Dialogic teaching

Dialogue is a key part of all lively classrooms, but how do we ensure this dialogue is effective? How do we give students the tools they need to discuss mathematical ideas? What are the components of effective classroom dialogue? Let’s take a look at dialogic teaching and explore how it can encourage deeper mathematical learning.

What is dialogic teaching?

Dialogic teaching is grounded in active and meaningful dialogue between teacher and students. A dialogue is not a teacher standing in front of a class delivering a lesson – it is an active back and forth that promotes questioning and reasoning. The goal is to foster a collaborative and interactive learning environment where students actively engage in building their understanding of the subject.

Shyam Drury from Scitech explores the specifics of dialogic teaching in mathematics in this fantastic podcast on the Maths in Schools Strategies for Explicit Teaching podcast series. Drury observes, ‘When teaching mathematics in a dialogical classroom, the authority in the room is not the teacher or the student, instead it is mathematical truth.’


Questions are a part of every classroom, but what kind of questions encourage dialogue? Is it a matter of open-ended versus closed questions? Closed questions are important for checking comprehension, but they don’t promote dialogue. Open-ended questions promote dialogue, but discussions can easily get off track.

The key to constructing productive questions is to ensure that they promote focused dialogue. The mathematical idea you are teaching – and the desired learning outcome – should always direct the conversation and inform the questions you ask. This may include both open-ended and closed questions.

If you want to learn more about questioning, listen to the fascinating conversation with Professor Helen Chick from the University of Tasmania as she explores the ‘how to’ of questions in teaching.

How do you build a dialogic classroom?

Now we understand what dialogical teaching is, let’s explore how we put it into practice.

Mathematics teaching is largely based around an IRE dialogue pattern: initiate, respond, evaluate. For example:

  • Initiate: What’s 6 x 7?
  • Respond: 42
  • Evaluate: That’s right!

How do we extend this dialogue pattern? Instead of the conversation ending with the ‘evaluate’ response, ask your students a question. How did you come to that answer? Why did you use that method?

Bring in how and why questions to provoke thinking. How questions unpack and make more explicit a student’s approach to a mathematical problem and why questions promote reasoning. 

How does it feel as a learner?

Dialogic teaching is only effectively within the right classroom culture. A learner needs to feel safe to engage, enquire and take risks.

Here are some tools to help create a safe space for dialogic teaching:

  • Provide opportunities for students to speak to each other in low-risk situations, such as peer-to-peer discussions or small-group discussions. This way, every student in the room is expressing their thinking, not just those who arrive at the answer first.
  • Place whiteboards around the room displaying what you want your class to tackle. When everyone is looking at the same piece of mathematics, it encourages working together.
  • Set up challenges that provide a framework for students to share ideas.

Dialogue leads to deeper understanding

When learners feel safe, dialogic teaching helps construct a shared understanding of the strategies and tools required for mathematical learning.

Encouraging dialogue helps students develop the language they need to unpack and explore mathematics.

If they can talk about, they can share it!