Becoming Dialogical: Creating a Place for Dialogue in Art Education

By Zander, Mary Jane | Art Education, May 2004 | Go to article overview

Becoming Dialogical: Creating a Place for Dialogue in Art Education


Zander, Mary Jane, Art Education


Not far from my classroom there is a sculpture of a teacher and two students engaged in dialogue. What distinguishes this exchange as dialogue is that the forward lean of one student's body shows that she is actively involved in listening. The teacher leans toward the student and opens her mouth as though she is caught in a moment of powerful exchange, but the girl's body is poised as if she might be the next to speak. A boy leans back from the two speakers, but it is clear that he is not disinterested. he is thinking about what has already been said. His body language reflects interest and personal involvement in the discussion.

Curiously, this sculpture-meant to epitomize learning-bears little resemblance to what happens in schools. There are no desks lined up in rows. The atmosphere is relaxed and both teacher and students are involved in a dynamic conversation as opposed to more usual methods of formal instruction.

Dialogue in the Classroom

Current recommendations for teaching increasingly call for meaningmaking and discussion (Walker, 1996). However, new teachers are seldom given instruction or guidelines for creating an environment that nurtures or encourages dialogue or discussion that is not teacher-centered (Milbrandt, 2002). Most art teachers are familiar with questioning strategies used to involve students with looking at art (Anderson, 1993; Barrett, 1997; Feldman, 1996; Yenawine, 1998). But while art teachers are concerned with questioning and getting students to think for themselves, studies show that despite the fact that many teachers believe students should have opportunities for open-ended discussion, in practice, this is observed by researchers less often than teacher self-reports would indicate (Milbrandt, 2002).

Historically, teachers consistently dominate the talk that takes place in the classroom (Amidon, 1971; Flanders, 1970; Cazden, 1988). Two thirds of this talk is by the teacher. Two thirds of that talk is direct instruction, and two thirds of the direct instruction takes the form of questions that require a predictable response (Flanders, 1970). Teacher-talk generally takes the form of Initiation, Response, and Evaluation (IRE) or what others call IRF (Initiation Response Feedback). In either case, the teacher initiates a question, the student responds, and the teacher either evaluates, gives feedback, or extends the answer by directing attention to related topics or opinions (Cazden, 1988).

Very little of what occurs in a classroom can be identified as dialogue.

Reasons include the fact that most teachers are untrained in its use (Milbrandt, 2002) and the culture of teaching and schools is not always conducive to unrestricted forms of verbal expression (Burbules, 1993). Dialogue is not just a matter of asking the right questions or understanding a teaching strategy but a matter of creating an environment in which the teaching relationship becomes one of open-ended discovery.

In 20 years of observing teachers and student teachers, I can only attest to having seen a handful of classrooms in which teachers and students maintained a dialogical relationship for any length of time. Most of these were in secondary or advanced classes. Even then, the relationships that developed in the classroom were not universal. Initially, some students were not happy because the approach was different; others thrived. They reported, "I've learned more in the class than any other" "He listens! No one ever listens to us." "He is the best teacher I have ever had" (Zander, 1998).

Dialogue has been described as the epic experience in teaching-the dialogic relationship-an experience that transcends teaching and becomes inspirational, (Burbules, 1993; Greene, 1988; van Manen, 1991) and yet its relative absence in schools is understandable. Dialogue is a process and a relationship (Burbules, 1993) that requires time, commitment and mutual respect. Even though respectful relationships often exist in schools, more often there is not enough time, opportunity, or willingness on the part of both teacher and students to develop the open and trusting exchange that characterizes true dialogue. …

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