Student Talk: The Use of Dialogue and Discussion

This summer a group of Oregon teachers prepared to launch the Oregon Science Project, which focuses on professional development for rural teachers around NGSS. During our 3-day facilitator’s training we focused on dialogue not discussion.  As a group, this distinction was new to us. What we found was we were spending most of our time on dialoguing not discussing. When in dialogue the purpose is to gain and share information, listening deeply to the information others provide. When in discussion, the purpose is to present different viewpoints and come to a decision.

As I began this new year of teaching the NGSS and using new curriculum this new idea was at the forefront of my mind. The new curriculum also encourages these processes.  Scientists engage in dialogue as they share their ideas and look for perspectives from others. Students also need to practice both dialogue and discussion. As they gather information they need to dialogue and when they are using evidence to decide on a claim, they need to use discussion.

During one a lesson last week the importance and the engagement that occurs when students talk became quite evident.  The curriculum we are using has structured lessons to be 45 minutes long.  We had not been in-sync since we started the curriculum (starting with a warmup, doing the lesson, and ending with the homework).  That day we actually started with the warm up for the lesson.  I was determined to see if I could accomplish the lesson within the 45 minutes.  My evaluator happened to come in during one of my class periods to observe.  In my attempt to complete the lesson within the time period I rushed the students during their dialogue.  The evaluator overheard several students exclaim that they were disappointed because they didn’t get to share their information.

Needless to say, I was not able to finish the lesson in the allotted time and I had cut off students in the middle of their dialogue.  I was excited by the fact that they were disappointed that they didn’t have time to finish sharing.

Since that brief time ago, I have worked at being sure to give students adequate time to dialogue and discuss. But I have also learned that they need to have a very clear purpose.  The students have been gathering evidence over the past week or so and this last week they had to decide which claim their evidence was supporting and how well it supported the claim. They needed to come to a decision about their evidence, hence they were involved in discussion. But the students had trouble with discussion.  They could come to a decision but when quizzed about why they ranked the evidence where they did, they couldn’t explain why they didn’t rank the strength of the evidence higher or lower than they did. So, I explained in greater detail that they needed to be able to say why it was ranked the way it was and why they didn’t rank it higher or lower.  I asked them to discuss the evidence again with this in mind. About a third of the students had changed their rankings and could explain in much greater detail why it was placed there.

These processes are new to most students.  They can’t just go with their “gut” but need to be able to clearly explain how strong the evidence is.  This is an important step to being able to write an argument to support a claim. Both aspects of talk, dialogue and discussion, are important steps along the way.  It is important to be purposeful in what we want the talk to be, do they need to be gaining and sharing information or coming to a decision.  The more students have opportunities to practice talk the better they will become and the better their arguments to support a claim will be.

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11 Comments

  1. Kierra Green
    Posted October 31, 2017 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    I have never thought about a dialogue and a discussion being that different, but I like the way they are both described here. I agree that students need to have a clear purpose for discussion and must have evidence to back up their arguments.

  2. Valerie
    Posted March 6, 2018 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    I’m looking for videos or scripts of students engaged in good and bad dialogue to model for students. Are there any resources you could recommend?

  3. Lindsay Foust
    Posted May 27, 2018 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    When I read through your thinking on discussion vs. dialogue, it really made me reflect back on moments within my instruction. As educators, we are creating scientist through modeling and implementation of different strategies. When we think in terms of discussion vs. dialogue, I think the way we plan and lead the lesson plays a big role in this. With an end goal in mind, we must guide the students towards the talk we want to hear. Do we want them sharing information or coming to a decision? As you stated, sometimes the talk of the lesson can extend much past the expected and/or planned time frame. At the young ages I teach, I believe talk is key from them. We want them thinking scientifically and expressing their findings and learnings. From that young age, we can build up discussion and dialogue through the years. Our instructional purpose in key in each lesson.

  4. Emma
    Posted June 16, 2018 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    This is a great explanation of the difference between dialogue and discussion. I’ve personally witnessed the difference the two communication styles can have on a classroom. It was apparent in my classroom during a science lesson on day vs. night and how the sun rotates. In previous years, we used globes and flash lights to model the process of day and night. Then, we would dialogue what we found. This year, I used a new resource called “Mystery Doug” to guide us through an interactive lesson on a similar topic. In this lesson, students discussed at almost every stage of the lesson. As I walked around the room and listened in to these discussions, I found that students were able to develop more in depth explanations and bounce ideas off of each other. Engagement and excitement over the topic had increased as well. I definitely think there is a place for both dialogue and discussion, but discussion can be an invaluable tool for student learning.

  5. Elle
    Posted June 17, 2018 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    I have also never thought of dialogue and discussion being different until now. When I think about how discussions are in my science classroom, I found that I ran into the same problem you did. My students were able to make a claim, but they were not able to explain why. I found that in my classroom modeling a “good” discussion vs a “poor” discussion often helped majority of my students. With this, students were able to hear the “key words” that we wanted for a “good” discussion, and they were able to hear where those “key words” were left out in a “poor” discussion. However, I still had a handful of students that were still struggling. As teachers, we want all of our students to be invovled and become apart of the discussions. I found that with my students still struggling that asking them leading questions to get them going, they are usually able to take off with the discussion on their own. Having students discuss their ideas in the classroom is very important, I believe the biggest hurdle for them is where to start.

