Creating a dialogical classroom through a dialectical approach

A paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting

Paper discussions: Dialogical Classrooms, Communities of Practice, and Technology in Action Research

Wednesday March 26 th, 8.15–8.55, New York Marriott Marquis, Times Square, Broadway Ballroom, Broadway North, 6 th Floor

Tsepo J. Majake

Bulumbo High School, Khayelitsha, and St Mary’s University College, Twickenham

Address for correspondence:


In this research report I offer descriptions and explanations of my practice as a classroom educator as I tried to influence the learning of my learners, and encourage and work with them to create a dialogical classroom and to reflect on my practice (Schon 1983), as I adopt a Kantian perspective to judging the success of my inquiry through the things I value (see Arendt 1990).


I am offering the account of an inquiry that I undertook from April to October 2007, which includes an explanation for the underlying issues that informed the practices and procedures I used during the research process. The inquiry contains the methodological procedures and explanatory frameworks for how I tried to live my values in practice (Whitehead 1989), as I developed a dialectical approach in trying to create a dialogical classroom. I organized my inquiry as McNiff and Whitehead (2006) suggest, by asking key questions, which I also use here to communicate the process of the enquiry:

  • What is my concern?
  • Why am I concerned?
  • How do I gather data to show the situation as it is and as it unfolds?
  • What will I do about my concern?
  • How will I explain my educational influences in learning?
  • How will I show that any conclusions I come to are reasonably fair and accurate?
  • How will I modify my concerns, ideas and practices in the light of my evaluation?

I focus especially on showing how I transform my values into the living standards by which I will judge the success and quality of my research. I am making two main claims in this paper:

  • I have learned that creating a dialogical classroom can promote cooperation
  • I have learned that the communication of personal stories can promote communal and collaborative learning

What was my concern?

My values were denied in my practice as an educator when I taught through expository, teacher-centered and teacher-led methodologies. My values were again denied in practice when I encouraged learners to compete and out-perform one another, as is currently normative practice within a South African context. These two issues are indicative of what I did in my classroom teaching when I lost myself within a system that was de-personalizing and that separated me from my values base. To appreciate the significance of what I am saying, I present a brief account of the different contexts in which I am situated.

My contexts

Personal contexts

I am a mathematical literacy teacher at a high school in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. I teach grades 10–12. I have been teaching for the past 12 years and have undertaken a series of in-service training opportunities, some of which were not altogether relevant to my practice. With the change from traditional to outcomes based education in South Africa, much had to change with it, from teaching strategies to textbooks to management styles. This change has had advantages and disadvantages, and one of its disadvantages has to do with its effect on teaching in the classroom. As a teacher I have learned that too many changes in a short space of time can be both confusing and ineffective. This learning has emerged from my experience as I tried to phase in the new curriculum in the classroom as well as use different teaching strategies. Shifting the focus from the teacher to the learner, while changing the content of the subject has not been easy, while learners were also adjusting to the new learner-centered approach as an aspect of the new policy directives.

Professional contexts

As a teacher I was caught between an education system that encourages learners to compete against one another, and my value of cooperation. Learners work hard to locate themselves within a national policy framework that manifests as a merit list for pupils’ performance; this merit list publishes the names of the most able learners in the country, who then have access to financial and other kinds of support. Many learners interpret this as a call to compete, thereby creating a spirit of non-cooperation in class. Personally, I believe that we can never reap the fruits of cooperation by cultivating a spirit of competition. The learner-centred approach hinges on the learner’s ability to work together through the sharing of information among the group without fear that one member of the group will use that information to personal advantage at the expense of others in the group.

Theoretical contexts

McNiff (2007) articulates how the things that give her pleasure are linked to her life; she sees those things that give her pleasure as inseparable from her. I also find pleasure in my practice and I am able to theorise this sense of personal wellbeing. Like McNiff, I am pleased when things go well, when those things I value are actively alive. I am not pleased when things go badly, when I do not manage to live my values as fully as I would like to. Then, like Whitehead (1989), I experience myself as a living contradiction when my values are denied in my practice. Isaiah Berlin (1998) has written persuasively about value-pluralism, the idea that different values may be equally appropriate to a social situation, and yet be in conflict with each other. For Berlin, values are social constructs rather than products of nature waiting to be discovered. He also argues that when values clash, it does not mean that one is more important than the other: for example, keeping a promise may conflict with the pursuit of truth. These collisions, he concludes, are the essence of what they are and what we are.

