Dialogic Essay Definition

Dialogic learning is learning that takes place through dialogue. It is typically the result of egalitarian dialogue; in other words, the consequence of a dialogue in which different people provide arguments based on validity claims and not on power claims.[1]

The concept of dialogic learning is not a new one. Within the Western tradition, it is frequently linked to the Socratic dialogues. It is also found in many other traditions; for example, the book The Argumentative Indian, written by Nobel Prize of Economics winner Amartya Sen (2005), situates dialogic learning within the Indian tradition and observes that an emphasis on discussion and dialogue spread across Asia with the rise of Buddhism.[2]

In recent times, the concept of dialogic learning has been linked to contributions from various perspectives and disciplines, such as the theory of dialogic action (Freire, 1970), the dialogic inquiry approach (Wells, 1999), the theory of communicative action (Habermas, 1984), the notion of dialogic imagination (Bahktin, 1981) and the dialogical self (Soler, 2004). In addition, the work of an important range of contemporary authors is based on dialogic conceptions. Among those, it is worth mentioning authors like Jack Mezirow (1990, 1991, 2000) and his transformative learning theory; Michael Fielding (2001), who sees students as radical agents of change; Timothy Koschmann (1999), who highlights the potential advantages of adopting dialogicality as the basis of education; and Anne C. Hargrave (2000), who demonstrates that children in dialogic-learning conditions make significantly larger gains in vocabulary, than do children in a less dialogic reading environment.

Specifically, the concept of dialogic learning (Flecha, 2000) evolved from the investigation and observation of how people learn both outside and inside of schools, when acting and learning freely is allowed. At this point, it is important to mention the "Learning Communities", an educational project which seeks social and cultural transformation of educational centers and their surroundings through dialogic learning, emphasizing egalitarian dialogue among all community members, including teaching staff, students, families, entities, and volunteers. In the learning communities, it is fundamental the involvement of all members of the community because, as research shows, learning processes, regardless of the learners' ages, and including the teaching staff, depend more on the coordination among all the interactions and activities that take place in different spaces of the learners' lives, like school, home, and workplace, than only on interactions and activities developed in spaces of formal learning, such as classrooms. Along these lines, the "Learning Communities" project aims at multiplying learning contexts and interactions with the objective of all students reaching higher levels of development (Vygotsky, 1978).


Wells: dialogic inquiry[edit]

Gordon Wells (1999) defines "inquiry" not as a method but as a predisposition for questioning, trying to understand situations collaborating with others with the objective of finding answers. "Dialogic inquiry" is an educational approach that acknowledges the dialectic relationship between the individual and the society, and an attitude for acquiring knowledge through communicative interactions. Wells points out that the predisposition for dialogic inquiry depends on the characteristics of the learning environments, and that is why it is important to reorganize them into contexts for collaborative action and interaction. According to Wells, dialogic inquiry not only enriches individuals' knowledge but also transforms it, ensuring the survival of different cultures and their capacity to transform themselves according to the requirements of every social moment.

Freire: the theory of dialogic action[edit]

Paulo Freire (1970) states that human nature is dialogic, and believes that communication has a leading role in our life. We are continuously in dialogue with others, and it is in that process that we create and recreate ourselves. According to Freire, dialogue is a claim in favor of the democratic choice of educators. Educators, in order to promote free and critical learning should create the conditions for dialogue that encourages the epistemological curiosity of the learner. The goal of the dialogic action is always to reveal the truth interacting with others and the world. In his dialogic action theory, Freire distinguishes between dialogical actions, the ones that promote understanding, cultural creation, and liberation; and non-dialogic actions, which deny dialogue, distort communication, and reproduce power.

Habermas: the theory of communicative action[edit]

Rationality, for Jürgen Habermas (1984), has less to do with knowledge and its acquisition than with the use of knowledge that individuals who are capable of speech and action make. In instrumental rationality, social agents make an instrumental use of knowledge: they propose certain goals and aim to achieve them in an objective world. On the contrary, in communicative rationality, knowledge is the understanding provided by the objective world as well as by the intersubjectivity of the context where action develops. If communicative rationality means understanding, then the conditions that make reaching consensus possible have to be studied. This need brings us to the concepts of arguments and argumentation. While arguments are conclusions that consist of validity claims as well as the reasons by which they can be questioned, argumentation is the kind of speech in which participants give arguments to develop or turn down the validity claims that have become questionable. At this point, Habermas' differentiation between validity claims and power claims is important. We may attempt to have something we say to be considered good or valid by imposing it by means of force, or by being ready to enter a dialogue in which other people's arguments may lead us to rectify our initial stances. In the first case, the interactant holds power claims, while in the second case, validity claims are held. While in power claims, the argument of force is applied; in validity claims, the force of an argument prevails. Validity claims are the basis of dialogic learning.

