Exploring Talk in School: Inspired by the Work of Douglas Barnes


Edited by: Neil Mercer & Steve Hodgkinson

  • Citations
  • Add to My List
  • Text Size

  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Copyright

    View Copyright Page


    Robin Alexander

    Fellow of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge

    Professor of Education Emeritus, University of Warwick

    Director of the Primary Review

    Faculty of Education

    University of Cambridge

    United Kingdom

    Tamara Ball

    Ph.D. Candidate, Education Department

    Faculty of Social Sciences

    University of California at Santa Cruz

    United States of America

    Douglas Barnes

    Former Reader in Education

    School of Education

    University of Leeds

    United Kingdom

    Laura Black

    Lecturer in Literacy

    School of Education

    University of Manchester

    United Kingdom

    Maria Lucia Castanheira

    Faculdade de Educação

    Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais


    Courtney B Cazden

    Charles William Eliot Professor of Education, Emerita

    Harvard Graduate School of Education

    Harvard University

    United States of America

    Lyn Dawes

    Senior Lecturer in Education

    School of Education

    University of Northampton

    United Kingdom

    Carol Gilles

    Associate Professor of Reading and Language Arts

    College of Education

    University of Missouri-Columbia

    United States of America

    Judith Green

    Professor of Education

    Gevirtz School of Education

    University of California at Santa Barbara

    United States of America

    Frank Hardman

    Professor in Educational Studies

    Centre for Language Learning Research

    School of Education Studies

    University of York

    United Kingdom

    Steve Hodgkinson

    Research Fellow

    Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy

    University Hospital Ulm


    Neil Mercer

    Professor of Education & Fellow of Hughes Hall

    Faculty of Education

    University of Cambridge

    United Kingdom

    Kathryn Mitchell Pierce

    Writing Instructional Support Specialist

    Wydown Middle School

    Clayton, Missouri

    United States of America

    Phil Scott

    Professor of Science Education

    School of Education

    University of Leeds

    United Kingdom

    Yvette Solomon


    Department of Educational Research

    Lancaster University

    United Kingdom

    Gordon Wells

    Professor of Education

    Faculty of Social Sciences

    University of California at Santa Cruz

    United States of America

    Beth Yeager

    Director, Center for Education Research

    Gevirtz Graduate School of Education

    University of California at Santa Barbara

    United States of America


    SteveHodgkinson and NeilMercer

    One could be forgiven for thinking that the single greatest challenge facing children as they grow up in the twenty-first century is how they can become productive members of an increasingly technological society. Certainly many school curricula reflect the importance placed on children understanding the application of innovation, technology and their interconnectedness in our global society That said, we perhaps take too much for granted a more fundamental aspect of the human condition: our use of language, principally speech, to communicate with each other. This is particularly important in the formative years of our development, including the many years we spend as children in school.

    Classroom talk, by which children make sense of what their peers and teachers mean, has been the subject of school-based educational research for more than forty years now. In that time, its significance has been redefined as individualistic, cognitive theories of learning gave way to more social, culturally located interpretations of learning. It is now appreciated that classroom talk is not merely a conduit for the sharing of information, or a means for controlling the exuberance of youth; it is the most important educational tool for guiding the development of understanding and for jointly constructing knowledge. As the chapters in this book will make clear, research has provided a wealth of good reasons why policy makers and teachers should give more attention to improving the quality of classroom talk.

    More than thirty years ago, when this field of research was still in its infancy, Douglas Barnes wrote ‘From Communication to Curriculum’, a succinct account of the kinds of classroom talk he observed in a Leeds secondary school. He noted that often the odds were stacked against pupils being able to use talk productively in the classroom, because of the rigid and formalised way teachers required children to engage in dialogue. Since then, the book has become a core text for the more enlightened initial teacher education courses, and the clear but profound message that it conveyed has reverberated across time.

    Today, the relevance of the ideas expressed in it is an enduring legacy of the work of Douglas Barnes, and a source of inspiration for the many educationalists who have adopted his ideas in their own work.

    In this book, we have gathered together some of those leading educationalists who have been inspired by Douglas's work, and asked them to write about their own work on classroom talk. In doing so, we have been conscious of the need to bridge what often seems like a vast conceptual gulf between practitioners and researchers – a gulf that Douglas bridged so well. Hence, each of the contributions locates the research firmly within the practice of classroom teaching, and outlines practical steps that may be taken to develop effective classroom interaction in many different contexts.