These ideas are relevant for me as a teacher-researcher. I have found action research appropriate for addressing my most practical concerns and to be more relevant for my own practice than traditional methodologies. With action research, I cherish the fact that I study my own practice and that my reflection can have practical implications for my practice. I also enjoy the idea that my work can influence others to start their own inquiries. However, I take care to emphasise that they should not try to replicate my findings since their situations and conditions are different from mine.

Cultural contexts

Ubuntu is an African philosophy that for me is central to world peace and co-existence. This philosophy is based on the idea that ‘I am because you are’, and is the philosophy that was the glue of traditional African society before colonization. I am not at this point suggesting that life was cosy and conflict-free before colonization; rather I am suggesting that ways of diffusing conflict and forging strong relationships have traditionally been understood as grounded in mutual understanding through personal relation. Growing up in South Africa I have learned that while traditional society may be dead and buried, yet the spirit of Ubuntu is still alive and well in our modern societies. According to the African view of life, a person can achieve happiness only by being part of a group. Members of the tribal circle also share ideas and ways of living that continually remind them of their differences from others. This is a heritage that I bring to my practice, so it is therefore sometimes difficult to work in harmony with my ontological and epistemological values, especially in an academic context that involves the publication and dissemination of ideas, where I have to be eternally competitive and keep my cards close to my chest for fear that my brother/sister may use my ideas for their own self-promotion before they are recognised as my intellectual property.

I value collaboration, freedom, dialogue and self-discovery. I believe that united we teacher-researchers are a force to reckon with than when we engage with a problem as individuals with collective intent. I believe that, as in Ubuntu, we are more likely to succeed in our struggles for personal and professional recognition, and therefore celebrate each other’s strengths by uniting our individual strengths to engage with challenges and transform them into contexts for social wellbeing. I also value freedom, especially as articulated by Berlin’s (1998) idea of ‘positive liberty’, associated with the idea of self-determination for one’s own self-development (see also Sen 1999). I also value dialogue as a process of generating meaning through the ‘primacy of context over text’ (Bakhtin 1986) through bringing the written word to life by living the experience. I also believe, as Polanyi (1958), suggests in the personal participation of the knower in the discovery of truth. It is for this reason that I pose my research question as ‘How can I influence my learners to create a dialogical classroom by using a dialectical approach?’

Why was I concerned?

Fullan (1998) suggests that the starting point for changing contexts is not the external environment; rather, it is our immediate situation. The key to change is new experiences. My concern for change was informed by the lack of cooperation and the presence of competition in my classroom. On a daily basis I reaffirmed my commitment to my educational values and yet my practice revealed a contradiction in my commitment. I have in the past perpetuated the view of teachers as fonts of knowledge by driving learning and encouraging learners to be willing vessels to be filled with knowledge. The passive learning that I encouraged made teaching easy for me and also enabled me to complete the syllabus on time. What I did not appreciate was that learners were not learning to their best advantage and that the knowledge I gave them was not always relevant to their everyday experiences.

I also used normative and standardized forms of assessment that failed to take the individuality and uniqueness of people into consideration. In short I not only failed my students by not developing them to their full potential, but I became a living contradiction when I deliberately denied my educational values in my practice.

How did I gather data to show the situation as it was and as it unfolded?

To collect data, I used pictures, my diary, interviews and comments at the end of all daily classroom assessments. First, I observed all protocols regarding ethics and ensuring permission to undertake the research, as I shall discuss later. I used these different methods of data collection so that I could try to find out if the data gathered using one technique was corroborated by data gathered using another. If the data that I wanted to convert to evidence, in relation to my values as living standards of judgement, indicated changed attitudes, then I would use more than one data source to show the change in attitude. Since I was conducting the research on myself and my practice in particular, I had little difficulty in finding ways in which I could assess the effectiveness of the different practices I developed in trying to find a solution to my challenges. I kept a data archive that I color-coded according to the type of data that was kept in each data category. Pictures were kept in a separate file, transcripts of interviews and tapes in another, and so on. I collected and analyzed my data regularly and systematically to establish trends within the emergent practice.

McNiff (2004) suggests that keeping a research diary can be used to indicate a clear time-line, to illustrate general points to show the complexities of a situation, and also to chart progress. This encouraged me to keep a diary in order to capture thick descriptions that show the complexities in my inquiry. I recorded regularly all the activities and factual information on how we interacted and what the outcomes were. The diary entries (transcripts: Appendix 2) were also introspective and evaluative, especially in relation to my thoughts and feelings.

