a look at the emotion-related dimensions of her work, Donahue-Keegan mentioned that she really appreciated those aspects of Steve Cohen’s chapter that dealt with the need for an instructor to be able to read the emotions of a class and to see if unexpected feelings or issues are arising, regardless of what the instructor’s intentions might be. In her courses students are helped to develop the “emotional literacy” and “emotional agility”* that helps in this regard, and which will be so important if they go on to careers in teaching or take on other leadership positions. Indeed, if students are to successfully develop social and emotional awareness and competence, the teacher should already have developed this themselves. These are just some of the ways, said Donahue-Keegan, that teachers can create the kind of “relational trust” that Steve Cohen’s chapter portrayed, the kind of trust that makes effective classroom dialogue possible.

Steve Cohen: Always Surprised

Like Donahue-Keegan, Steve Cohen began experimenting with dialogue in the classroom for practical reasons. A young teacher at a “super-progressive school,” he was tasked with teaching history to the same group of students for three hours per day. He pretty quickly figured out that he couldn’t simply talk at them for three hours and they couldn’t listen that long either. Before long “I realized I had to teach differently; it was from practicality that I began to teach differently, and recognize what they were bringing to the conversation.” Part of teaching differently meant moving away from the model of history education in which students read a textbook and then answer preset questions about what they have read. When he went home early on and fell asleep reading the assignment he had just given them he knew something had to change!

A veteran teacher of many decades’ experience, Dr. Cohen observed that “the longer I taught, the less I was bound by content, which I found sort of surprising” adding that content is still important. “But the more I taught,” said Cohen, “I realized it was about getting kids to think about what they knew already, and what they could learn from each other, as well as from me. And I wasn’t trying to abdicate the idea that I might know more than them, just that I didn’t know everything.”

Cohen then shared a couple of his current lessons designed to elicit students’ own thinking and to engage critically with it. Earlier that day he asked students in his education course for undergraduates, School and Society, to envision their ideal high school. Here’s what happened: “They get the budget of Boston Public School, and they’re responsible for curriculum, rules, regulations, how the principal is going to solve puddles [referring back to Steve Gould’s narrative].” Expecting to spend just a few minutes on schedules, they spent an hour and fifteen minutes! Why? “The kind of schedules you arrive at actually tells you how you think people learn, what you think they should learn,” said Cohen. And so students spent the whole time dialoguing about the choices they made, why some things were in, why some things were out, and so on.

As a related inquiry, Dr. Cohen always waits until late in the semester to pose this simple question to students: What is smart? As they think about multiple intelligences they begin to question their own schooling in the sense of no longer taking for granted the choices behind the education they received. This impacts what they think schooling should be in general and what should guide their own ideal high school.

Cohen concluded, saying, “I guess I can keep teaching because I’m always surprised by what comes up when people keep talking with each other and what comes out!” He confessed that his vision of classroom teaching and learning isn’t based heavily on any particular theory or pedagogy. Rather, it is based on experience, which has taught him that listening is the key to it. “So often we’re taught that teaching is talking and listening is learning.” But the truth, he said, is “that so much of teaching is listening.”

Round Two: Other Angles and Levels

After the round of narratives, each participant was invited to share some reflections based on thoughts that were triggered while listening to the stories of the others. Some spontaneous dialogue fleshed out these reflections at various points.

Jason Goulah opened by talking about the importance of being together in the same space for learning and for dialogue. (This has been on his mind since he soon will be teaching an online course for the first time.) Currently, when Goulah teaches there is no “recapitulation” of what students have been asked to read the night before, nor will students be asked to report on what they read. “Everything is always an open-ended question, pushing them to say more, keep going with that,” he said, adding that the deep goal is “the organic development of ideas.” The thrill is in knowing “this collection of bodies will never be here again,” and that “all of this needs to be here for the full meaning making to happen. That’s why being in the space matters. Dialogue matters.”

Of his goals, Goulah said: “What I want to do is rupture them from their preconceived notions of what school is. I want to move them towards how we understand education in the richest sense,” which is a process of “becoming.” This is why he resonated with Steve Cohen’s point about content not necessarily being the heart of the matter, something borne out in his experience as a former teacher of high school Japanese and Russian. He shared how he often would “get emails and calls from students saying ‘I apologize I don’t remember anything about Japanese but I really learned a lot about how to view the world, how to view myself, how to engage difference, and I’m really happy that’s what I took from school.’” This, said Dr. Goulah, is the difference between making our goal to simply “do school” as opposed to engaging in “what Daisaku Ikeda would call human education.”

Steve Gould’s reflections focused on how essential dialogue is to not just schooling, including that social-emotional aspect, but also is “so important to our society in general. It’s a cornerstone of democracy.” For him, this goes way beyond civics education, which is valuable if rarely taught now, to get into Dewey’s idea of a school being a “workshop” of democracy. “I took all this to heart as a teacher, and as a principal,” he said. There were what might be called “reactive” dialogues of the type he shared in his narrative about two boys getting past their conflict.

But he also focused on proactive conceptions of school as a community in itself that is also part of the larger community. “So as principal, every Friday I had an all school assembly, a town meeting format. And we invited parents, business people, kids — everyone came. It was an opportunity to talk about matters of consequence and what does it mean to be a part of a democratic society, and what is your role in it. I think if we had more of that happening, maybe things would be a little bit better. Now more than ever, those kinds of dialogues really have to happen.”

