Dialogue occupies a place of honor in educational tradition. The most renowned context is Plato’s philosophy, which was written in dialogic form and offers dialogue as Socrates’ principal educational and teaching method. The second distinct context brings us into the heart of the twentieth century and includes the existential philosophy of Martin Buber and the critical counterhegemonic pedagogy of Paulo Freire. Other forms of dialogue that are held to be inspirational and relevant to education include the following: of the classical models, most notable are the Confucian and Talmudic dialogues; and in the modern age, the existentialist Nietzschean dialogue, the pedagogic dialogue of Janusz Korczak, the therapeutic dialogue of Carl Rogers, the hermeneutic dialogue of Hans-Georg Gadamer, the care dialogue of Nel Noddings, the Habermasian deliberative dialogue of communicative action, the ethical dialogue of Emmanuel Levinas, as well as the dialogic practices that developed in the context of democratic education, environmental education, and education for a culture of peace and shared life.
Dialogue is a form of speech – distinguished in various aspects from other forms such as conversation, discussion, and discourse – and commonly associated with positive and pleasant qualities of intimacy, trust, respect, and reciprocity. Etymologically, the word comes from ancient Greek and is made up of dia – which means between – and logos – which means speech. This explains the accepted meaning and “feel” of dialogue as a pleasant, meaningful, respectful, and constructive conversation.
In order for us to achieve good understanding of the nature of Dialogic Education – of dialogues in education as much as of educational dialogue – let us first posit the distinguishing marks of educational processes and practices. It is my contention that in the beginning of the twenty-first century and in light of the formally accepted ideals of humanistic and democratic culture (embedded in the UN’s universal declaration of human rights and of the rights of the child), the practice of education should be identified with facilitating people to lead autonomous, full, worthy, and flourishing lives. More specifically and informed by the normative tenets of humanism and democracy, educational practices are characterized by the following elements: (a) cultivation of one’s innate powers; (b) providing a social atmosphere of intellectual freedom and human dignity; (c) initiation into worthwhile modes of thought and action (including virtues of intellect and character); and (d) empowering one’s autonomous and authentic self-realization as much as one’s meaningful and responsible participation in the natural, social, and cultural spheres of life.
Educational dialogue is not small talk or a casual conversation held in a cafeteria or in the street. It always involves significant content or statements.
Educational dialogue is not a shouting match or a confrontational and vocal argument, in which each side tries to call attention to itself at the expense of the other. It is pleasant and respectful, open to hearing different views and conceptually flexible.
Educational dialogue is not authoritative, such as the speech between a master and a subject or a commander and a subordinate. It evinces a nonhierarchical approach and a spirit of democracy, reciprocity, and solidarity.
Educational dialogue is not the giving of instructions or delivery of a lecture between a teacher and student, or the impartation of some form of knowledge and the testing of the extent to which the students have internalized it. It is a form of shared learning, both about the world of the other and of new content.
Educational dialogue is not a functional or technocratic performance-oriented speech, the entire purpose of which is to produce results. It is a process and does not necessarily produce clear, obvious results toward which the speech is oriented.
Respect for the other by virtue of his or her humanity.
Interest in their personality and world by virtue of their singularity or otherness.
A point of departure based on mutual trust and openness (not power games or competitions involving status and prestige).
Debate or exchange of ideas among the speakers that invites joint thought and a mutually beneficial exchange of ideas.
It aims at mutual enrichment and inspiration through the widening of the capacities to better understand one’s own life, the lived reality of the other, and the circumstances that they share.
In light of these features, I would like to adopt the following “working definition” of dialogue: Dialogue is a conversation in which those involved are attentive to one another and exhibit a mutual interest on the basis of their shared humanity and individual personalities; out of a shared sense of trust, respect and openness, they jointly advance to a more comprehensive understanding of themselves, others and the circumstances they share.