    In the opening chapter, ‘Exploratory Talk for Learning’, Douglas Barnes summarises something of what he has learnt from his years as a schoolteacher and as a researcher about how pupils learn in school and how teachers can best help them. During his time at the University of Leeds he set out to investigate what role spoken and written language can, at best, play in young people's learning in school. Later on, he came to define the relationship between teachers and learners less in terms of language and more as the kinds of access to the processes of learning that teachers made possible. The communication system that a teacher sets up in a lesson shapes the roles that pupils can play, and goes some distance in determining the kinds of learning that they engage in. Thus he deals not only with pupils’ learning, but also with what teachers do to influence this, while at the same time acknowledging that a teacher's attention is not given solely to the content of what is being taught; it is also necessary to manage social relations in the classroom, and failure in this latter respect will endanger any progress in learning. The management of these two responsibilities – which at times can seem almost to be in conflict – is central to the skill of teaching.

    As a very practical example of how ‘guided’ talk can enhance pupils’ understanding of new ideas, Phil Scott's chapter, ‘Talking a Way to Understanding in Science Classrooms’, focuses on the talk of the science classroom and in particular on the ways in which teachers can interact with pupils, in whole-class settings, to support the meaningful learning of scientific concepts. The kind of scenario developed here concerns how a teacher might support a class of pupils, over a period of time, in moving from an initial everyday understanding of a specific phenomenon (such as an object falling) to a scientific explanation of that same phenomenon (perhaps in terms of gravity). How might we characterise the kinds of talk used as a teacher interacts with pupils during a series of lessons and different teaching purposes are addressed? The approach Scott takes on these issues draws upon socio-cultural theory and recent studies of meaning making in classroom settings (including those he has carried out with Eduardo Mortimer). Particular attention is paid to the demands upon teachers as they act ‘in the gap’ between pupil understandings and scientific views and to the sophisticated level of insight which is required of teachers if productive dialogue is to flourish in classrooms. Set out in these broad terms, this chapter returns to precisely the same kinds of issues which Douglas Barnes addressed so perceptively and elegantly over thirty-five years ago in his own analyses of the ways in which language underpins the teaching and learning of science.

    In their chapter, ‘From Exploratory Talk to Critical Conversations’, Kathryn M. Pierce and Carol Gilles draw on their observations of how pupils in the USA use classroom talk to generate and think through their ideas in elementary and middle school classrooms. Their work with literature discussion groups over the past twenty years has allowed them to listen closely to the ways students talk about the books they have read. They see talk as providing a window into students’ thinking as they work at understanding and generating new understanding. Using Barnes's idea of ‘exploratory talk’ has helped them to appreciate how students use language to gain new, collaborative insights. Students draw on books and each other's contributions to begin to critique contemporary society, generating a sense of hope that things can change and inspiring one another to take thoughtful, new action. In their efforts to ‘unpack’ exploratory talk, to figure out what students can do with this talk and what different forms it takes, Pierce and Gilles have begun to look at what they call critical conversations. Critical conversations involve students engaged in exploratory talk that includes questioning or challenging beliefs. Pierce and Gilles suggest that these conversations can only take place within a supportive learning community in which learners feel comfortable taking risks, putting forth tentative ideas, and raising difficult questions that examine their own and others’ beliefs and actions.

    Moving across several time zones, but on a similar theme, in the next chapter, ‘The Value of Exploratory Talk’, Neil Mercer and Lyn Dawes describe how a programme of classroom-based research inspired by Barnes's work has found that group discussion can contribute not only to the development of children's language and reasoning skills, but also to their individual, curriculum-related learning. Building upon Barnes's work showing how group discussions in the classroom enable children to explore ideas, try out new ways of thinking and solve problems together, Mercer and Dawes develop further the concept of exploratory talk, showing how it can be used to shape both communications between teachers and pupils and talk amongst pupils. The findings of their research have direct implications for how teachers should interact with their students, for how they should prepare students for working effectively together, and for what students themselves should understand about their use of language as a tool for reasoning and learning. Links are made with the concept of ‘dialogic teaching’, as described by Alexander (Chapter 6), with Scott's work on talk in science education (Chapter 2) and with Solomon and Black's work on mathematics education (Chapter 5). The research Mercer and Dawes describe has generated a practical approach to teaching called Thinking Together, which has now been used successfully by many teachers in the UK and in other parts of the world, and its essential features are set out in their chapter.

