Here is a book to help teachers to focus on facilitative interventions that raise awareness of the complex dynamics of group interaction, especially those that engender group dialogue. These include handling ambiguity, working with challenging topics, avoiding getting stuck in opinions-as-truth, moving elegantly between perspectives, and hearing minority voices. The ability to articulate ideas briefly and clearly, hold ambiguity, maintain reflective distance from our own opinions, consider ideas from different perspectives, and listen in ways that help others do the same must surely be the most desirable of 21st century skills – simply because the quality of everything else follows from it.
In this handbook Margit proposes that such a goal has a place in any educational context and provides an enlarged purpose for advanced conversation practice. In the latter case while learners are exploring the form, discourse and shades of meaning of English, they can also be developing their capacity to think which is so closely related to language. This includes seeing and questioning their own taken-for-granted assumptions that when unnoticed may curtail insight and dialogue, and speaking and listening in ways that encourage fellow interlocutors to do likewise. Group dialogue is the term Margit uses for this process, and it applies across all subjects and activities.
As the book title proposes, the activity of learning to talk provides a setting for a wider goal beyond that – talking to learn. And the key to this is exploratory talk, which is about questioning, puzzling, intuiting, looking at ideas from multiple perspectives, remaining open and flexible, listening openly and considering views different from one’s own. We need to create the facilitative conditions in which exploratory talk can flourish, rather than try to ‘teach’ it.
Facilitation skills are not identical to those of teaching and being based on different assumptions, purposes and practices, they tend to be just off the radar of many teacher preparation and development programmes. So Margit introduces some of the relevant skills bringing an enlarged dimension to the teacher’s role that enriches and extends their relationship to the learners and the learning. This not only changes the teacher’s life in the classroom, it changes the students’ lives as they too begin to explore facilitative attitudes and skills, thereby transforming the class and its enterprise. Students become aware that acts of attentive and non-judgmental listening enhance the speaker’s self-expression, and that inattention makes the class less interesting for everyone. They see that they too are co-creators of both transformational classes and boring classes.
These and many other engaging and uplifting ideas are presented in the first part of the book, in which Margit enlists insights pertaining to group dialogue from leading-edge thinkers and writers, in and outside ELT, such as Covey, Goleman, Senge, Stevick, Mercer, Tannen, Duhigg, Janis, Bohm, Rogers, and others.
The second part of the book offers a framework of 16 ways of arranging the dynamics between participants for developing group dialogue, each with the potential to change the atmosphere, the conversation and the group culture. This is followed by 16 corresponding activities from which an infinite number of further activities can be developed. Examples here include expressing different viewpoints in constructive and non-confrontational ways; creating a micro-culture of trust, spontaneity and mutual respect; holding ideas loosely: suspending opinions, transitioning between listening and speaking, asking richer questions; handling taboo topics and tough conversations.
The physicist David Bohm pioneered extraordinary work on Dialogue, his response to what he saw as the shortcomings in the way we unthinkingly adopt confrontational stances, remain unaware of the assumptions that affect how we think, speak and listen, and thereby limit what we learn. It is fitting to mention one of his intriguing, playful and challenging activities included in this book, which involves describing an opinion you hold as if it were an object held in front of you, like a coffee cup for example, and to turn the opinion as if turning a cup in order to see it from different angles, to separate from the opinion by creating reflective distance between yourself and it, and to see that you can see it, and that you can thereby unhook from it sufficiently to entertain other viewpoints as well.
Participants are invited to experience group dialogue as a worthwhile sense-making and humanising activity, in which group members think, speak and listen more deeply because they are well listened to, and in which they shape the outcomes. The experience of group dialogue is both transferable and transformational, flowing into other activities in the school, and outside into life itself.
Today more than ever, group dialogue is not just a nice-to-have, but a necessity, and this book illustrates that such work can not only enrich the advanced language class but can perform a transformational service throughout general education.