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Examining the Role of Trust in Shaping Children's Approaches to Peer Dialogue

by Jennifer Hauver James, Jessica F. Kobe & Xiaoying Zhao - 2017

Background/Context: Research reveals that peer dialogue can contribute to improved cognitive ability and reasoning, increased tolerance for difference, and appreciation for talk as a means of problem solving. When invited to participate in such dialogue, however, not all children do, and often, degrees of engagement reflect demographic patterns.

Purpose: The researchers sought to understand what shapes students’ decisions about if and how to engage in peer dialogue.

Research Design: This exploratory study examined children’s approaches to a deliberative dialogue session with their peers in which they were tasked with reaching consensus about how to spend money allotted for playground equipment.

Data Collection and Analysis: Data included interview transcripts from conversations held with 18 children (aged 9–11) prior to their participation in the session. Transcripts underwent an iterative process of inductive and deductive coding.

Findings/Results: The authors detail several differing goals children held as they prepared for dialogue and explain how those goals shaped the roles they intended to assume. They then explore children’s assessments of their peers’ trustworthiness—a powerful indicator of if and how they would participate.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The authors discuss avenues for further research and suggest that given the critical role of trust in children’s approaches to dialogue, educators should take seriously the responsibility of creating spaces in which all children feel they can take the risks necessary to learn.

Paula: I feel happy to have this conversation. It’ll go well… Because we mostly, like we all know each other real well, and we’re all really good friends. So we would usually agree on stuff. And we have good conversations.

Anna: I think this conversation is gonna be crazy… And weird. Because sometimes Eddie doesn’t listen, he plays around and sometimes, um, things can get out of hand… We’ve all been in a group before, and um, it didn’t go so well.

Paula and Anna spoke to us individually as they prepared to engage in deliberative dialogue with their peers about how best to spend money allocated for new playground equipment. Paula felt confident that the dialogue would go well; that she and her classmates would reach consensus. Paula’s trust in her group led her to look forward to participating. Anna was not so optimistic. She worried that one or more of her group mates would misbehave and things would “get out of hand.” Anna’s distrust led her to consider how she might manage the group to keep things on track. Across the 18 fourth graders we interviewed, trust played a consistently powerful role in shaping children’s approaches to peer dialogue. Children who distrusted others had goals of self-preservation, intending to abstain or engage in less collaborative ways. Children who trusted others planned to work collaboratively toward consensus. In this article, we examine the complex nature of children’s trust as it impacts their approaches to peer dialogue.


Peer dialogue can be a powerful space for learning. Research reveals that such dialogue can contribute to improved cognitive ability and reasoning among young people (Kuhn & Crowell, 2011; Mercer & Littleton, 2007; Mercer, Wegerif, & Dawes, 1999; Topping & Trickey, 2007); increased tolerance for difference (Avery, Levy, & Simmons, 2014), and appreciation for talk as a means of problem solving (Torney-Purta, Lehmann, Oswald, & Schulz, 2001). Peer dialogue has been shown to facilitate not only initial learning, but also greater retention and transfer of that learning to other domains (Clarke, Resnick, & Rosé, 2016).

Not all talk is equal, however. More effective dialogue is that in which participants actively engage one another’s thinking; listening and responding to one another’s contributions (Kuhn, 2015). Dialogue that is rich with transacts is particularly powerful (Teasley, 1997). Transacts include extending, paraphrasing, refining, completing, or critiquing the reasoning of self or other (Berkowitz & Gibbs, 1983). When self- and other-oriented transacts are balanced, dialogue is most collaborative and generative (Chi, 2009). Collaboration in dialogue, then, is characterized by participants’ willingness and desire to inquire about others’ thinking and open themselves up to having their own ideas change: “To a certain extent, transactivity is the natural order of truly collaborative dialogue” (Clarke et al., 2016).

To date, much research conducted on students’ (especially children’s) peer dialogue has taken the form of intervention studies, in which students are instructed by trained teachers to employ particular ground rules, rhetorical devices, and practices. These studies are typically experimental in nature and aim to understand the degree to which specific instructional strategies lead to more effective dialogic engagement and increased learning among participants. The study described here was not an intervention study. Rather, it was an exploratory study (Stebbins, 2001) in which we sought to understand how children think about and approach peer dialogue. Research suggests that when individuals (children and adults) are given opportunities to engage in dialogue (on the computer or in teacher-led or open discussions), they do not do so monolithically (Clarke, 2015; Hemmings, 2000; Hess & Posselt, 2002; Mutz, 2006). Some, it turns out, do not participate at all. And too often, differences in levels of engagement reflect demographic patterns. Understanding what contributes to students’ decisions about if and how to engage in dialogue—and in particular barriers to engagement—is important if we wish for all children to reap the academic and social benefits of the dialogic opportunities afforded them.

