A dialogue on dialogue and its place within education
Dialogue features quite often in educational theories but almost always as a means to an end, the end of ‘the construction of knowledge’ in one form or another. I want to suggest that dialogue should be treated as an end-in-itself. On the one hand this is quite a straightforward idea, the idea that the process of dialogue embodies the kind of ‘skills’ that are important for thinking and learning
and so a capacity to engage in dialogue should be an aim of education. When I present the idea of ‘dialogic education’ to audiences of practitioners I say that it is more than teaching through dialogue, it is teaching for dialogue and this formulation seems to make sense and be easy to apply. On the other hand though, if we think through what it really means to treat dialogue as an end-in-itself, I think that we have to develop a dialogic ontology that offers a new and challenging theory of education. So what is ‘dialogic’? Often this term is used for anything pertaining to dialogue but it is of more value when used as a technical term contrasting to ‘monologic’. Bakhtin repeatedly points out that meaning requires a dialogue and does not exist outside of dialogue (e.g. Bakhtin 1986, p. 162). His point is that meaning is not just there in things already but is always an answer to a question. Dialogue therefore does not aim at complete agreement, if we were somehow able to reach complete agreement and coincide with our interlocutor in a dialogue then there would be no need for further dialogue and the flow of meaning would cease. In other words, meaning always implies difference and multiplicity. When we think of a dialogue we think of people in conversation and then we think of the dialogue as a relation between them. But what if we try to think of the relation coming first? It is only in the context of dialogues that identities are defined. Aristotle’s words become an Aristotelian position on the solar system only in dialogue with Copernicus: I become me and you become you, only in the context of dialogues. Yet the dialogic principle itself, because it is the source of identity in this way, does not have a clear identity or location of its own (Wegerif 2007). The concept of dialogue as an end-in-itself or ‘dialogic’ can do useful work within educational theory. This useful work is pointing to a dimension of development that is really important and readily recognized intuitively but is often overlooked simply because of the difficulty of thinking it and of representing it. I understand this as the dimension of growth from having a fixed identity position towards identification with ‘dialogic’ or the ‘space of dialogue’. Growth in the direction of dialogue as an end-in-itself is easy to see in the quality of responses towards anything which is new and ‘other’. To be more dialogic is not necessarily to be more productive in constructing knowledge but it is to be more open to other voices, more able to question and to listen and so more able to allow new unanticipated meanings to emerge.