    Talking to Learn and Learning to Talk in the Mathematics Classroom' is an account of the research undertaken by Yvette Solomon and Laura Black on one of the most distinctive and yet perhaps under-emphasised elements of Douglas Barnes's work. Barnes noted some years ago that pupils do not behave as an homogeneous group when participating in classroom discourse: they have distinctive identities as learners. He also argued that, given the right context in terms of task and pedagogic approach, all children are capable of exploratory talk as a means of taking an active part in learning. Thirty years on this argument is still highly relevant, and particularly so in the context of school mathematics. In their chapter, Solomon and Black show how pupils take on different learner identities and ways of engagement through their participation and non-participation in classroom discourse. While some pupils develop an identity of exclusion from mathematics, others more readily develop identities of engagement, which involve hypothesising and posing questions for oneself, exploring and investigating ideas, negotiating and justifying solutions to problems and using the teacher as a resource. Like Barnes, they locate the source of these differences in the interaction patterns that pupils experience. They conclude that although some pupils regularly experience what we might call dialogic interactions, which enable them to ‘talk themselves into understanding’, others experience heavily controlled interactions in which they adopt a largely passive role. Key to this difference is the strong emphasis on ability and attainment, which impacts on both the ways that teachers communicate with pupils and pupils’ understanding of the learning process.

    Robin Alexander's chapter, ‘Culture, Dialogue and Learning: Notes on an Emerging Pedagogy’, summarises his work on the ‘emerging pedagogy’ of the spoken word. He considers how it might be possible to exploit the power of talk to shape children's thinking and to secure their engagement, learning and understanding during the developmentally critical years when they are in primary or elementary schools. Alexander draws mainly on three elements of his research over the past two decades: first, a long-term comparative study of the relationship between culture and pedagogy in five countries (England, France, India, Russia and the USA) second, subsequent development work on classroom talk and specifically the idea of ‘dialogic teaching’; third, observational research in UK classrooms, which preceded both of these and which ignited his desire to discover whether the identified features and problems of British pedagogy were universal or whether radical alternatives were available. Much of his work originates in classrooms, with what happens there in normal rather than ideal circumstances, and he outlines his current perspective on dialogic teaching as teachers in various parts of the UK are trying to apply it. Alexander also presents some interim findings from the schools involved in the dialogic teaching development projects, both positive and problematic.

    Crossing the Atlantic again, ‘Talking Texts into Being: On the Social Construction of Everyday Life and Academic Knowledge in the Classroom’, introduces the work of Judith Green, Beth Yeager and Maria Castanheira, and their exploration of how knowledge is socially constructed in the classroom. Drawing on ethnographic research with students from diverse linguistic backgrounds, Green, Yeager and Castanheira describe how teachers work with students to construct a common language of the classroom, and how this shapes what counts as academic knowledge and practice. They also outline how such knowledge is ‘talked into being’ from the first moments of school, across time, and how this discourse shapes the ways of knowing, being and doing experienced by students in the classroom. Using specific examples drawn from the teaching of mathematics, they focus on how a teacher will use talk to guide a student's participation, and how new ways of being a mathematician are created in a bilingual 5th grade class.

