Academic Dialogue and Principal Leadership

Written By dwalker

On May 21, 2010

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An important sub-domain of student literacy development is academic dialogue, used to help students verbalize and solidify their learning.  Academic dialogue provides an opportunity for students to check their own understanding of new concepts and vocabulary, and to learn from other students’ perspectives and insights.

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As a principal supervising instruction by observing in classrooms, it is critical to provide teachers  the space to try out and refine academic dialogue strategies.  To begin with, this means there will be much more noise than with a teacher-directed lesson involving lecture or presentation.  While it is important to distinguish between socializing and academic conversations, as students are learning new norms for academic dialogue you will probably hear (and see) some of both.

Moreover, students will need to learn new norms for interacting and building collective knowledge.  You should see the teacher not only introducing new content and skills to students but also teaching them the kinds of behaviors that facilitate academic dialogue.  Finally, as with other cooperative-learning arrangements, there needs to be a means for holding students accountable for group and individual learning.  So in your observations you might ask students how their learning will be evaluated. One of the strategies associated with academic dialogue is called Café Conversations where  students work in table groups responding to a question or topic.  They record their ideas with words, symbols and pictures on a paper table cloth, and then rotate to other tables to continue the discussion in response to different but related questions.  For this strategy, accountability for learning takes the form of the table tops with words and images, as well as group reporting, quick writes and other forms of assessment.

The reflective process you engage in with teachers after observing their class could focus on the learning outcomes they are trying to achieve, how use of academic dialogue helps them support student content mastery, and how they plan to continue refining use of academic dialogue strategies.   This kind of instructional leadership is essential if teachers are to apply literacy strategies in helping students to master core content.