Our exploration has taught us that children’s approaches to peer dialogue are shaped by a great many factors. Among these are the experiences they have had with those specific peers in the past, their read of the larger context, and their understandings about the purpose and nature of the discussion. Interestingly, if and how children choose to engage in peer dialogue, it seems, reflects their relative degrees of trust—trust born of these experiences and understandings. Though we suspected that peer relationships would play a role in children’s intended and actual engagement, we did not set out to test a hypothesis about trust. It was only after extensive grounded analysis of the pretask data that trust surfaced as a powerful factor in children’s thinking, and we decided to look at it more intentionally. Here, we review existing literature on the role of trust for facilitating collaborative participation in dialogic spaces. We then situate the study theoretically by examining key constructs in commonly used conceptions of trust among peers as a means of defining the framework we employed deductively in later rounds of analysis.


Scholars have long acknowledged the relationship between trust and students’ willingness to take the risks necessary to learn (Bankole, 2011; Rotenberg et al., 2014; Watson & Ecken, 2003). Much of this research focuses on the relationship between students and teachers (Bankole, 2011; Rolón-Dow, 2005), but more attention has been paid in recent years to the trust among peers as it facilitates productive and collaborative group work. Gweon, Jain, McDonough, Raj, and Rosé (2013), for instance, found that male dyads who signaled trust by demonstrating more respective and accommodating speech styles were also more likely to engage in more collaborative (mutually transactive) dialogue. Similarly, Azmitia and Montgomery (1993) found that students use more transactive moves during problem solving with friends than with acquaintances. “The rapport that exists between friends versus acquaintances allows for more critical interaction, and these are the kinds of verbal interactions that are supportive of learning” (Clarke et al., 2016, p. 385).

Of course, students’ assessments of peers’ trustworthiness develop over time. Students’ perceptions reflect specific encounters with individuals. Howley, Mayfield, and Rosé (2013), for example, found that confrontational remarks made on the first day of a collaboration led children to be more reticent on subsequent days and resulted in reduced learning. Peer relationships also reflect larger patterns of social group positioning within classrooms. Hess and Posselt (2002), for instance, in their study of 10th-grade students’ participation in controversial public issues discussion (CPI), found that “students’ perceptions of their peers had a greater influence on their participation and affective response to discussion than did their teachers’ behavior” (p. 283). Students who feared they would be negatively judged by others were less likely to participate. Lisa, for instance, worried that her comments would be deemed irrelevant by her more popular peers, and so she participated minimally (p. 306).

Similarly, Hemmings’ (2000) study of two high school teachers points to the consequences of teachers’ inability or unwillingness to acknowledge status differences and power relations at play among students. One teacher under study, Dr. Marshall, believed that the students he taught (regardless of race or background) got along just fine, and students who didn’t participate simply abstained because they lacked self-confidence. The author contests this interpretation, saying that Dr. Marshall’s failure to recognize the social structures in the classroom meant that his praxis failed to reach its full potential. Had he envisioned ways to “mediate the hierarchies at play, to bridge language differences, and to make content more applicable to real-life situations,” he might have empowered marginalized students to maneuver into and within the centers of institutional power (p. 88).

Classroom microcultures are co-constructed over time, becoming embedded with understandings about who has the right to speak, to lead, and to make decisions (Clarke, 2015). Often, differences in participation reflect socioeconomic differences among students, with underprivileged students finding participation more risky (Clarke, 2015; Levinson, 2012; Malti, Averdijk, Ribeaud, Rotenberg, & Eisner, 2013). Though scholars acknowledge that the cultures of classrooms position some students as more likely to take risks than others, much more research is needed to understand the lived experiences of children that build or erode trust among peers in instructional spaces.


