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Bringing Dialogue Inside The ClassroomReinventing the top-down structure of teaching via safe and brave spaces

João Delfim de Almeida Aleluia Bazelga
Wies Weijermars


We created the workshop “Bringing dialogue inside the classroom; reinventing the top-down structure of teaching via safe and brave spaces.” because we experience that there is a lack of participation via dialogue in current high school classes. The students are not being taught how to have an actual conversation or think critically about what they are learning and thinking. Cancelling someone just because they disagree with you is a practice way too common and having skills in dialogue can help us become more active participants in a tolerant society. We spoke to many stakeholders from different places in the field and used some interesting insights we got from the Rebuilding Education classes. This resulted in a workshop for high-school teachers where we assess the current situation and let them experience what a constructive dialogue can feel like, all the while encouraging them to be in a state of constant reflection and helping them transfer the things they learn in the workshop onto their classes in a way that fits them. Creating change, but most importantly, having a good conversation.


Education stands as the primary tool for a person’s development. After we are born and after a few  years of learning how to master some basic skills at home, we seek in school new opportunities for  growth. Nowadays, people can recognise that our role and our opportunities in society are highly  dependent on our education. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said: “The real safeguard of  democracy, therefore, is education.”; in the sense that education gives the people the tools they need  to be able to make wise societal and political choices. By and large, education is a person’s main  source of development and is crucial for one’s position in society. Therefore, it’s crucial that the  educational system develops a person’s social skills in the best way possible, allowing them to  interact with others in a constructive way. 

It’s obvious that mastering some knowledge in subjects like Maths, Science, and History (among  many others) is extremely relevant not only to a future role we might obtain in society but also to  our participation and interactions in society as a whole. However, life is too complex for us to learn  how to be a part of it solely by learning dogmas that explain to us how it functions. We need to  learn instead how we can deal with its complexity and how to develop our knowledge about it.  Therefore, education should prioritize the development of skills that can deepen human knowledge  about reality such as thinking, talking with each other, debating ideas, etc. That is why our project is  based upon the idea that the educational system should teach people about the world, but also how  to critically analyze and discuss the information they are given. 

How does the current educational system try to fulfill these goals currently? First, it’s important to  mention that modeling a world’s educational system is an extremely hard and perhaps impossible  task. Even though this task is yet going to be attempted in order to fulfill the purpose of this  argument, it’s crucial to recognize its liability. Furthermore, all around the world, it is possible to  highlight some general features of the different public educational systems: 

  1. A teacher that possesses the knowledge and transfers it to the students in a lesson (active  agent); 
  2. The students that as the target of education absorbs the information and skills taught by the  teacher (passive agent);
  3. A classroom that, in most classes, is designed in a way that students are sitting in a chair  with a table in front that allows them to be looking straight at the teacher (environment).

From our perspective, this model of education (which is replicated in most educational systems all  around the world) creates a top-down structure where the teacher, the active agent, transfers his or  her knowledge to the students, the passive agent. The fact that the active agent is understood as the  one who possesses the knowledge allows him or her to have a controlling position in the classroom,  while the students act passively as receivers of that knowledge without (most of the times) even  questioning it. 

This structure constructs what Mano Singham calls the “Authoritarian classroom” (in his book titled  Away from the Authoritarian Classroom). This scholar believes the general classroom is structured  in a top-down authoritarian relationship between the teacher and the student, where the first acts as  a tyrant towards the second. Based on an analysis of a university’s syllabus, he defines the current  educational system as having a controlling environment. Mano Singham argues that this is not an  efficient environment for learning since “learning is an inherently voluntary act that you can no  more force” as you cannot “force someone to love you”. To make the educational system more  efficient this existing relationship between students and teachers needs to be revolutionized. 

Moreover, the current design of the classroom where the learning experience takes part also plays a  role in the lack of efficiency that the current educational system has to develop people’s social  skills. As Ken Robinson explains in Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution that’s  transforming Education, the current model of the classroom was initially designed and conceived in  the enlightenment period “to meet the labor needs of the Industrial Revolution and they are  organized on the principles of mass production”. He believes that the design of the classroom of the  current educational system has an industrial character to it that prioritizes the efficiency to absorb  the information given by teachers. However, this model is not adequate to fulfil the goals that  education should be achieving nowadays such as developing critical analysis and communication  skills. Besides that, within our conversation with the educational expert Annette Diender, we came  to the conclusion that this organization of the classroom not only foster efficiency rather than  reflection but also reinforces the top-down relationship between the teacher and the student. The  fact that all the students are sitting in lines facing the teacher highlights the idea that they should passively abide by and trust the authority that is standing and speaking to them in the center of the  room.  

