Revving up the ‘curiosity engine’ in inclusive class discussions

Dialogue approach equips teachers to lift student voice in leading truly inclusive classroom discussions, proponents say
By: | April 1, 2021
Students from Newburyport High School in Massachusetts lead dialogues with students and teachers from nearby Nock Middle School in this pre-COVID photo.Students from Newburyport High School in Massachusetts lead dialogues with students and teachers from nearby Nock Middle School in this pre-COVID photo.

Many educators are coming to realize that social-emotional learning will play as big a role as will academics in how students recover from COVID.

And while many teachers know instinctively how to build relationships with students, a method called the Dialogic Classroom model could open some administrators’ eyes as a powerful new avenue for professional development as they spend stimulus funds to help teachers improve their craft.

The dialogue approach, which has been dubbed a “curiosity engine,” better equips teachers to lift student voice in leading more inclusive and engaging classroom discussions. And it’s effective in just about any subject, says John Sarrouf, a dialogue facilitator and co-executive director of Essential Partners, a nonprofit that provides training in group communication.

“It shifts the focus from the teacher as the source of all information to the students as the co-creators of ideas, conversation and curiosity,” Sarrouf says. “And the moment you know that it’s working is when a student turns toward another to ask a genuinely curious question to understand more about what the other student has said.”


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The model guides teachers, particularly at the high school level, in creating an environment for class discussions in which students control the topics. Comsequently, even young people who tend not to participate get involved, he says.

The process starts with teachers and students setting norms and expectations for what instruction and interaction will look like in the classroom. This helps build the trust that will encourage students to discuss ideas and experiences they may have not shared before.

Another key to this model is for teachers to pose different kinds of questions than they may be used to asking their classes. “It’s not a question that the teacher knows the answer to,” he says. “It’s a question that only students can answer because they’re speaking from their own experience or from their own understanding of the materials, and their own beliefs and convictions.”

Teachers also have to give students time and space to reflect on their answers. The will increase participation in discussions beyond the “fast-processing” students who always raise their hands first, Sarrouf says.

“The expectation is that everybody’s voice is important,” he says. “We can only learn as a group if we’re all participating.”

A biology teacher who participated in the training now pairs students into groups to talk through how DNA works before the full class discussion occurs. To add an element of timeliness for the COVID era, such dialogues can bring together students whose families have different views on vaccines.

“This is an approach that can be folded into all of the other work that teachers are already doing,” Sarrouf says. “And if an entire school takes this on, it can change the whole culture, it can change the way we listen to each other, and it can give us the tools to have difficult conversations.”