Bakhtin: dialogic imagination[edit]

Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1981) established that there is a need of creating meanings in a dialogic way with other people. His concept of dialogism states a relation among language, interaction, and social transformation. Bakhtin believes that the individual does not exist outside of dialogue. The concept of dialogue, itself, establishes the existence of the "other" person. In fact, it is through dialogue that the "other" cannot be silenced or excluded. Bakhtin states that meanings are created in processes of reflection between people. And these are the same meanings that we use in later conversations with others, where those meanings get amplified and even change as we acquire new meanings. In this sense, Bakhtin states that every time that we talk about something that we have read about, seen or felt; we are actually reflecting the dialogues we have had with others, showing the meanings that we have created in previous dialogues. This is, what is said cannot be separated from the perspectives of others: the individual speech and the collective one are deeply related. It is in this sense that Bakhtin talks about chain of dialogues, to point that every dialogue results from a previous one and, at the same time, every new dialogue is going to be present in future ones.

CREA: dialogic interactions and interactions of power[edit]

In their debate with John Searle (Searle & Soler 2004) the Centre of Research in Theories and Practices that Overcome Inequalities (CREA, from now on) made two critiques to Habermas. CREA's work on communicative acts points out, on the one hand, that the key concept is interaction and not claim; and, on the other hand, that in relationships can be identified power interactions and dialogic interactions. Although a manager can hold validity claims when inviting his employee to have a coffee with him, the employee can be moved to accept because of the power claim that arises from the unequal structure of the company and of the society, which places her in a subordinate position to the employer. CREA defines power relations as those in which the power interactions involved predominate over the dialogic interactions, and dialogic relations as those in which dialogic interactions are prevalent over power interactions. Dialogic interactions are based on equality and seek understanding through speakers appreciating the provided arguments to the dialogue regardless of the position of power of the speaker. In the educational institutions of democracies we can find more dialogic interactions than in the educational centers of dictatorships[ref?]. Nonetheless, even in the educational centers of democracies, when discussing curricular issues, the voice of the teaching staff prevails over the voice of the families, which is almost absent. The educational projects that have contributed to transform some power interactions into dialogic interactions show that one learns much more through dialogic interactions than through power ones.

See also[edit]


  • Aubert, A., Flecha, A., García, C., Flecha, R., y Racionero, S. (2008). Aprendizaje dialógico en la sociedad de la información. Barcelona: Hipatia Editorial.
  • Bakhtin, M. (1981). The dialogic imagination: Four essays. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Fielding, M. (2001). Students as Radical Agents of Change. Journal of Educational Change 2(2), 123–141.
  • Flecha, R. (2000). Sharing Words. Theory and Practice of Dialogic Learning. Lanham, M.D: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum Books.
  • Freire, P. (1997). Pedagogy of the Heart. New York: Continuum (O.V. 1995).
  • Habermas, J. (1984). The theory of communicative action. Volume I: Reason and the rationalization of society and Volume II: Lifeworld and system: A critique of functionalist reason. Boston: Beacon Press (O.V. 1981).
  • Hargrave, A., & Sénéchal, M. (2000). A book reading intervention with preschool children who have limited vocabularies: the benefits of regular reading and dialogic reading. Elsevier Science Journal, 15 (1), 75–90.
  • Koschmann, T. (1999). Toward a dialogic theory of learning: Bakhtin's contribution to understanding learning in settings of collaboration. International Society of the Learning Sciences, 38.
  • Mead, G.H. (1934). Mind, self & society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Searle J., & Soler M. (2004). Lenguaje y Ciencias Sociales. Diálogo entre John Searle y CREA. Barcelona: El Roure Ciencia.
  • Sen, A. (2005) The argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian history, culture and identity. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Soler, M. (2004). Reading to share: Accounting for others in dialogic literary gatherings. Aspects of the Dialogic Self (pp. 157–183). Berlín: Lehmans.
  • Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Wells, G. (1999). Dialogic inquiry: towards a sociocultural practice and theory of education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mikhail Bakhtin: Main Theories
Dialogism, Polyphony, Heteroglossia, Open Interpretation

A Student's Guide by Martin Irvine
Georgetown University

Key Terms in Bakhtin's Theory

The Utterance or Word

In Bakhtin's view, an expression in a living context of exchange--termed a "word" or "utterance"--is the main unit of meaning (not abstract sentences out of context), and is formed through a speaker's relation to Otherness (other people, others' words and expressions, and the lived cultural world in time and place). A "word" is therefore always already embedded in a history of expressions by others in a chain of ongoing cultural and political moments.