Rotenberg (1980) argues that children’s understandings of trust, and thus their assessments of their peers’ trustworthiness, are at least in part developmental. Drawing on findings from his study of 48 children (16 at each of the grades K, 2, and 4), he asserts that whereas younger children rely primarily on others’ behavior to assess trust, older children are more likely to assess the consistency between others’ talk and action. Children’s belief that others’ ability to “keep promises” reflects their understanding that actions speak at least as loudly as words. Keeping promises involves two key components of trust: emotional trust, believing that others will not cause us emotional harm; and reliability, that others will do what they say they will do (Rotenberg et al., 2005). This construct of trust has been the basis for much research into the relationship between children’s trust beliefs and their levels of aggressive behavior (Malti et al., 2013; Rotenberg, Betts, & Moore, 2013), incidents of loneliness (Rotenberg, MacDonald, & King, 2004), adjustment to primary school (Betts & Rotenberg, 2007; Rotenberg, Michalik, Eisenberg, & Betts, 2008), and peer preference (Rotenberg & Boulton, 2013).

In their study of 212 fifth graders, Ladd et al. (2014) similarly identified social/emotional and work-related attributes to be significant to children’s thinking about trust. Drawing on children’s descriptions of “good” collaborators, these scholars generated a comprehensive list of attributes. They then invited students to rate these attributes in order of importance in choosing peers with whom to work. From this study, the researchers claim that children think about peers’ competence and caring when choosing partners. First, children prefer partners who are competent and committed to getting the work done—children who can be trusted to stay on task and do their fair share of the work. Second, children hope that their partners will be caring—willing to solve disagreements and offer emotional support as they work together.

In selecting partners with whom to work, or in assessing partners with whom they are assigned to work, even young children draw on nuanced understandings of others’ trustworthiness. For our own analytic purposes, because it encompasses key aspects of trust as defined by the research reviewed here, we have adopted as an analytic lens Cook, Hardin, and Levi’s (2005) construct of trust: “Trust exists when we believe in both the competence of others to perform what is entrusted in them to do, and in the likelihood that others will act in ways that take into account our interests and well being” (p. 20). After generating rich descriptions of the goals and intentions children held for the ensuing dialogue, we used this framework to make sense of the relationship between children’s assessments of their peers’ trustworthiness and their own decisions about if and how to participate.


Findings presented here are drawn from a 2-year exploratory study1 of children’s (ages 9–11) thinking and behavior across four civic spaces: deliberative dialogue sessions, bystander dilemmas, open discussion, and collaborative inquiry. Across these spaces, we sought to understand what shaped children's approaches to and their eventual engagement in dialogue, and what sense they made of their experience. There was no intervention. Teachers opened their doors to us with a shared desire to understand children’s thinking and doing. We understood it to be a first step in developing more intentional pedagogical interventions we could employ in later stages of our collaborative work.

Like other exploratory research studies, we aimed to generate hypotheses and questions about patterns identified through ongoing deductive and inductive analysis of data—testing and building theories in an iterative fashion (Stebbins, 2001). In this paper, we look specifically at children’s approaches to deliberative dialogue with their peers, and what we came to understand as the critical role trust played in shaping those approaches. Careful analysis of individual pretask interviews conducted with 18 fourth grade children (in the 2nd year of study) served as data.


Cobb Elementary School is located in the southeast United States. The student body at Cobb Elementary is made up of approximately 500 children, 39% of whom are African American, 7% Asian, 5% Hispanic, 46% White, and 3% Multiracial (self-identified). Students hail from 30 states and 23 countries. Cobb is seated in a city with one of the highest poverty rates in the nation (nearly 40%). As is often the case, faculty at the participating school are under incredible pressure to close the achievement gap among their socioeconomically and racially diverse students, 65% of whom receive free or reduced lunch.

The focus classroom consisted of 20 students who looped with their teacher from third to fourth grade. This age group was selected because we understand the period between ages 7–10 to be critical for growth in communication skills (McDevitt, Spivey, Sheehan, Lennon, & Story, 1990). Children in this age span are said to grow increasingly capable of monitoring their speech from another’s perspective and considering the perspectives of others (Flavell, 2004), and to be experiencing a reduction in egocentrism and a greater ability to acknowledge and understand the motives and intentions of others (Piaget, 1950; Wadsworth, 2003). Because research suggests that this process begins earlier for girls due to their tendency for attachment (Gilligan, 1982) and among African American students (Siddle Walker & Snarey, 2004), who made up roughly 40% of the students with whom we worked, we hoped that students in this class would demonstrate a range of performances and understandings. Detailed demographic data about the children whose families consented for them to participate are included in Table 1 below.