  6. Chelsea
    Posted June 18, 2018 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    When reading your post, I never realized the true difference between dialogue and discussion. As a second grade teacher, I can definitely relate to the need for explicit directions and instructions on how to communicate with one another. It amazes me the depth of conversations that take place when my students are given the opportunity and support needed to be successful. Both dialogue and discussion are important in the classroom, because students are constantly taking in new information, and also need to know what to do with that information. This post stuck out to me, because my students are alway eager to share their thoughts with the class or a small group, but when asked to explain or defend their idea, they often get stuck. It is my goal to give my students more opportunities for dialogue and discussion this year, and make sure they understand the importance of both.

  7. Megan
    Posted June 18, 2018 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    The distinction between a dialogue and a discussion interested me as I have not really ever considered the differences. As I think about my science investigations in the classroom, I think what I was considering a discussion was actually dialogue. I encourage students to share their thinking, but most of the time they are stating the facts and content knowledge rather than their viewpoints and reasoning. My fourth grade students love to share their results with their peers and talk about surface level observations. However, when I try to push students towards discussion of why they made choices in their investigation or why results occurred, they get very quiet very quickly! I have found that the skill of reasoning, across content areas, is very difficult for my students. Part of our science curriculum includes “Claims, Evidence, and Reasoning” paragraphs/essays for certain investigations. This is an area where I would like to focus more on next year. Modeling classroom discussions with this format before having students write their own responses could be helpful. I have also found sentence starters in science journals beneficial in guiding students to their starting point. Overall, a balance of dialogue and discussion is very valuable in forming a strong understanding of science content. I am looking forward to researching more ways to facilitate those discussions effectively!

  8. Anne C
    Posted June 18, 2018 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    After 5 years of teaching, I will finally get the chance to teach since this upcoming school year. This post has really given me a lot of valuable information as I begin to think about how I want to structure my science lessons. I’ve never really given much thought about the words dialogue and discussion and how the two differ. But, thanks to this blog, I now know the difference between the two words and how they can be used in a science classroom. Although I haven’t had the to opportunity to teach science, I know how important it it for the students to be able to write an argument and be able to have the evidence to support the claim. Students need understand that dialogue and discussion are important steps along the way. As teachers, we need to not only provide students ample opportunities to practice talk, but we need to give them enough time to practice as well. The more they practice, the more they will be able to support their arguments/claims. We need to make sure that we start students young so that they can continue to build upon these steps as they get older, in a more intricate way.

  9. Elizabeth Martinsen
    Posted June 18, 2018 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    Discussion vs. dialogue has always been something that I questioned my knowledge on. I often times wondered if I really completely understood the differences between the two. This article really opened my eyes to truly understanding what the two look like in the classroom, so thank you for that. Allowing students the time to talk, through dialogue or discussion, is crucial to their learning across all subjects. I have found that the more time I allow for math talks, the more my students are able to talk through their findings. In my writing block, we use lots of sentence starters that have helped my fourth graders majorly. I would like to create math sentence starts to help with math discussions for this year. Thank you for the great read!

  10. Jen
    Posted June 18, 2018 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed your clarification on dialogue vs. discussion. When reflecting on my own teaching, I can think back to several, notable times where my I asked my students to discuss a given topic then had to rephrase my question so that they answered in a way that was more in line to what I was looking for. After reading this, I realize my students truly were only able to discuss for brief amounts of time, so no one was able to thoroughly explain their viewpoint. As educators, we always say we want our students to think and reason through what is presented to them, but we get so wrapped up into meeting a timeframe that that thought process and discussion often suffers. It is so important for students to openly listen and respectfully respond to the thoughts and ideas of others. I will definitely have to take a step back and really listen to my students’ guided conversations in class so that I can give them the adequate time they need to have meaningful discussions. Thank you for opening my eyes to this!

  11. Julianne
    Posted June 18, 2018 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    I love this distinction between dialogue and discussion! It is not something that I thought of before, and it really gave me something to ponder over as a 4th grade teacher. The ability for students to have an educational discussion with their peers and share different points of view is so important, even at a young age. This distinction takes classroom talk to the next level. I often have my students share different methods for coming up with an answer, but never thought of distinguishing it as discussion over dialogue. As your post says, these discussions must have a clear focus, though. I like your idea of asking students why one method ranks higher than another and challenging them to clearly explain how strong their evidence is. It’s amazing how some students changed their ranking when they realized they could justify another answer more in your lesson. This strategy would work for all subjects- not just science or math. As teachers, it is also important for us to remember that this may mean that our lesson takes longer than planned, like you experienced.

    I would like to play around with journaling in the math classroom in the coming school year as a way to strengthen students’ ability to prove their answers with strong evidence. Like you said, students need to be able to use both dialogue and discussion. I also agree that sentence starters would prove to be a solid teaching tool for young learners as they get used to this expectation.

    Thanks for sharing your school’s professional development project with us!

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