    In his chapter, ‘Teachers’ Use of Feedback in Whole-class and Group-based Talk’, Frank Hardman discusses how the pedagogy of dialogic teaching challenges the thinking in government policy on education and relates this to the recent introduction of a range of ‘top-down’ initiatives to change pedagogic practice, with a greater emphasis on whole-class ‘interactive’ teaching in both primary and secondary schools in England. Drawing upon his own work, and that of a range of researchers into classroom talk (for example, Robin Alexander, Neil Mercer, and Gordon Wells in this volume), Hardman argues that the term ‘dialogic teaching’ should replace both the vagueness of ‘interactive’ and the organisational restrictiveness of ‘whole-class teaching’. Dialogic teaching draws on the theoretical work of Vygotsky and Bakhtin, and also significantly upon the earlier research of Douglas Barnes. Dialogic teaching is seen as being collective, supportive and reciprocal, through the sharing of ideas and alternative viewpoints; and cumulative, in group-based and whole-class situations, with teachers and pupils building on each other's ideas and chaining them into coherent lines of thinking and enquiry. Hardman suggests that when teachers provide feedback which asks pupils to expand on their thinking, to justify or clarify their opinions, or make connections to their own experiences, this can enhance levels of pupil participation and engagement and lead to higher levels of pupil achievement. When such high-level feedback occurs, a teacher ratifies the importance of a pupil's response and allows it to modify or affect the course of the discussion in some way, weaving it into the fabric of an unfolding exchange. They chain together teacher questions and pupil responses so that the discourse gradually takes on a more collaborative quality with teacher and pupils taking turns in speaking, thereby encouraging more pupil-initiated ideas and responses and consequently promoting higher-order thinking.

    In ‘Reflections on the Study of Classroom Talk’, Courtney Cazden explores current ideas about how talk unites what children draw from the social relationships they make in the classroom, and what they actually learn while in school. Cazden draws upon the work of Barbara Rogoffs three planes of analysis (cognitive – talk – social) to review work with middle school literacy classes that formed part of the ‘Fostering a Community of Learners’ (FCL) programme first initiated by Ann Brown and Joseph Campione in the early 1990s. Cazden uses interviews she conducted (with a member of the FCL team, Marty Rutherford) in 2004, with adults now in their twenties, to understand how these different planes of interaction were realised in the classroom. Cazden notes that there are strong echoes in these interviews of how these adults, then children, ‘worked on understanding’ (as explained by Barnes in this volume), becoming socialised into a pattern of social interaction which involved setting up starting points for their work (benchmarking), documenting and exchanging research ideas (research rotations), and talking to teachers about their ideas, as well as exchanging these ideas across and within their groups (reciprocal teaching). Cazden suggests that an ‘enacted’ curriculum, within which pupils explain to each other and their teacher what they have learned, effectively harnesses the power of talk for clarifying in the minds of pupils just what they do and don't understand. She concludes that the FCL programme is effective because it draws upon the individual, cognitive elements of pupils’ understanding and uses talk to situate these ideas in a ‘social reality’ realised through collaboration, compromise and constant reassessment.

    In the final chapter, ‘Exploratory Talk and Dialogic Inquiry’, Gordon Wells and Tamara Ball build upon Barnes's argument that ‘learning is never passive’ and upon his concept of exploratory talk as a fundamental tool that learners can use to actively ‘work on understanding’. They propose that exploratory talk is important to the development of understanding for at least three reasons: it affords learners a sense of ownership over their own learning; it affords the feeling of being understood; and, finally, it can be internalised to mediate learners’ understanding and problem solving. Wells and Ball provide evidence from their research to support claims that exploratory talk (or dialogue) promotes essential educational opportunities for students as they attempt to construct knowledge together and to make the interpretative connections involved in individual understanding. Finally, they consider the sorts of educational goals that can be served by that kind of dialogue. On the basis of their research using observational data from elementary to university classrooms, Wells and Ball argue that inquiry is a pedagogic approach that is particularly conducive to the creation of the goals and conditions that facilitate exploratory talk and inspire learners to ‘try out new ways of thinking that are disturbingly different from what they are used to’ (Barnes, this volume).

    The contributors to this book have carried out their work in a variety of school settings, in various parts of the world. Most of them have not worked together on joint projects, yet the common message that emerges here is clear. To ensure that children are given the best opportunities for gaining an education from the time they spend in school, it is necessary to focus on how spoken language is used in the classroom. These chapters show that we have the practical knowledge needed to improve the quality of classroom talk. Yet, in most classrooms, and in most educational policy, talk remains a taken-for-granted feature of everyday life.

    We and our fellow contributors are proud to follow Douglas Barnes in the study of classroom dialogue. Although most of the chapters in this book are based on very recent classroom research, the influence of his distinctive contribution to this field of enquiry is apparent in all of them. We offer this celebratory volume in the expectation that readers will also appreciate the lasting relevance of his work to the practical study of education, and in the hope that – for the benefit of pupils everywhere – policy makers and practitioners will act upon its message.

    • Loading...
Back to Top

Copy and paste the following HTML into your website