The pleasures of entering a dialogic space

The dialogic idea has a long history and comes in a variety of shapes, sizes and guises. There is Socratic dialogue in which discussion works towards better understanding of where one stands on moral and political issues. And there is John Dewey maintaining that it is through the openness to enquiry and ongoing dialogue that the school can be a place where democratic principles are lived out preparing the child for their future role in developing a participatory democracy. (We see the respective influence of both Socrates and Dewey in ‘Philosophy for Children’ and ‘Enquiry-based Learning’.)

For Paulo Freire the dialogic principle is a means of emancipation achieved through bringing into the light the existential-political concerns of the oppressed as a way to awakening critical consciousness, while for Bakhatin the dialogic is viewed as the root of thought and language. It is this idea that is currently most influential amongst dialogic theories. Dialogic work is above all else about thinking together.

One influential application of the dialogic principle currently in evidence in some schools is directed towards rethinking classroom talk. The work of Robin Alexander [1] challenges standard methods of instruction – the drilling of facts, emphasis on recall and the imparting of information through cues. In its place is discussion and dialogue. Alexander defines dialogue (teacher-class, teacher-group, teacher-individual or pupil-pupil) as ‘achieving common understanding through structured, cumulative questioning, and discussion which guide and prompt, reduce choices, minimise risk and error, and expedite ‘handover’ of concepts and principles’ [2]. With this the teacher is released from the all too common deadening attempts at classroom interaction through sterile questioning and instead is offered a classroom where all can be engaged in thinking through talking.

The case of music

However, in responding to Alexander’s position there are two matters to note in the case of music. First, if music itself is our primary medium of thought and means of communicating, any consideration of dialogue starts with the idea of musical dialogue. This is what can happen when we improvise music or rehearse music together. Or when a conductor is responding to the responses of the players being led. Call it musical interthinking if you like.

Secondly, in music and the arts we may not be always interested in ‘reducing choices…minimise risk and error’.

And are we wanting to ‘expedite the ‘handover’ of concepts and principles’? Well, certainly there is an important place for this, yes, but here I am moving in a different direction. If you will come with me I want to think about the significance of creating ‘dialogic space’ as a principle of pedagogy for music. Space is of course a metaphor bringing together physical space, time and human relationships. But first some more thoughts about dialogue, each of which can be thought of as a feature of musical dialogue as well as dialogue about music.

‘A dialogue depends upon succeeding utterances and so can never be closed down.’ [3]

‘Listening well requires a [particular] set of skills, those of closely attending to and interpreting what others say before responding, making sense of their gestures and silences as well as declarations.’ [4]

‘When humans enter into dialogue there is a new space of meaning that is opened up between them and includes them within it.’ [5]

The above sentiments can be applied to the processes of making music, to musical utterances, what each other ‘say’ musically as well as what we say about music.

Wegerif speaks of ‘opening, closing, widening and deepening a space’ and this helps to think about the classroom and how it might be as a place where a space can be opened up, nurtured, not closed down or circumscribed by necessity. And unlike Alexander’s moves towards achieving common understandings and consensus we can now move in a different direction, for the opportunity arises for making meaning and the engagement of critical thought which will need some dissensus, not always consensus, different understandings, not always common understandings and some resistance to closure.

In my blog ‘Who will try a dialogic musical gathering’  I provided an example of how we might organise the sharing of responses to musical work without any intention to establish facts about the music or to come to any agreement about its character or how it is.

The February edition of Teachtalkmusic at is hosting an experiment with a Dialogic Musical Gathering. You are welcome to take part.


[1] Alexander, R. (2005) Towards dialogic teaching: Rethinking classroom talk. York: Dialogos.

[2] Ibid, page 30.

[3] Bakhtin, M. (1981) The dialogic imagination. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press.

[4] Sennett, R. (2012) Together: The rituals, pleasure and politics of cooperation, London: Allen Lane.

[5] Wegerif, R. (2011) Towards a dialogic theory of how children learn to think, Thinking Skills and Creativity 6: 179-190.

In praise of making and remaking

In my previous two blogs I gave thought to what became the parable of the Iron Men. In particular I attended to the title of Ed Finch’s original blog ‘Making and Re-making’. I did this because it captured a straightforward way of thinking about children’s creative capabilities.

The children worked mimetically, making and re-making, a process involving imitation and imagination, and with playful intent. They were a part of making something of value that was fresh to the world.

The process of making and re-making would seem to be what children do as a way of making sense of experience and I am reminded of a presentation given by Meryl Sole at the 32nd World Conference of the International Society of Music Education held in Glasgow, Scotland in July 2016.