Table 1. Student Participant Demographics



Socioeconomic Status




Economically disadvantaged







African American

Economically disadvantaged



African American

Not reported











African American

Economically disadvantaged



African American

Economically disadvantaged



African American

Not reported




Economically disadvantaged



African American

Economically disadvantaged



Asian American








African American





Economically disadvantaged







African American

Economically disadvantaged











African American

Economically disadvantaged


*Due to technical problems, we do not have pretask interviews for Jacob and Mary.


Research reveals that certain pedagogical conditions are more likely to incite collaborative (mutually transactive) engagement than others. Tasks that require participants to work toward consensus rather than to persuade others seem to demand more engagement with others’ ideas (Garcia-Mila, Gilabert, Erduran, & Felton, 2013; Schwarz, 1995). Relatedly, tasks that induce cognitive conflict—where multiple solutions are possible and require vetting—tend to invite more transacts between participants than those where answers are fairly straightforward (Adey & Shayer, 1990; Asterhan & Schwarz, 2009). Such ill-structured problems challenge students to apply various analytic frameworks in an effort to weigh better and worse solutions, but are open ended in that different frameworks may yield different “best” answers (Kuhn, 2015).

Drawing on this literature, we designed peer dialogue tasks that were deliberative in nature. Generally speaking, deliberation refers to collaborative discussion about shared, ill-structured problems that require “collective decision making and action” (Carretero, Haste, & Bermudez, 2016, p. 302). Deliberative discussion is grounded in a participatory conception of democracy and a belief that effective citizens demonstrate a variety of social capacities for working with others to influence public and civic life by building coalitions, seeking consensus, negotiating differences, and managing conflict.

During the first year of study, our research team piloted two deliberative dialogue tasks among the third-grade children. At the beginning of the second year of study, we developed a third deliberative dialogue task in light of what we learned during Year One. In what follows, we describe the realizations and adaptations we made.

First, the nature of the issue was important. We chose an issue that was authentic and grounded in children’s lives. The task asked the students to decide how to spend money that had been allocated for playground improvements. This task was grounded in real conversations members of the Cobb Elementary School community were having. Children often discussed their desire for more playground equipment and shady areas to escape the intensity of the sun. Adults, including family members, teachers, administrators and other school personnel, frequently participated in similar conversations. As this task was being presented to the children, members of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) were engaged in discussions about what equipment to purchase next. We explained to the children that the results of their peer deliberations would be shared with the PTA.

Second, grouping mattered. We decided to put the students in groups of four rather than three because we learned that when the students were grouped in triads one student often occupied a minority position. We strove to create groups that closely resembled the diversity of the children present in our focus classroom in hopes of facilitating the most cross-cutting dialogue possible. We made considerations including each child’s race, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and academic performance.

Third, drawing on our evolving understanding of the individual and situated nature of children’s engagement, we sought to know more about how the children entered and exited the dialogue sessions. We wished to understand how they thought about (a) themselves, (b) others with whom they were working, (c) the topic under discussion, and (d) participating in discussions. In order to do so, we reformatted the task to be comprised of three parts: an individual pretask interview, a group discussion session, and an individual posttask interview.

Fourth, completing all components of the task within a short time span, we learned, enabled the children to keep the task foregrounded in their minds. Thus, it allowed us to garner more information from the postinterview sessions. Ideally, we decided that all three activities should be completed with each group within the confines of one school day. Our teacher collaborators helped us choose times to collect data that minimally disrupted the student’s school day. Often we collected data during the lunch and recess period or during independent work time.

Fifth, we knew it was important to create a space that was comfortable for the students and where they would be free to focus on the task at hand (without distraction). We conducted all of the interviews and group discussion sessions outside of the students’ regular classroom. We chose a space within the confines of the school that was not traditionally used as an instructional space. We also decided that none of the task components would be conducted in the presence of the children’s teachers or other school personnel. Our first iteration of the task in Year One was conducted in class with the teacher present. We found that children consistently looked to the teacher for approval and support. Because we sought to understand how children engaged the task on their own—what understandings they brought to bear, what skills they employed, what sense they made of their experience—we decided to hold the sessions outside of the classroom.

Finally, it was important that the children knew the researchers who would be implementing the task. Therefore we decided that the two researchers who had been working on the larger research project longest (over a year) should implement the task. Although the elementary-aged students with whom we worked were familiar with the practice of videotaping, they were not used to our equipment or being videotaped for data collection purposes. Therefore we built in many opportunities for the students to become comfortable with the process. We used the cameras and tripods in the classroom for other purposes, showed the students videos of themselves, and provided them with opportunities to ask questions about the process and our choice to document them on film.