An utterance/word is marked by what Bakhtin terms "Addressivity" and "Answerability" (it is always addressed to someone and anticipates, can generate, a response, anticipates an answer). Discourse (chains or strings of utterances) is thus fundamentally dialogic and historically contingent (positioned within, and inseparable from, a community, a history, a place).

"I live in a world of others' words." (Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, 143)
"Any understanding of live speech, a live utterance, is inherently responsive... Any utterance is a link in the chain of communication." (Speech Genres, 68, 84)
"The word lives, as it were, on the boundary between its own context and another, alien, context." (Dialogic Imagination, 284).

Heteroglossia and Polyphony

Speech and complex cultural discourse in all our genres (novels, scientific descriptions, art works, philosophical arguments, for example) is mixed through and through with heteroglossia(an other's speech, and many others' words, appropriated expressions) and are necessarily polyphonic ("many-voiced," incorporating many voices, styles, references, and assumptions not a speaker's "own").


Every level of expression from live conversational dialog to complex cultural expression in other genres and art works is an ongoing chain or network of statements and responses, repetitions and quotations, in which new statements presuppose earlier statements and anticipate future responses.

Selections from Writings

From Mikhail Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986.

Any understanding of live speech, a live utterance, is inherently responsive... Any understanding is imbued with response and necessarily elicits it in one form or another: the listener becomes the speaker... (p.68)

Thus, all real and integral understanding is actively responsive, and constitutes nothing more than the initial preparatory stage of a response (in what ever form it may be actualized). And the speaker himself is oriented precisely toward such an actively responsive understanding. He does not expect passive understanding that, so to speak, only duplicates his or her own idea in someone else's mind... Rather, the speaker talks with an expectation of a response, agreement, sympathy, objection, execution, and so forth (with various speech genres presupposing various integral orientations and speech plans on the part of speakers or writers) (p.69)

When we select words in the process of constructing an utterance, we by no means always take them from the system of language in their neutral, dictionary form. We usually take them from other utterances, and mainly from utterances that are kindred to ours in genre, that is, in theme, composition, or style. (p.87)

The words of a language belong to nobody, but still we hear those words only in particular individual utterances, we read them in particular individual works, and in such cases the words already have not only a typical, but also (depending on the genre) a more or less clearly reflected individual expression, which is determined by the unrepeatable individual context of the utterance. Neutral dictionary meanings of the words of a language ensure their common features and guarantee that all speakers of a given language will understand one another, but the use of words in live speech communication is always individual and contextual in nature. (p.88)

This is why the unique speech experience of each individual is shaped and developed in continuous and constant interaction with others' individual utterances. This experience can be characterized to some degree as the process of assimilation--more or less creative--of others' words (and not the words of a language). Our speech, that is, all our utterances (including our creative works), is filled with others' words, varying degrees of otherness or varying degrees of "our-own-ness" ....These words of others carry with them their own expression, their own evaluative tone, which we assimilate, rework, and re-accentuate. (p.89)

Any concrete utterance is a link in the chain of speech communication of a particular sphere. The very boundaries of the utterance are determined by a change of speech subjects. Utterances are not indifferent to one another, and are not self-sufficient; they are aware of and mutually reflect one another... Every utterance must be regarded as primarily a response to preceding utterances of the given sphere (we understand the word 'response' here in the broadest sense). Each utterance refutes affirms, supplements, and relies upon the others, presupposes them to be known, and somehow takes them into account... Therefore, each kind of utterance is filled with various kinds of responsive reactions to other utterances of the given sphere of speech communication. (p.91).

The utterance is filled with dialogic overtones, and they must be taken into account in order to fully understand the style of the utterance. After all, our thought itself -- philosophical, scientific, artistic -- is born and shaped in the process of interaction and struggle with others' thought, and this cannot but be reflected in the forms that verbally express our thought as well. (p.92).