As for the really difficult dialogues that need to happen, for example about race, Dr. Gould said that because they are so difficult, you have to be that much more intentional about it. “You have to have the confidence to say ‘I’m going to be able to help some way and we’ll come out in a better place,’” Gould said, adding: “Sometimes that happens, and sometimes it blows up.” He said that if you don’t at least try to do this, then the hard issues, such as race, will continue to confront us.

Sharing next, Deborah Donahue-Keegan, said she really resonated with “the ‘puddle’ approach. I love the way Steve talked about the two individuals in conflict and the choice to give them something that they have to puzzle over together. The whole set-up is brilliant. I think about how important that is, puzzling together — wrestling with problems, injustices, or issues.”

The other key resonance for Donahue-Keegan had to do with building relational trust in the classroom. She shared a number of practices she employs to achieve this. First, some “scaffolding” is needed. “In my courses, we spend the first couple of weeks, spilling into the third week, with students writing their autobiographical reflections on their own experiences. Then each student shares their story. We start with some light questions that are playful in a way — that produce that dopamine hit, that warm tone feeling.”

In response to Steve Cohen’s question about what kinds of questions these are, Professor Donahue-Keegan said they really could be anything and that on occasion she thinks them up on the way to class. One effective one is to ask them about “zany” or silly talents they might have. One icebreaker activity that can lead to deeper questions is to have the students arrange themselves according to the order of their birthdays. This gets them talking, getting “to know each other in a safe way.” From here they can move to autobiographical sharing. That’s where students can learn the full range of their backgrounds — from those “from very privileged backgrounds with well-resourced schools” to others “who are from very historically marginalized communities.”

Ultimately, it takes a lot of skill building to have honest conversations. These skills include listening, perspective taking, and not least, “being able to pause” and be aware when you might be “triggered” or “pissed off” or “ashamed,” and so on. Donahue-Keegan’s fundamental stance is that “we all as human beings want to be seen or heard.” As one example of learning to honor one another, she said that her classes lately have emphasized “calling in” instead of “calling out,” inspired by a piece she and her students read by Loretta Ross.

To launch his reflection, Steve Cohen handed out a cartoon from Garry Trudeau called “Street Calculus.” In it, a black man and a white man approach each other on the street. Thought bubbles show the checklists of “risk factors” and “mitigating factors” that each runs through in his head to see how much of a threat the other person poses. “I’ll use this [cartoon],” said Cohen, “fairly early in the semester as a way to talk to each other. I ask: Is this true? Do you do this? And what are your risk factors?” This then gets into discussions about context. In other words, each of us will engage in this activity depending on where we are, especially when we depart from what might be called homogenous safe zones. The way we engage in our risk assessments depends on so many things, he said, for example: “whether you are a man or a woman, or even what kind of man you are in our ‘man up’ culture.”

Dr. Cohen’s goal is to get students to engage in discussion “on the way we make judgments in society, and also how they are making judgments in the classroom.” Some teachers, said Cohen, might use this exercise and conclude that from then on there won’t be any more prejudice in their classroom. But a classroom without prejudice would mean “there are no people!” he said. We’re “all a mix of these,” he added. “But the point is to be able to recognize what we know is a prejudice, versus what we think we know is true, and to get at that difference.”

Asked by moderator Mitch Bogen about his use of primary source materials, Cohen said he starts with the assumption that for many students, “reading and thinking are not linked. And I have to get them to think about the reading. My job as a teacher is to help the student figure out how to use the ‘stuff’ we’re looking at.” Personally, he tries “to use that content in a way to hit their humanity” and also to help them develop the critical “ways of thinking about the world that in the United States of 2019” we’re only going to need more of if we’re “going to have a democracy that works.”

One theme that all of the participants touched on after the round of reflections was how it’s helpful in many respects for the teacher to exhibit some vulnerability in order to create a classroom conducive to openness, a theme central to Cohen’s chapter. One form this takes is for teachers to admit they don’t know everything, as Donahue-Keegan did in her early teaching experience in Jamaica. Another aspect of this is fear of failure. One way to deal with this, said Donahue-Keegan, is simply to admit teachers make mistakes too. Goulah said that for pre-service teachers especially, there is a vulnerability that comes from not knowing how lessons will go. In his case he learned that despite your best efforts at preparation, sometimes you’ll go down “in flames,” and in that case you just “plow through.” The basic fear for new teachers, said Steve Gould, is this: “If I’m human, are they going to walk all over me?” Donahue-Keegan also mentioned how white teachers need to let go of the “fragility” that Robin DiAngelo says afflicts too many white Americans when it comes to race, leading them to be defensive rather than open and reflective during considerations of racial injustice and institutional racism.

Wrapping Up

The discussion concluded with some free-flowing back and forth. Here are a few sound bites. Goulah: With students we often talk about “human-to-human verbal dialogue, but another thing I would do is also warmly invite them to dialogue with nature.” Donahue-Keegan: “While I was listening I thought about that saying ‘think globally and act locally” and thought we could also say ‘think systemically and dialogue locally.’” And finally, this from Steve Cohen: “When you think about schools … schools are never finished. They are always changing: different students, different teachers. And this is the way life is — unlike in our culture where we want everything wrapped up with a bow,” thinking we’ve reached “closure.”

* One of Donahue-Keegan’s favorite tools for helping students develop emotional literacy is Plutchik’s wheel of emotions, which maps out relationships among emotions and the many levels that related emotions function at.