Due to the substantive changes we made to the nature of the deliberative dialogue task after Year One, we report here only on the data collected from the deliberative dialogue task presented to the students during the second year. The task read as follows:

Figure 1. Playground task

Your grade level has been given some money to buy more playground equipment. You have five options:

You could buy a sunshade for your playground.

You could buy swing set for your playground.

You could buy a set of playground balls for your class to use.

You could buy a set of jump ropes and hula-hoops for your class to use.

You could give the money to the Pre-K students so they can buy playground equipment.

Think about all of the choices. Decide which choice is best. How would you spend the money?

The task was bounded by five choices, which the PTA were indeed considering. This enabled us to see how individuals and groups of children reasoned about and selected among those choices. The closed-ended nature of the task enabled us to see whether or not the children thought beyond the task’s parameters. The task also challenged the students to think about whose interests were being served by the different options presented, and to decide which considerations were most important to make.


Pretask interviews were conducted individually and recorded. The researcher read the task to the child and offered an image of each playground improvement option in order to make the task less abstract. Each child was then given some time to think about the problem. After the child decided which choice was best, the researcher asked the child a series of questions to learn more about his/her decision as well as how the child was thinking about the discussion s/he was about to have. (See Appendix: Pretask Interview Protocol).

After each of the pretask interviews was completed, group members were brought together and read the task. The researchers provided the children with images of the five choices and a group recording sheet. They were given approximately 20 minutes to discuss the issue and decide how the money should be spent. The group discussion sessions were video-recorded from two different angles. This allowed us to see how the children were engaging with one another, performing in both verbal and nonverbal ways, and enacting (or changing) their self-described stances. We used tabletop microphones in order to improve the quality of the audio.

After the discussion session concluded, each of the children was again interviewed by one of the researchers. The posttask interview was designed to elicit the students’ interpretation of their group’s discussion and decision. They were asked to evaluate the nature and quality of their discussion by describing how the conversation went and how they felt about the outcome of their conversation. Both the pre- and posttask interviews were videotaped (audiotaped on rare occasions when we ran into technical difficulties).

Though the broader goal was to understand children’s understandings and enactments in this dialogic space, we report here only on their initial goals and intentions with regards to the dialogue. Examining deliberative dialogue as a perceived space among the children allows us to see what they expected and hoped as they prepared to engage in dialogue with their peers. We have come to understand that children’s perceptions of peer relations and the trustworthiness of others in their group play a powerful role in shaping how they engage in group work. For this reason, we find it important to pay close attention to this moment in time—prior to children’s actual engagement.

The research question guiding this aspect of the project was: How do children approach the deliberative dialogue session? Subsidiary questions that evolved through data analysis included:

What goals do children have as they prepare for dialogue?

What do they intend to do upon entering dialogue?

What relationships, if any, exist between students’ goals and intentions?

What relationships, if any exist, between students’ goals and intentions and the assessments they make of their peers’ trustworthiness?


We began inductively, reading and rereading each interview transcript with this question in mind: What do children hope will happen? We came together to discuss our initial analysis and generated a list of six goals (survival, image-protection, peace-keeping, inclusion, agreement and participation) children held. This list was inclusive of every child’s stated goals as they approached the dialogue. Often, children named two or three goals at once. From here, we went back to the transcripts to identify the key words and phrases that we used as indicators of each goal category. (See Table 2.) Next, in order to refine our codes and develop interrater reliability, we returned individually to each transcript intending to identify each child’s primary goal.

Table 2. Goals—Sample Coded Text


Coded Text


Hopes to get through the task without drawing negative attention to herself

“Agree with everybody… I’ll say yeah, I’ll say yeah to them, to what they said.”

“I don’t want it to be… Everybody in the group made an agreement and you’re the only person that didn’t make the agreement.”

“I hope everything will go well and there’s no arguing… cause when I’m in a group I don’t wanna have a teacher come over…”

“I feel scared… Messed up. Because I don’t know if they’re gonna listen to me or just be acting like… playing…, looking at other stuff and not paying attention to me… We need to get our work done” (implies an external authority figure)

Image-Protection: Hopes to maintain a particular identity (“real” boy, “selfless” girl, “smart” student)

“I don’t want to be selfish. That is why I put this as my first choice.”

“‘cause we’re boys and they’re girls they usually do nice things, not that boys are mean but…”

“If they don’t see the best thing that’s there I’ll… show disadvantages and advantages of getting the one thing.”