As I noted in the opening paragraph, dialogue occupies a place of honor in educational tradition and in recent years it has become significantly more dominant due to the growing frustration at the dehumanizing effects of the “standardization and achievements” approach. The large repertoire and manifold forms of dialogue have naturally challenged educational theorists to analytically and critically scrutinize them and to introduce various typologies of educational dialogues. One can look, for example, to Burbules’s typology which covers four kinds of dialogue in the practice of teaching: as Conversation, as Inquiry, as Debate, and as Instruction. Haroutunian-Gordon focuses on what she calls Interpretive Discussion, and Skidmore uses the typology of Dialogic Instruction, Dialogic Enquiry, and Dialogic Teaching. It is widely agreed, however, among educationists, that no one typology is final and exhaustive and that it is best to judge them by their edifying and pragmatic value. Along this line, not siding with any one typology of dialogues yet stressing the existing and growing diversity, I have listed in the following fifteen different types of dialogue on a largely chronological continuum, some of which are quintessentially pedagogic in nature, while others have some relevance to education and are implemented in various and sundry ways in the educational discourse and practice.
The Confucian dialogue: Named for the sixth century BCE Chinese philosopher, it represents a moral humanistic stance that considers the highest form of human good to be altruism: a benevolent, caring, amiable, respectful, and fair attitude toward others and the intent to live a higher life that includes “loyalty to oneself and reciprocity to others.” The Confucian stance also stresses “seeing everything in its proper context,” moral rigor and the establishment of practices and arrangements that contribute to harmony in personal behavior and in the social circles of life. The dialogue figures as a major means through which the teacher and pupil pave and broaden the path to a full and proper life.
The Socratic dialogue: Named for the fifth century BCE Athenian philosopher, this is an educational dialogue that arose from the pursuit of dialectics: the art of the discourse, directed at attaining conceptual clarity and consistency, and ultimately progress toward a truer perception of reality and wisdom in the art of living. The Socratic dialogue stimulates the interlocutors to practice reflective and critical thinking, and “births” truths conceived within them. It is a dialogue of intellectual and moral empowerment to promote a life of moral rigor and self-reflection, a rationalist pursuit “to make yourself as best as you can.”
The Talmudic dialogue: The central method used in Jewish tradition, this is a communal discussion and learning method through which the students acquire knowledge and shape their characters by means of written texts as well as living texts – who are of course flesh-and-blood teachers – in everything they say and how they live their lives. Among the basic assumptions of the Talmudic dialogue, one can find approaches relating to human dignity and equality as well as to the tension between personal autonomy and conformity to norms of the community and the precepts of tradition. Another major feature that arises here is the recognition that the educational act has no boundaries: it exists in the study partnerships, but no less so in the intimate expanse between the teacher and student in the context of being a role model in the practice of proper living.
The Nietzschean dialogue: Named for the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, this dialogue emanates from the rich personality, creative drives, and generous spirit of the educator, who seeks out “fellow creators” – those that add meaning and value to life through their creative self-perfection and self-affirmation. The continuation and aim of the dialogue is to expand the students’ cultural richness as well as their intellectual and creative powers, to enable them to reject herd conformity and conceptual dogmatism, so that they can instead take their own path, accept responsibility for their lives, and shape their personalities and paths as a demanding act of art and morality.
The Buberian dialogue: Named for the German–Israeli philosopher Martin Buber, it is derived from the “I-Thou” concept in Buber’s philosophy and based on interpersonal encounters in which the dialoguers are present with the full force of their personalities and existence: on the one hand, without the armor or closed shutters of prejudice, conceptual fixations, and selfish interests; and on the other, with full psychological and spiritual attention to the other. The “I-Thou” relationship that Buber offers serves as a genuine means to protect our own human dignity and that of others, especially in view of utilitarian and technocratic trends, and power-driven and manipulative relationships.