The data I collected through the interview (transcripts: Appendix 1) was of a kind that helped me to show the situation as it is. The questions I posed within the interview were in line with what the learners and the staff saw as possible threats and weaknesses in the SWOT analysis. These threats and weaknesses were discussed within the context of how the interviewee was positioned in school. The questions were open ended and allowed for myself as an interviewer to interface and create a rapport with the interviewee. I then went on to raise questions about the strengths and opportunities for the interviewee and the school. The intention was to try and find out what the interviewee thought their contribution could be to the school. Pictures are presented below to show the processes involved.

What did I do about my concern?

The first thing I did was to write letters asking for permission from the Department of Education (Appendix 3), the learners (Appendix 4) and the parents (Appendix 5). Each letter was accompanied by an ethics statement (Appendix 6), in which I pledged to adhere to the negotiated code of consultation if and when I needed to show their pictures and use their names or work.

I then further ensured the involvement of research partners, including my learners, by sharing with them the basic principles of dialogue. This entailed unpacking what several authors had to say about it and how their ideas could be adapted to suit our situation. I encouraged the learners to read widely about chaos theory and Brownian movement, where visible chaos is always underpinned by intricate order. This for me was important because my initial efforts at developing collaboration through dialogue did not seem to work out and it was as if we were trying to achieve order through disorder while simultaneously uncertain about our future steps. Lukacks (1919), when he was addressing the United Nations, said that contradictions needed to be understood as some sense of opposition between ideas involved in a directly associated context, and yet dialectical contradiction was not reducible to simple opposites or negations. I encouraged my learners to understand Berlin’s (1998) view that pluralism does not necessarily mean trying to reconcile conflicting views, but engaging with conflict. These ideas made a deep impression on me and I believe on my learners as well, because our disagreements in our discursive engagements did not have the character of trying to reconcile so much as engaging until each one saw the other’s point of view. We never aimed for closure. I also introduced the ideas by McNiff (2004) that human experiences should never be presented as a straightforward unproblematic story, because people seldom share the same values base and are potentially always in conflict. This conflict and diversity is representative of who we are and what we stand for.

We therefore sat in a circle, and tried, at least temporarily, to suspend our prejudices, ideas and experiences. We did not come to the circle with expectations or pre-conceived ideas; we did however come with the purpose of creating new knowledge of creating a dialogical classroom.

We formulated a class vision, and a mission statement and agreed on common values that informed our programme. We agreed that I was never to stand in front of the class as a fountain of knowledge, and that I would confine my duties to my role as a facilitator where I mediated learning. This meant that the learners’ personal stories would contextualize content; it meant that we had to agree on how and when this would be done. Creating a dialogical classroom was not as easy as it sounds, as in some cases I would have to encourage the learners to talk whenever they slipped back into the traditional idea of the teacher as the center of delivery.

How will I explain my educational influences in learning?

I interrogated my data regularly, especially in relation to whether I was being critical (Schon 1983) of my own practice. Habermas (1979) locates rationality in structures of interpersonal linguistic communication rather than in the structure of the knowing subject, and I believe this idea advances the goals of human emancipation. This idea fits well with Buber’s (1937) ideas of the relational potential of persons, through his articulation of an I-Thou relationship. I observed the living manifestation of these ideas in my interaction with the learners in my classroom, and also in their interaction with one another. I took these collective experiences as the evidence base I developed to see if my inquiry was a success in terms of the extent to which I was realising my values in my practice.

What I observed in my classroom was the sudden change in relational attitudes more towards the creation of an inter-human sphere, the space where humans meet. I also observed a reduction in an ethos of individualism and competition, both of which have the capacity to corrode the philosophy of Ubuntu. I can produce statements by learners as evidence of these claims. For example, B, a learner in my class commented, “I find working in a group more developing and beneficial because we share experiences.”

These dialogic intercommunications are reminiscent of the ideas of Bohm (1996) on creating free associations conducted in groups with no predefined purpose in mind other than mutual understanding and the exploration of human thought. This I observed in our daily discursive engagements as we prepared to engage with the content of mathematics, and as we daily listened to personal stories that people brought to the classroom. We would engage with the story while all of us tried to contribute a dimension to it that would add value and also make it usable in contextualizing content.