Hopes to avoid getting her feelings hurt or losing friends

“I’m gonna try to agree with no arguments so this can be a good conversation.”

“I hope people won’t be arguing a lot.”

“I don’t really like loudness and arguing.”

“I will hope that we’ll all agree with each other and not be angry at each other at the end.”

“I would hope that if they disagree with me they would do it nicely instead of just mean.”


Hopes that everyone will feel included and cared for as part of the conversation

“A good conversation is listening when everybody else is talking and considering and answering back.”

“I hope we consider each other and everything.”

“We will all help somebody when they need it.”

“I hope we’ll decide on something and we’ll all like it.”

“Because everybody will have a turn to take and when they have their turn they can say what they want to say.”


Hopes that the group will reach consensus; committed to the process of shared decision-making

“We’ll just have to come up with what we agree with.”

“We usually agree on… things and we usually sometimes disagree on things but that’s okay…we usually just come up with a different idea and we see if everyone agrees with it.”

“I’m going to try to help everyone agree to it and… basically if no one agrees to it then we’ll just come up with a different idea.”

“We’ll all cooperate- work together, solve problems, make decisions.”

“I wish that everyone will agree on something and I wish that it will be a very good decision—a wise decision.”


Hopes to engage fully in the process and to learn from others; reaching consensus less paramount

I’ll ask questions about what people think and stuff.”

“It’s just like court. It’s like some person has a statement and another has a defense and the defense becomes a statement and it just keeps on going until the judge—since we don’t have a judge it will just keep on going. So we all have to be like the judge and find a good statement.”

“I might change my mind.”

“I’m gonna talk about how we are going to decide and stuff.”

“I will try to move the conversation along… I could just keep suggesting ideas when we get stuck on one idea…”

Next we sought to name children’s varying intentions. We asked of the data, What did they plan to do once they entered into the dialogue? We paid particular attention to the references they made to self and other as actors (“I will…” versus “they” or “he will…”). We identified five roles children intended to play in order to reach their desired aims (abstainer, competitor, manager, technician, and collaborator). Again, we revisited the data to generate a list of words and phrases that served as codes for each intended role (See Table 3).

Table 3. Intended Roles—Sample Coded Text

Intended Role

Coded Text and Descriptions

Intends to observe or quickly abandon the conversation

Uses “they” a lot when he talks: “they should pick the same thing”

“I just go along with it because… I can’t really do anything about it, so I usually just don’t get bothered by it.”

“When everybody says what they want I’ll yeah, I’ll just say yeah to them, to what they said.”


Intends to win

“It’s going to be boys against girls.”

“Whatever side you choose, you choose that side.”

“I hope I win!”


Intends to direct others’ participation; assumes responsibility for the group being “on task”

“I will show them how to sit down and pay attention and work.”

“I will tell them to stop and if they don’t stop, I’ll tell the teacher.”

“I could see if they’re working. I could see what they’re doing cause sometimes, yes some people can do a lot of stuff and not their work so I can just research and see if they’re working.”

“I’m gonna like ask them which one do they like and if it’s a tie then I’m gonna have them choose one of them.”

“I’m gonna ask them to cool down and we can do it again.”


Intends to employ abstract procedures in order to reach a decision

“We could draw an idea. We could like put something… put the choices down on a piece of paper and then we could put it in a bowl or something and then like draw an idea.”

“We could vote.”


Intends to listen to others, try to understand their perspective and reach consensus

“Since we don’t have a judge it will just keep on going… So we all have to be like the judge and find a good statement.”

“We all just pick why we want these things and whoever, well whichever has the best reason, we would use that.”

“We will be asking questions like…should we get the playground balls?”

“I may change my mind.”

“We’ll cooperate… work together, solve the problem…”

Use of “we” when talking about engagement

The next step in our analytic process involved asking about relationships between children’s goals and intended roles. When we looked across children to see which goals, if any, corresponded with which intended roles, we found consistent patterns existed. Invariably, children whose goals were focused on engagement with others intended to behave more collaboratively. On the other hand, children whose goals were self-focused intended either to abstain or to assume roles that were more domineering and confrontational.

Our final go at the transcripts was driven by our evolving desire to understand the role that children’s assessments of their peers’ trustworthiness seemed to play in shaping children’s goals and intentions. We looked specifically at what children had to say about their peers. At our request, they had talked about their group members and how they expected others would act, how the group might function as a whole, and the likelihood that the group might reach consensus. Deductively, we applied Cook et al.’s (2005) theory of trust in order to understand children’s assessment of their peers’ trustworthiness. Here we coded children’s statements about their peers’ competence to carry out the task presented and the likelihood that their peers would behave in a caring manner.