I wasn’t at the presentation but it was enthusiastically recounted to me by members of as they sought to learn more about young children’s musical lives and their ways of being musical.

I have a copy of the abstract for the session and see that Meryl’s study showed children aged 2-3 making and re-making songs in the time between their parents singing with them at bed time and the children falling asleep. [1]

‘These songs were representative of their interactions with their parents and the bonds that they share through music.’ [2]

On Tuesday evening and following the launch of the Music Project at Morpeth Secondary School I recounted this to Emily Crowhurst as we walked to Mile End tube station. It registered with Emily straight away who made the connection with the way young children invent stories of their own at that alone time before sleep.

Wasn’t this impulse to make songs and make stories an example of children’s nascent creativity? Or indeed creativity itself?

Emily asked me what ‘nascent’ meant.

I replied that I wasn’t sure but that I thought it the right word before suggesting something to do with ‘birth’. We soon agreed on ‘coming into existence’.

These are examples of children’s propensity for making and remaking and which the teacher can work with.

Creativity is one of those big ideas like culture, nature, play and as such invites a great many uses and abuses and a gift to ideological positioning. It needs tending with care.

At the launch of the Music Project we were introduced to examples of children making and remaking music, their mastering of musical techniques and practices, and bringing new work into existence. This is creativity.


[1] Donald Winnicott understood such uses of music as working with a transitional object in the same way that children work with a blanket, a doll, a stuffed animal. The object served as a space in which to transition between internal and external reality. See Winnicott, D. (1971) Playing and reality. New York, NY: Routledge.

[2] Abstract: Toddler crib song: Repeating and recreating moments of musical bonding. Page 180, ISME Book of Abstracts 32nd World Conference, International Society for Music Education, July 2016.






Mimesis in the parable of the Iron Men

In last week’s blog I drew heavily from

and wrote:

‘It was good to read something so concrete and real.’

Well, it wasn’t long before it transpired that the story of the Iron Bridge and the children dancing was fictitious.

To me this didn’t seem to matter very much. In fact it enabled the story to be thought of as a parable, the parable of the Iron Men. As a parable its potential for thought, interpretation and commentary was enhanced. In a sense it had become more real.

In the parable there comes a critical moment. The children’s headteacher writes:

‘My heart quailed, what would the children make of this? Men dancing? Blacked up faces? Accordions? This would not end well. I looked at them. They were puzzled but silenced. They stepped forward. Spaces were made for them. Shorter pupils were allowed through to the front. They became part of the crowd.

In the circle the noise became more powerful, the men and their dance more compelling, even reluctant children were drawn in. I looked around the crowd and saw my pupils silent and in awe. Transfixed.’

The children in due course re-enact the dancing in their school playground and this act of imitation or mimesis leads to an ongoing commitment by staff and pupils to refine the dancing and developing in the children fluency and expertise. In fact expert coaching is drawn upon and there is a final celebration of what has been learnt when the pupils take part in a festival of dancing in the community.

What strikes me most about the way pupils come to know, understand and appreciate a cultural practice is the role of mimesis.

Jurgen Habermas writes:

‘Imitation [or mimesis] designates a relation between persons in which the one accommodates to the other, identifies with the other, empathizes with the other. There is an allusion here to a relation in which the surrender of the one to the example of the other does not mean a loss of self but a gain and an enrichment.’ [1]

Mimesis then, and seen in this way, can be given high value. It is a human capacity of great significance. It was the source of the pupil’s making and remaking in our parable.

It was the source of their creativity.

Why is creativity being bracketed out of education at this time?

Why so much ugly talk of ‘drill and kill’ and so little of mimesis?


[1] Habermas, J. (1984) Theory of Communicative Action. Vol. 1. Trans. T. McCarthy. London: Heinemann.  (p. 380)

Making and remaking in a Coventry Primary School

As the new year education twitter wars renewed and with a good many wild generalsiation gaining purchase as is the way DisappointedIdealist @DisIdealist retweeted

Lovely bit of writing. Enjoyed that as a start to my day. This is a powerful blog from @MrEFinch. Lots in here that’s important and well worth reading to the end.

It was good to read something so concrete and real, and it helped to bring a number of thoughts together.

I had been re-reading Christine Doddington and Mary Hilton’s Child-Centred Education: Reviving the Creative Tradition [1].

The book sets out to explore the history and philosophy of child-centredness in primary education in order to revive its strengths. The book is in large part a response to the narrowing of the primary curriculum. The arts, play and experimentation are seen as the casualties.