Learners sharing stories to contextualize content

I also observed that learners continued with their discussions with no expectations of closure. The discussions would continue until a plurality of ideas, experiences and values were accommodated in this one story, which could be understood in a multiplicity of forms and from a multiplicity of perspectives. Leaner J responded to a question in an interview by saying, “I never knew that I could disagree without being judgmental and negative.”

How will I show that any conclusions I came to were reasonably fair and accurate?

The outcomes of the inquiry have considerable educational significance. The contextualization of content has in time past been foreign to my learners’ experience, and I have now found a way to involve them in the lesson and to keep the learning process learner-centered by encouraging them to bring their personal stories into the classroom. I found a diary entry where I wrote, ‘The stokvel context that was brought into class by X made the topic on financial mathematics easy for others to understand budgeting.’

The inquiry also has implications for my style of classroom management, in that the development of a class vision and mission statement can also help learners to take responsibility for their own learning through their personal involvement in the process.

Professionally, I have developed a living theory of practice through which I can involve learners in their own learning. I have developed strategies to allow learners to bring their own experiences and stories into the classroom to contextualize and make the content immediate and relevant. I have also come to see that co-operative learning works very well with enquiry-based learning and cross-curricular activities. I believe my classroom inquiry can contribute to the organizational learning of my school. I also believe that this will form the focus of the next stage of my action enquiry.

I have already presented my findings to my colleagues and learners at school. Those who attended the presentation were of great help in my inquiry. The learners who attended the presentation had also been participants in the inquiry and therefore their input was invaluable. The staff members were interested in knowing if they could replicate the outcomes of my investigation in their own classrooms. I explained to them that their situation was different from mine but they could learn from the processes of my enquiry, and I would also support them as they engaged with their own enquiries.

I then presented my research to a validation group, comprising my study colleagues in my MA group and our mentor. The kinds of questions that they raised were based on the rigor and the relevance of my inquiry. These questions too made me to go back to the drawing board where I had to restructure and consolidate different elements in my inquiry. Colleague M asked, “Can I use your findings to improve my practice in my class?” To that I replied that my inquiry was specific to my personal needs and that I could support them as they conducted theirs. I explained that they could learn from my inquiry but should not aim to replicate my results because of the uniqueness of our different contexts.

How will I modify my concerns, ideas and practices in the light of my evaluation?

As explained above, I am considering engaging in a new action reflection cycle to explore the possibilities of encouraging all stakeholders to create a knowledge creating school through dialogue. I hope to achieve this by learning from my classroom experience and by also ensuring that my research partners actively and creatively collaborate in the research.

I could have considered first trying to create a dialogical school and then trying to create a dialogical classroom. If I had done so perhaps I would have failed to see that starting small and then moving on to larger co-operative projects was more beneficial than the other way round. Small projects allow space for failure and learning from those failures.

At present I do not know whether this inquiry has been successful in helping others. However, I am aware that it has changed me, and I bring my new knowledge to my life of ongoing enquiry.


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Berlin , I. (1998) The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays. London, Pimlico.

Bohm, D. (edited by N. Lee) (1996) On Dialogue. London, Routledge.

Bakhtin, M. (1986) Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Texas, University of San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Buber, M (1937) I and Thou (trans. R.G. Smith). Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark.

Fullan, M. (2001) Leading in a Culture of Change. PLACE OF PUBLICATION? PUBLISHERS?

Habermas, J. (1979) Communication and The Evolution of Society (trans. T. McCarthy). Boston, Beacon Press.


McNiff, J with Whitehead, J. (2004) Action Research: Principles and Practice (second edition). London, RoutledgeFalmer.

McNiff, J. and Whitehead, J. (2006) All You Need to Know about Action Research. London, Sage.

McNiff, J. (2007) How Do I Account For The Good In What I Claim As Quality Educational Research? A paper presented at the Philosophy of Education Special Interest Group, at the British Educational Research Association Annual Meeting on the 7 th September 2007 at the Institute of Education, University of London.

Polanyi, M. (1958) Personal Knowledge. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Sch o n, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York, Basic Books.

Sen, A. (1999) Development as Freedom. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Whitehead, J. (1989) Creating a living educational theory from questions of the kind, ‘How do I improve my practice?’, Cambridge Journal of Education 19(1), 41-52.


Appendix 1

Appendix 2

And so on.

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