Children demonstrated six primary goals as they prepared to enter this deliberative dialogue session. We have organized these into two broad categories: goals emphasizing self-preservation and those focused on engagement with others.

Table 4. Goals

Preservation of Self




Engagement with Others




Preservation of Self

Children who were survival-oriented strove to do whatever it took to get through the task without trouble. They worried about getting punished or scolded by external authority figures (teachers, principals, or other adults). When they talked about having a discussion with others, they explained that they would agree with others in order to avoid conflict. Although Curtis believed that giving the money to the Pre-K students and putting a shade over the K–5 playground were both great ideas, he said he would quickly concede to others in order to avoid arguments. In the pretask interview, when asked “What are you going to do?” Curtis answered, “Agree with everybody…I will say yeah to them, to what they said” (119). When asked “what do you hope is going to happen?” He said, “I hope everything will go well and there’s no arguing… over which one they want to have” (163–165). He added, “I don’t want the teacher to come and say ‘I cannot hear the other groups. I need you to be quiet and stop arguing’” (166–169). His responses suggest that he believes that in the school context it is important to remain quiet and on task. Not getting in trouble was his primary concern. To “survive” the experience, then, he intended to go along to get along, to avoid calling negative attention to himself. Whether the group reached consensus or not was immaterial. Surviving was paramount.

For peace-keeping oriented children, it was important for them to feel emotionally and physically safe in the group. Their safety, they believed, depended on others’ being able to engage peacefully. They hoped everyone would get along without arguing—not for fear of getting in trouble, but because tension made them personally uncomfortable. They sought to avoid disagreement and prevent conflicts by giving in or offering new ideas, in case somebody, themselves included, might get hurt. Even though Addie was excited about having the conversation with her peers, she was not ready to argue for her opinion. Rather, she said, “I am going to try to agree with no arguments…so this can be a good conversation” (117–119). Caleb was particularly concerned that if people disagreed they could “do it nicely instead of just mean” (103–104). Maggie hoped people wouldn’t argue a lot, because she didn’t like “loudness or arguing” (97–100).

The image-oriented students were concerned with how they were going to be perceived by others. They seemed to struggle between their own ideas and what they thought others expected of them. Interestingly, children with image-oriented stances often seemed preoccupied by gender roles and performing in gender-appropriate ways. Also, they projected gendered expectations onto others. David said, “ Cause you know we’re boys and they’re girls. And girls do nice things… not that we are mean but…” (84–85). The image he wanted to portray was in stark contrast to anything “girly.” Joshua saw himself as having knowledge his group mates would likely not have. He seemed to pride himself on being smart, pointing to experiments he’d done to determine the temperature on the playground. When talking about what concerned him, he explained that it was important others came to see that his answer was best. Joshua, it seems, was concerned with performing in ways that would uphold his image.

Engagement With Others

For inclusion-oriented children, the primary goal was that everyone be included in the dialogue. Hoping to create a secure and fair space in which everyone’s ideas were respected, heard, and considered, they thought more about how the process would allow them to achieve their goal. Oliver said, “Everybody will have a turn to take and when they have their turn they can say what they want to say” (98). Caleb hoped “everybody respects each other’s ideas… Like listening when somebody else is talking and considering and answering back” (118). Regardless of the particular resolution, these students wished for as many voices to be heard as possible so that everyone felt included. They seemed to believe that the process would work if everyone was heard.

Agreement-oriented children were most concerned with reaching consensus. They seemed to believe that the discussion process would yield the best solution for the larger good and that collaboration among people with different ideas would move them to the best group decision. Paula explained that the conversation would go well if “we would agree” (140). She elaborated, “It’s good to all work on agreeing from being a little kid instead of being a grown up. When you are younger you learn stuff and then you learn more stuff and then you grow up… so I hope that we will all agree…” (179–194). Similarly, Helen stated that she wished “that everyone will agree on something and… that it will be a very good decision—a wise decision” (204–205). Oliver said, “you have to come up with a decision… I hope we reach agreement” (193, 211).