The Korczakian dialogue: Named for the Jewish–Polish educator Janusz Korczak, who more than any other educator actually lived among his pupils, and when their fate was sealed during the Holocaust of the Jews of Europe, chose to die with them. This dialogue refuses to embellish the nature of the child or idealize his characteristics and tendencies, but at the same time, emphatically underscores a love of childhood and respect-based esteem for the child and his rights as a whole human being. The Korczakian dialogue is not guided by theoretical doctrines and teachings but rather by a commitment to address concrete needs: On the one hand, stands the adult educator, who has a unique personality, possesses pedagogical skills, and has mastered the art of fostering his pupils’ growth, while on the other are children with strengths and weaknesses, whose psyches are complex and vulnerable. In the educational matrix designed as a microcosm of an egalitarian and respectful society, each child has his own place, suited to his own singular nature, within an educational climate of unconditional acceptance, social solidarity, and mutual forgiveness.
The Rogerian dialogue: This dialogue originated in the “client-centered therapy” typical of the practice of humanistic psychology, especially that of Carl Rogers. The dialogue is founded on certain basic propositions regarding the intrinsic goodness of humanity and the basic drive of all humans to realize their full potential – to develop one’s capabilities, realize one’s inclinations, and widen one’s repertoire of knowledge and behaviors. To these should be added characteristics of reliability and authenticity, mutual respect, trust, acceptance, and empathy, with an emphasis on meaningful experiential learning – all these are conditions that enable and empower the students to believe in themselves, achieve healthy self-esteem, and find the strength to plan and lead full and satisfying lives.
The Freirean dialogue: Named for the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire and also known as a dialogue of empowerment and liberation. This counterhegemonic dialogue is directed at helping students that belong to weakened and oppressed populations to develop critical and political literacies that would facilitate their emancipation from oppressive and disempowering factors that prevent them from actualizing a complete and dignified life. The Freirean dialogue is based on the humanistic elements of love and respect for humanity, mutual trust and hope for change, together with neo-Marxist elements of political action to pave the way for social justice and true participatory democracy. It encourages the students to establish a sense of self-worth, develop a “personal voice” and community narrative, social solidarity, critical literacy, and political action – all this in order to free the world from oppression, which includes the desire to control and subjugate any other person or group.
The Gadamerian dialogue: Named for the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, this dialogue seeks to rehabilitate the fabric of human discourse and partnership by means of shifting the emphasis from the scientific method – which is oriented toward acquiring facts and revealing the laws of nature – to a hermeneutic method that widens the student’s ability to understand and appreciate fellow individuals, diverse cultures, and great works of art and intellect. This dialogue’s point of departure is that we are all the products of our history and culture and we all have preexisting perspectives that have been shaped by social and cultural conditioning and structuring. In a society in which different groups seek recognition for their own unique cultural narratives, an approach that emphasizes the hermeneutical dialogue between the student’s cultural horizon and the other horizons is especially important as a key to complex understanding and the creation of a shared normative consciousness.
Habermassian dialogue: Named for the German philosopher and key figure in Critical Theory, Jorgen Habermas, this deliberative dialogue aims to reconstruct the trust and competencies required for rational, open, and fair public discourse. Contrary to postmodern tendencies to give up the ideals of enlightened worldview, moral conduct, and just social order, the Habermassian dialogue insists on creating the conditions of the ideal or most fruitful speech situations out of which truth, goodness, and justice have the best chances to emerge and be accepted by rational consensus (equity, freedom, pluralism, tolerance, reasoned arguments, critical reflectiveness, good will, and multiculturalism).
The Noddingsian dialogue: Named for the American educationist Nel Noddings, this dialogue occupies a central position in the ethics and pedagogy of caring – an area that Noddings developed and which in recent years has gained recognition and appreciation in the field of education. The point of departure of this kind of dialogue is that of “maternal caring” – as a moral feminist category – characterized by sensitive and supportive caring toward people, care for the welfare and respect of others, and a willingness to help them fulfill themselves and realize their full potential. This educational dialogue seeks to shift the emphasis from the disciplinary pursuit of acquiring knowledge, from the obsession with the cognitive skills evinced in scientific discoveries and the presentation of compelling arguments, as well as from the ethics of virtue. The alternative is the pursuit of real life issues and urgent problems – all based on interpersonal relations that advance the welfare, dignity, well-being, and development of people.
