Curiosity and the space to ask a question: building a dialogic culture to shift the focus onto pupil learning

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Recently I was privileged to see a beginning teacher nearing the end of their ITE year teaching a great GCSE history lesson.  The pupils demonstrated excellent retrieval of subject knowledge from previous lessons.  They were given opportunities to acquire new subject knowledge and make sense of this when combined with their own individual prior understanding.  They were asked to complete tasks which allowed them to thoughtfully apply this understanding to an historical question.  They had opportunities to engage in discussion and undertook independent work where they justified their own judgement in relation to the enquiry question.  Behaviour was excellent, the classroom environment warm and supportive, and the pupils completed all these tasks willingly and with commitment.  It was the kind of teaching and learning you’d want your own child to experience.

During the post-lesson reflective discussion, the mentor asked the most brilliant question of their mentee:

When you have a class who will do anything you ask of them, and teaching is going this well, what next?

It was a brilliant question because it was incredibly challenging.  Is there anything to do next when pupils are so willing to get on board with the lesson plan and seem to be making progress? Surely you just crack on and keep doing what you’re doing?

But the mentor had spotted that while the pupils were seemingly engaged, fully compliant and willing in their completion of activities, they were in fact passive responders to the learning opportunities they were presented.  What was eluding the beginning teacher was how to move them from passive performativity (where getting the ‘right’ answer is the aim) to becoming active historical enquirers.  What they need to think about next is how to spark pupils’ curiosity. 

Shifting the focus to pupil learning

In March 2020 I wrote a blog called Moving beyond delivery: the thorny issue of competency in which I explored how ‘pivoting the focus onto pupil learning can really help to move on [beginning teachers] who are stuck in a teaching rut’.  I talked about how getting your beginning teacher to film a lesson and then ask certain questions of themselves can help to reorientate the lens through which they are reflecting upon their teaching and critically the learning occurring in their classroom.  Top of the list of suggested review questions was:

‘Do pupils offer answers only, or do they also pose questions?’

This is, I believe, at the heart of the question the mentor was asking.  Now all the pupils are offering answers, now they are all completing the tasks, now they are all focused and alert and engaged with what is happening in the classroom, how can we help them to begin asking their own questions?

The answer lay in a lesson I saw later that week.  In this lesson the beginning teacher made space for pupils to generate their own questions. They were ‘creating a ‘dialogic culture’ (Knight, 2020, p.50).   

What did a dialogic culture look like in this history classroom? 

It looked like:

  • Valuing everything the pupils were saying.
  • Creating space for pupils to build on each other’s ideas.
  • Celebrating connections being made between new knowledge and existing schema, especially when these links were unexpected.
  • Asking questions that required pupils to move beyond comprehension.
  • Providing both the expectation for pupils to ask their own historical questions, and the space to actually do it. 

How did the beginning teacher build a dialogic culture? 

This impresive dialogic culture was built by:

  • Building opportunities for dialogic engagement into their lesson plan.
  • Not jumping in to restate pupil answers or join the dots on their behalf.
  • Spotting and then dwelling in the moment when pupils were being historically generative in their talk, rather than rushing onto the next pre-determined task.
  • Bouncing questions around the room to allow pupils to affirm or correct or develop each other’s answers.
  • Allowing for paired discussion during a task that had value because it was a problematising activity that worked well when it was being wrestled over with another pupil.
  • Authentically responding to pupils’ contributions with phrases that build their confidence and developed the collective dialogic culture, such as:
    • “Mmmm… that’s interesting.  Can you tell us why?”
    • “Ahhh, right.  How might we say that [in more historical terms]?
    • “Oooh, ok.  Does anyone else see it that way? Where’s our evidence for that?”
  • Providing opportunities for pupils to ask their own historical questions, before making and articulating their teacher decisions about what needed to be answered now and which needed to be filed away for later. 
    • “What questions might that lead us to ask about what happens next?”
    • “Now, does that make us think differently and want to ask questions about what we thought we knew before?”

This is not to say that the beginning teacher in lesson 1 was not doing any of these things – of course they were, and they were doing many of them very successfully.  In lesson 2 however, the beginning teacher seemed to have conceptualised their role slightly differently.  In this lesson the teacher was the curator of a dialogic process not the director, by which I mean they were not micro-managing every single possible outcome of each questioning phase.  There were clear opportunities for the pupils to bring their own knowledge and understanding to the topic and for this to take the lesson in surprising and unanticipated ways.  This beginning teacher was beginning to understand when and how ‘to elicit student voices at those junctures where students’ interpretations might shift in response to a new perspective or new evidence. [where] Each juncture presents a moment for the teacher to engage students in evidence-based argumentation’ (Reisman & Enumah, 2020).  Critically the lesson was creating the opportunity for pupils to move beyond being diligent but passive performers to being active historical enquirers.

What is the purpose of the history classroom?

One of the key purposes of history teaching must be to develop young people who are able to ask questions of the past and, by extension, the present world they inhabit.  One way to do this is to develop space in our classroom for dialogue.  Space for these questions to be asked.  Space for young people to become historical enquirers.  Space for them to have their curiosity piqued. Space for that curiosity to be seen as a valuable indicator of their learning and therefore as valuable an outcome to our teaching as their ability to complete a response to an examination question. 

As you seek to move your competent beginning teacher ‘beyond delivery’ this week, perhaps two valuable post-lesson reflective questions you could ask them are:

Do you ‘shift the cognitive effort to students by posing open-ended questions and orienting students to each other’? (Reisman & Enumah, 2020)


What difference do you think it would make if pupils posed questions as well as answered them in your lessons?  

It might just help shift their focus.


Knight, Rupert. Classroom Talk, Critical Publishing, 2020. 

Reisman, A., & Enumah, L. (2020). Using video to highlight curriculum-embedded opportunities for student discourse. Journal of Teacher Education, 1–17.

Mentors of beginning history teachers looking to develop this aspect of their mentee’s practice will find it helpful to acquaint themselves with the work of Abby Reisman on developing history discussion.  A list of references can be found here.


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