Ed Finch in his blog Making and Remaking tells the story of a school trip to the Iron Bridge Museum in Shropshire. The trip is designed to bring alive the Victorian Era, the pupils’ current topic. Ed tells of the relative disinterest of the pupils in being shown this and that but then something happened. Ed. continues:

‘I love the iron bridge – I had fond memories of spending a day sketching it’s gentle, elegant tracery when my marriage was young – but I didn’t let myself hope that the children would get much from it. It is pretty much a bridge at the end of the day. I hadn’t counted on the Men of Iron.

On the bridge – usually occupied by groups of children being lectured on Abraham Darby and his blast furnace – we saw a crowd. Turned inward they were watching something. A steady throbbing beat became apparent. I peered through the crowd to see what they were watching. Twenty four men were turning, wheeling, coming together and moving apart. Complex figures were drawn and redrawn. Sticks crashed together and the voices shouted as one. Accordions and fiddles played in unison. A huge drum kept the beat.

The men wore tall stovepipe hats and red and black rag coats that made them into giants and into shaggy beasts. Their faces were unreadable – erased by a layer of coaldust and charcoal – with eyes and teeth gleaming unnaturally white.

My heart quailed, what would the children make of this? Men dancing? Blacked up faces? Accordions? This would not end well. I looked at them. They were puzzled but silenced. They stepped forward. Spaces were made for them. Shorter pupils were allowed through to the front. They became part of the crowd.

In the circle the noise became more powerful, the men and their dance more compelling, even reluctant children were drawn in. I looked around the crowd and saw my pupils silent and in awe. Transfixed.

The children were quiet on the coach home. It had been an early start and a set of strange experiences for them to process. The adults snoozed too. I stayed awake and thought about how the things we plan and anticipate the most so often go flat on us and how it’s the unplanned things that give us the most joy. I wondered how you could plan for that and my thoughts went around in circles and by Coventry I had a headache and dozed too. My wife used to tell me to take pleasure in the moment. I’d tell her that I’d make time for that when work had cleared a bit. Perhaps I should have listened.

I like to give teachers a bit of time back after a trip so I took Year Five in the morning. I was still woozy – I’d drunk a whisky by myself when I’d got in, and then another – I asked the children to write about their trip and leaned against the wall by the window to watch the last brown leaves drift to join their brothers in the mud by the playground. The room was quiet but for the scrape of Berol handwriters on the cheap paper of the exercise books. No child said “I’m finished” and I let them write on, longer than I usually would, until the bell rang for playtime.

When the last child had come back for her snack, bothered with her mittens and disappeared back outside I glanced at a book.

“The men were like mountain giants. They made magic on the bridge and hypnotised us all”

I looked at another book.

“Without speaking to each other the dancers knew when and how to move – they were a team”

“I liked seeing the men dance on the bridge – I felt like I was in a different time when everything is powerful and I’m strong too”

I took the pile of books to my office with a coffee. The children had fast forwarded through the bus trip and the Victorian town. They had barely mentioned the school house, the pump, the sweet shop or even those appalling pigs. Every one of them had something to say about that moment on the bridge. Stamping feet, sticks crashing together, shouts smoking in crystal air.

The children’s teacher popped her head in when she arrived to pick up the class. I showed her the books, “You’ve got a problem” I said “They’re not going to want to write their Victorian apprentice diary entries now. You’ll have to do something else.”

We went down to the playground together, she went over to the playground box to get the handbell and I watched the children. There was the usual scrappy game of football going on in one corner and a whole lot of standing about but over by the hut something very odd was happening. All year fives. They had formed two lines and were moving together and apart, round each other, away from lines and back into them. Some held plastic hockey sticks aloft…’


I hope you will read the whole of Ed’s story here:

Some observations of mine:

The children were in the playground at play making and remaking. May we say that they were being creative? I ask this in the light of attempts to bracket creativity out the curriculum altogether or at most to countenance it only after the accumulation of large amounts of so called domain knowledge.

Doddington and Hilton finish their book:

‘Rather than the current focus on ever narrowing learning objectives and lower order skills, higher order cognitive skills based on direct physical experience, on powerful texts and ideas, skills such as comprehension, enactment, and the expression and enrichment of individual voice, would be the main aim for all children. Children’s experience of life, of literature and moving image, play and meaning-making, would be recognised, respected and creatively utilized in school…’ [2]

The children whose imaginations had been fired on the Iron Bridge were learning to be productive in a way that enriched their subjective lives, deepened their knowledge of a living cultural practice and opened their minds to the world into which they were growing.

This is a powerful blog from @MrEFinch.


[1] Doddington, C. and Hilton, M. (2009) Child-Centred Education: Reviving the Creative Tradition. Sage Publications.

Readers will learn that John Locke started things going and that Heidegger, Gadamer and other more recent philosophers contribute to understanding what might be meant by ‘the whole child’.

[2] Ibid. page 117.