A solution that effectively tackles this issue needs to target all three points of our current  educational system’ model. Therefore, in order to bring the development of critical and  communicational skills to the forefront of education, it is necessary to target the authoritarian  relationship between student and teacher and the industrial-inspired design of the classroom. 

To achieve these goals, we believe that is necessary for the classroom to be redesigned in a way that  provides both brave spaces and safe spaces: 

  1. Safe space: An environment in which students can explore ideas and express themselves in a  context with well-understood ground rules for the conversation that ensure students’ safety.
  2. Brave spaces: An environment in which the primary purpose of the interaction is a search  for the truth, thus encouraging critical analysis and constructive dialogue. 

Based on this, we believe that bringing dialogue inside the classroom offers the best solution to  meet these goals and create these spaces. By creating an environment that fosters dialogue between  students and the teacher where they can critically discuss the already existing information about a  certain topic and share personal opinions and experiences regarding it, education would more  efficiently develop both critical and communication skills. However, it is important to remark that  this dialogue has to have some rules that promote respect between peers to assure a safe space. 

To have an effective impact on the development of students’ critical and communication skills, we  decided to direct this workshop to humanities high school teachers in VWO. First, since the  teachers are the organisers and planners of their lessons, it is more logical and efficient to convince  them to implement dialogue in the design they choose. Second, we decided to target high school  teachers because of the average ages of the students they teach. From a neuroscientific perspective,  the age of these students (especially at the beginning of high school) is crucial for the development  of their social skills, which makes it perfect for students to explore this new way of teaching. Third,  we decided to give these workshops to VWO teachers since this is the level where, during the  studies and in a future career, reflective and communication skills are more important. Finally, these  workshops will focus primarily on humanities teachers since they study areas of knowledge that are not dogmatic and require critical reflection (which is not as often required in subjects like  Mathematics or Physics). 


We have now established the educational problem we are trying to tackle. The next question we  have to ask ourselves is how we will do that. We have developed a workshop through which we can  introduce these crucial elements of dialogue into the classroom, and it is titled: “Bringing dialogue  inside the classroom; reinventing the top-down structure of teaching via safe and brave spaces.” It  will be a two-part workshop in which the elements of assessing, experiencing, and reflecting are  central. A debriefing session is also added to emphasize this reflective element, thus the workshop  will consist of two sessions (each session one month apart). Let us first start with some  practicalities.  


A group of participants in the workshop will consist of around 8 teachers. The group which we are  working with must remain small and manageable. Everyone should be able to hear each other and  should get the chance to actually think and speak on the things that are mentioned by the others.  This way, a more personal approach can be taken, which is exactly what we strive for. We want  every teacher to have a personal takeaway once they are done with the workshop, an exercise, or a  new way of approaching students that fit their style of teaching and helps them deal with the  problems that arise in their lessons when it comes to having a dialogue. This creates the necessity  for teaching in smaller groups and is why we will be doing this. 

1. The first session

In the first session, we will start with a short introduction, in which we tell the group of teachers  who we are and what our background is. We will also give them a short introduction as to what we  want to achieve with this workshop and why it is relevant (see our part on justification). They will  also introduce themselves and what they teach, and after that short introduction round of  approximately 10 minutes, we will already move into conversing with each other through different  structures of dialogue. 

We are choosing to let the structure of this workshop be very free, there is a ‘skeleton’ from which  we are working that helps the workshop keep its shape but just like a skeleton, these are the bare  bones. The actuality of the workshop is created at the moment, with the teachers and the problems  that we can establish through dialogue, contributing to the element of customizing to the specific  group of teachers we have in front of us. 

Part one: Assessment 

As was mentioned earlier, the first session will consist of two parts. The first part is the assessment  through which we, as the workshop guides in collaboration with the teachers, will try to establish  the problems that that specific group of teachers is experiencing when it comes to having dialogue  in the classroom. We will ask 4 questions in a brainstorming session that will take approximately  one hour

  • What is the value of dialogue in the classroom? 
  • Do you already incorporate dialogue in your classes? If so, how and what does it add for  you? If not, why not? 
  • What are the problems that arise when trying to have a dialogue within the setting of a  classroom? 
  • How could we resolve these problems? 

We will write down all of the responses on a big sheet of paper and a black marker, we will use a  different sheet for each question and make them all visible during the rest of the workshop (hang  them up or lay them down somewhere, depending on the space) so that we can continue to refer  back to them. We also recommend that the teachers take notes, and write down any thoughts they  have so that we can actively keep track of what is happening during the workshop and they have  something to look back on. 