The Levinasian dialogue: Named for the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, its point of departure is the primacy that Levinas assigns to ethics above any other philosophical or scientific investigation, and certainly above any self-indulgence or utilitarian action. According to this moral approach, at the heart of the human encounter lies not human rights and individual freedoms – as important but also alienating and distancing elements – but the duty of the individual to be responsible for preserving the human dignity of other individuals, and especially to defend their otherness and unique nature. In this context, the commandment “Thou shalt not murder” refers rather to refraining from taking a functional approach based on personal interest or an educational-paternalistic approach to others, since in both the singular nature of the other is eclipsed and obscured, and the other’s humanity and identity are erased and nullified.
The ecological dialogue: This dialogue seeks to “cross the species barrier” and renew the covenant between humanity and nature. Out of an awareness of mistakes and the heavy toll exacted by humanity’s alienation from nature, including the ecological catastrophes we have brought upon ourselves, a dialogic and ecological position is presented that exhibits empathetic care for our natural environment. This approach views humanity as an integral and essential part of nature, and couples awareness of human and individual conditions for growth with an attentive and caring awareness for the thirsty tree, withered leaf, the turtle that has found itself on its back, the beached whale, extinct or captive species, the cleanliness of the oceans and rivers, and the preservation of primordial natural landscapes.
The dialogue in democratic education: This dialogue arose and developed as a result of a tradition of progressive education and in the context of child-centered concepts, self-realization, active and experiential learning, inner motivation, self-direction, and a democratic culture. The basic assumption of this dialogue is that since knowledge is analogous to a huge ocean, and since learning best occurs when it is associated with the students’ strengths and is motivated by their own inner curiosity, a curriculum should be constructed around these strengths to help the students aspire to broaden knowledge, rather than subjugate them to subject-oriented “knowledge islands” of one kind or another. Further features of this dialogue include a social climate of acceptance and safeness, in addition to democratic participation involving all decisions that are related to the personal fate of the students and the shape that the educational institution will take.
A dialogue of peace at times of conflict: Although this dialogue can teach us about education toward good neighborly relations and coexistence, it is specifically oriented toward the resolution of prolonged and intractable conflicts between enemies and rivals: between communities, peoples, and States. Conflicts such as these develop and escalate by means of processes involving the demonization of the other, denial of his arguments and logic, and alienation toward his heritage and culture. The alternative posed by the dialogue of peace includes processes of learning about the world of the other through academic study and interpersonal communication, the granting of legitimacy to the other’s perspective and collective narrative, acceptance of partial responsibility for the source of the conflict, empathy for the predicament and suffering of the other, and the rejection of prejudices and stereotyping.
The first principle affirms that speech is the principal medium through which human beings present their humanity, and that educational dialogue is the best forging ground for the emergence and growth of humanity – especially in the case of the most marginalized, neglected, and unconventional children.
The second holds that humanistic morality and in particular interpersonal caring, social responsibility, and human solidarity lie at the core motivation and guiding principle of educational dialogue.
The third contends that an important goal of empowering dialogues in education is to create bridges between others and build common denominators, but this should be carried out while avoiding the dangers of flattening cultural differences or effacement of identity.
The fourth and last regulative ideal offered here is that in order for dialogical pedagogy to be both humanistic, holistic, and effective – reaching all children, providing them with relevant and meaningful educative experiences, and influencing them in edifying, empowering, and liberating manners – our educational practices should involve multiple forms of empowering educational dialogues: creating avenues to the souls and minds of all our students and introducing them to varied educational experiences in the emotional, intellectual, moral, social, cultural, and political spheres of their lives.