But the utterance is related not only to preceding, but also to subsequent links in the chain of speech communication... But from the very beginning, the utterance is constructed while taking into account possible responsive reactions, for whose sake, in essence, it is actually created. As we know, the role of the others for whom the utterance is constructed is extremely great... From the very beginning, the speaker expects a response from them, an active responsive understanding. The entire utterance is constructed, as it were, in anticipation of encountering this response. (p.94)

An essential (constitutive) marker of the utterance is its quality of being directed to someone, its addressivity ... Each speech genre in each area of speech communication has its own typical conception of the addressee, and this defines it as a genre. (p.95).

A word (or in general any sign) is interindividual. Everything that is said, expressed, is located outside the soul of the speaker and does not belong only to him. The word cannot be assigned to a single speaker. The author (speaker) has his own inalienable right to the word, but the listener has his rights, and those whose voices are heard in the word before the author comes upon it also have their rights (after all, there are no words that belong to no one). (pp.121-122)


On Dialogism and Heteroglossia (the other(s)' word)
From Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992).


The word is born in a dialogue as a living rejoinder within it; the word is shaped in dialogic interaction with an alien word that is already in the object. A word forms a concept of its own object in a dialogic way.

But this does not exhaust the internal dialogism of the word. It encounters an alien word not only in the object itself: every word is directed toward an answer and cannot escape the profound influence of the answering word that it anticipates.

The word in living conversation is directly, blatantly, oriented toward a future answer-word: it provokes an answer, anticipates it and structures itself in the answer's direction. Forming itself in an atmosphere of the already spoken, the word is at the same time determined by that which has not yet been said but which is needed and in fact anticipated by the answering word. Such is the situation with any living dialogue. The orientation towards an answer is open, blatant and concrete. (pp. 279-80)

Therefore his orientation toward the listener is an orientation toward a specific conceptual horizon, toward the specific world of the listener; it introduces totally new elements into his discourse; it is in this way, after all, that various different points of view, conceptual horizons, systems for providing expressive accents, various social "languages" come to interact with one another. (p. 282)

And finally, at any given moment, languages of various epochs and periods of socio-ideological life cohabit with one another... Thus at any given moment of its historical existence, language is heteroglot from top to bottom: it represents the co-existence of socio-ideological contradictions between the present and the past, between differing epochs of the past, between different socio-ideological groups in the present, between tendencies, schools, circles and so forth, all given a bodily form... Therefore languages do not exclude each other, but rather intersect with each other in many different ways. (p. 291)

Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker's intentions; it is populated –overpopulated– with the intentions of others. Expropriating I, forcing it to submit to one's own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process... As a living, socio-ideological concrete thing, as heteroglot opinion, language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between oneself and the other... The word in language is half someone else's. It becomes one’s "own" only when the speaker populates it with his own intentions, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language... but rather it exists in other people's mouths, in other people's contexts, serving other people's intentions; it is from there that one must take the word, and make it one's own (p.294)

Dialogic expression is unfinalizable, always incomplete, and productive of further chains of responses: meaning is never closed and always oriented toward the future.

There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and boundless future). Even past meanings, that is those born in the dialogue of past centuries, can never be stable (finalized, ended once and for all) - they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue. At any moment in the development of the dialogue there are immense, boundless masses of forgotten contextual meanings, but at certain moments of the dialogue's subsequent development along the way they are recalled and invigorated in renewed form (in a new context). (Speech Genres, p.170)

Nothing conclusive has yet taken place in the world, the ultimate word of the world and about the world has not yet been spoken, the world is open and free, everything is still in the future and will always be in the future. (Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, 166)

References & Bibliography

Bakhtin, M. M. Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays. 1st ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.  

-----. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Edited by Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.  

-----. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Translated by Vern W. McGee. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986.

-----. Rabelais and his World. Translated by Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984.

-----. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.  

Bakhtin, Mikhail, and P. N. Medvedev. The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.  

Holquist, Michael. "Answering as Authoring: Mikhail Bakhtin's Trans-Linguistics." Critical Inquiry 10 (1983): 307-319.

-----. Dialogism: Bakhtin and his World. London; New York: Routledge, 1990.  

Todorov, Tzvetan. Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle. Translated by Wlad Godzich. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.  

Volosinov, V. N. and Mikhail Bakhtin. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.  

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