Part two: Introducing safe and brave spaces 

We will take as much time as we need on each question, but the final two questions are of the most  important for the next part of the workshop and will therefore take up at least 30 minutes. The  introduction of safe and brave spaces. These concepts are part of the skeleton of our workshop since

we believe these to be of extreme importance for creating a good environment for dialogue in class.  Let me define them in short: 

Safe space: An environment in which students can explore ideas and express themselves in a context  with well-understood ground rules for the conversation that ensure students’ safety. 

Brave space: An environment in which the primary purpose of the interaction is a search for the  truth, thus encouraging critical analysis and constructive dialogue. 

A harmony between these two concepts is needed to promote constructive, interesting, and safe  dialogue.  

  • But how will we establish these safe and brave spaces in a classroom? 
  • And how can you define them to better fit your classroom?  

These are the questions we will ask the teachers and we write down the answers on big paper as  well. We will then also make them lay down some necessary ground rules from which dialogue  needs to be had, to create the safe space that is needed to have a conversation in the classroom. We  will take around 30 minutes for the part around safe and brave spaces.  

Part three: Experience 

This is the end of the first part of the first workshop, we will then move on to the second part;  experience. Now that the issue has been assessed it is time to work with what they have said. We  will, first of all, have a dialogue with the whole group about the rules they set up earlier (regarding  the creation of a safe space in their classroom). We will then introduce the exercise, a Socratic  dialogue, where listening is the most important element in the conversation, instead of speaking.  The rules are simple, but the effect of truly listening is easily sensed by the participants, which  makes this the perfect exercise to consciously experience having a dialogue as there is time for  reflection within the exercise.  

The rules for the Socratic dialogue;  

  1. There is no judgment, not through verbal language or body language.  
  2. One should always summarize what the person before said before they add their own idea.
  3. All participants should adhere to the rules that were established in the part of the workshop  before. 
  4. It is okay if not everyone speaks but try to actively participate in the dialogue. 

The subject or question we will start the Socratic dialogue with will be one of the solutions  presented to their particular problems in the brainstorming, relating back to safe and brave spaces.  This Socratic dialogue will take around 15 to 20 minutes, if the conversation topic stops being  relevant or interesting, someone can introduce a new topic.  

After this Socratic dialogue, we will reflect on it.  

  • How did it make you feel to truly listen?  
  • What did you like about this exercise? What didn’t you like?  
  • How does this exercise relate back to everything we talked about before? What did you think  about the entirety of the workshop?  
  • And what is your takeaway for now?  

The element of reflection returns here. (It is possible that during the first part of the workshop the  teachers came up with an exercise themselves, there is time to try this out as well, before the final  reflection). 


This is roughly the first session of the workshop. It is important to note that reflection is central in  everything, and that will be made clear in the introduction. Everything is allowed to be questioned  and talked about. It is also very important that we include breaks, there are two breaks of 5-10  minutes and one long one of 30, the long one will be held after the brainstorming, and the other  two breaks can be implemented when felt like they are needed. They have to be implemented, as it  is important to rest during this intense workshop.  

A little list of what the teachers will takeaway from the first workshop: 

  • A list of rules necessary to create a safe space in their classroom.
  • Useful insights on dialogue and how it can have a positive effect on education and learning.
  • Experience with having a dialogue where listening and thinking are central.
  • Motivation to implement tips and takeaways into their classes. 
  • Many notes and brainstorms will be sent later to them through email, which they can use to  prepare for the debriefing session.  

2. Debriefing session

After the 3-hour workshop which is the first session, the debriefing session is a lot shorter. It will  take up to 1,5 hours, one month after the first workshop, as it is mainly a dialogue about what has  happened to their classes after implementing the tips given in the workshop, and a bit of a poll of  what sticks and what doesn’t. We will ask the teachers to reflect beforehand and come with some  notes prepared on what they did with the things they learned in the workshop. They will have to  answer three questions after one month;  

  • What were your main takeaways from the workshop? 
  • What changed in your classes regarding dialogue after the workshop? 
  • What do you need to help you implement dialogue further? 

In the first hour we will discuss the answers they gave to these questions while writing everything  down on a big paper again (which will be sent to them via email after). And from there make some  changes too, for example, the rules they set for their classroom. In the final 15 minutes we will  discuss the workshop (both sessions), and ask for feedback. This way we can keep on perfecting the  workshop. The other 15 minutes is time that can be used for a break or some possible extra time.  

Scientific Justification

This solution for the aforementioned problem in the current educational system is based upon three  different scientific perspectives: management studies; neuroscience; and philosophy. 

Management studies

From a perspective of management studies, we believe that redesigning the classroom by bringing  dialogue to the center of the curriculum will stimulate pleasure in the learning process and enhance  its efficiency.

In Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution that’s transforming Education, Ken Robinson  criticises the current educational system as being outdated and inefficient to achieve its  contemporary goals. He defines public education as having an industrial character that is rooted in  its creation in the Enlightenment era. According to him, the creators of this model of education  aimed at meeting “the labor needs of the Industrial Revolution” hence constructing a system based  on the fast learning of pre-existing truths and skills.  

Furthermore, it’s possible to recognize some of Frederick W. Taylor’s efficiency principles that were  applied to industries during the Industrial Revolution in the current design of public education.  

First, one of the Taylorism principles to enhance the efficiency of industrial work was the  standardisation of workers’ parts and tools. This is reflected in our current educational model in  which we have teachers continuously coming to a classroom and speaking about the themes they  are set to talk about and students systematically having to listen and take notes. This standardisation  of roles in education is detrimental to it since it restricts the expansion of knowledge and is unable  to develop students’ social skills. The “Bringing dialogue inside the classroom” workshop aims at  breaking some of the pre-established roles that students and teachers have and allowing for a more  collaborative learning experience, in which students and teachers can use dialogue to explore a  topic. This environment that we plan to create where students and teachers share experiences,  knowledge, and opinions of a certain topic allows for a more in-depth exploration about a topic  since it doesn’t restrict it to the knowledge the curriculum tells the teacher to teach. Additionally, it  allows for the development of communication and critical skills. 

The second principle of Frederick W. Taylor that can be detected in education, which is intrinsically  related to the first, is the hierarchy between the planner (teacher) and operator (student). The current  model of education is characterised by a power structure in which the teacher tells students what  they should do and learn (as it is described in Mano Singham’s Away from the Authoritarian  Classroom). As we mentioned before, this one-way learning process is restrictive to the expansion  of knowledge and under-develops a student’s critical thinking. One of the main goals of this  workshop is to demonstrate to teachers how a two-way learning process can be more effective and  relevant for today’s education. The reason why this project is directed at teachers is that we  recognize that in order to develop critical thinking and communication skills is pivotal to make  them understand that this hierarchical structure is inefficient and outdated to the learning process. 

From our conversation with Marieke van den Hurk, principal of De Nieuwste School (Tilburg) that  promotes an equal relationship between students and teachers through the Fractal principle, we  recognised the importance that the change of this relationship has for education and found ways to  do it (which we pretend to discuss with the workshop participants). However, it’s important to  highlight that we don’t believe that the teacher’s role as an authority should be completely  eradicated. In fact, it’s important to have a planner that brings the rules of the dialogue and assures  compliance. This not only allows the workshop to be effective since the teachers will plan their  lessons around the exercises and principles they learned in the workshop but also ensures that the  safe space of the classroom is being preserved. 


According to various philosophical findings, our knowledge about reality is never dogmatic.  Therefore, we believe that by bringing critical dialogue inside the classroom we are cherishing the  love and commitment that philosophy has for learning about the world. 

From our lesson and private talk with the philosopher Tobias Servaas, we learned that dialogue is  indeed the best way of promoting an efficient learning experience. Since reality cannot be explained  by dogmas, sharing experiences and ideas through critical dialogue is the most rational way to  develop a person’s knowledge about the world. Bringing brave spaces to the classroom allows for  the development of reflection and critical analysis skills that contribute to a deeper and more  efficient education. 

Moreover, we learned from Tobias Servaas that the Socratic Dialogue is an efficient way of  bringing dialogue inside the classroom where its participants can be critical while being able to hear  and understand each others’ points of view. This model of dialogue invented by Socrates is based on  the idea that listening might be more important than talking. Hence, when employed, its participants  have to speak one at a time and rephrase or summarise what was said by the speaker before them.  The effectiveness that this has in bringing a critical and orderly dialogue (which was shown in the  exercise we did in the classroom) led us to use this model in the dialogue of our workshop. This  model can be a useful tool for teachers to implement dialogue inside their classrooms. Therefore,  and based on our conversation with the education expert Annette Diender where she told us to  “practice what we preach”, we recognised that the best way of transferring this exercise was to  incorporate it in our workshop in order to show teachers its success. 


From a neuroscience perspective, this workshop’s commitment to developing communication,  interactive and critical skills is extremely important for a person’s development. Our conversation  with the neuroscientist Annelinde Vandenbroucke explained to us the efficiency that critical  dialogue can have in the development of the aforementioned skills. Additionally, it explained to us  how the development of these skills is crucial in the development of the human brain in the early  years of high school, when most students have between 10 and 13 years old. It’s around these ages  that the human brain is developing social skills and constructing the ways we interact with others.  This makes it crucial for these levels of education to develop students’ social skills, such as the ones  that dialogue promotes. Therefore, this led us to determine high-school teachers as the target group  of this workshop.