Participation-oriented children prioritized being present and engaged in the dialogue. These children looked forward to considering others’ ideas and having a rich dialogue with the other group members. They appeared ready to learn from others during the discussion. Dominic, for example, didn’t seem to have a clear idea about which solution he thought was best. Rather, he hoped to go into the dialogue ready to listen to others and think about each possible choice. “For instance, Eddie might say something good about why we should get this and then Anna might say something bad about it… So I might agree with Eddie or not. I might change my mind” (177–180). The table below represents the number of children coded as having each goal orientation.

Table 5. Children’s Goals


In all, nine children demonstrated self-preservation goals and eight children demonstrated goals of engagement with others. Eddie is the lone student to whom we were unable to assign an orientation. Eddie said very little during the interview, despite many attempts to inquire about his thinking. We struggled to identify a particular goal orientation because he seemed generally disinterested in the activity as a whole. Each of our efforts to code Eddie, we agreed, was a guess at best. In the end, we coded him as being “situationally disinterested.” Situational disinterest is, of course, always a danger of any research task, classroom activity, or civic event. It is, of course, nearly impossible to generate a task that will engage all children, just as no civic event captures the attention of all citizens.


Children intended to assume one of five roles as they prepared for dialogue. We discuss these in turn.

Abstainers intended to either watch from the sidelines or abandon participation after one initial effort. Despite Curtis’s thoughtfulness about the problem posed, when asked what he intended to do during the dialogue, he responded, “I’ll agree with everybody… when everybody says what they want I’ll say yeah, yeah to what they said… Because all of them made an agreement and if like I was being quiet the whole time…” (119, 122–123, 125–126). Here, Curtis shows that he plans to go along with the group, to be quiet. His reasons have to do with his fear of drawing negative attention from the teacher for being too loud or off-task. In another example, Eddie had a difficult time envisioning or articulating a role for himself in the discussion. He repeatedly stated, “I don’t know” (41, 45, 80, 82, 95, 116,122, 146) when asked what he thought he might do. And when asked about how he thought the conversation would go, he responded by using the pronoun “they” for the remainder of the interview: “They’ll probably reach agreement… They probably might go and pick the same thing…” (107, 132). These students, which we have coded as abstainers, intended to sit on the sidelines of the discussion.

A number of students considered different procedures they could invoke to make a decision. Sometimes these were collaborative, like listening to others and thinking about the strengths of each possible solution. Sometimes, children invoked abstract processes, however, that such as voting or drawing an answer out of a hat in order to avoid what they feared would be a difficult task of reaching consensus. Maggie, for instance, after explaining that “there’s sort of going to be a debate… it’s just gonna be hard” (76–80), offered that the group could vote (84). Later she added, “We could draw an idea. We could like put something… we could put the choices down on a piece of paper and then we could put in a bowl or something and then like draw an idea” (88–90). We coded Maggie as a technician because of her reliance on abstract procedures as a means of decision-making rather than listening and compromise.

The children who intended to assume the role as the manager for the group believed that, perhaps because they knew more than others, they needed to supervise the process. Joshua, Brittany, and Anna assumed this stance. When asked, “What will you try to do?” Anna said, “Show an example how to sit down and pay attention and work…and pay attention… I am gonna sit down and see if they are working… (if they are not working) tell them to stop. If they don’t stop, tell the teacher…” (187–199). According to her experience, some students would pretend to listen to her, while they were doing stuff that was irrelevant to the work (213–216). Hence, she thought it was her duty to be in charge. Likewise, Brittany hoped that she and her classmates would work together as a team. She planned to “ask them which one they like and if it’s a tie then have them choose one…” (147–148). Later, she said it was possible they might argue about which option was best. In that event, she said, “I’m gonna ask them to cool down and we can do it again” (175). Brittany assumed that her role would be to keep her group on track and to diffuse any tensions that arose. Children with a managerial stance seemed to think they were best suited to facilitate the process.

The children who planned to be competitors had one goal: winning. They thought of the dialogue as a competition that would ultimately have winners and losers. They were committed to an idea, but not necessarily because they believed it was best for the community. They intended to persuade others because they wanted to come out on top. They anticipated conflict. In David’s words, “whatever side you choose, you choose the side” (95–96). When asked “what do you hope will happen,” he answered without hesitation and with a broad smile, “I win” (130).

The title collaborator, used here, reflects more than just going along or participating in abstract processes. With it, we strive to represent children who intended to work toward genuine compromise through actively listening to others, considering various sides of the problem, and making a decision that reflected shared thinking. Daniel, for instance, started by explaining that members of the group will likely “have different opinions” (133). He went on, in much detail, to describe what he envisioned would happen:

Whichever has the best reason, we would use that…  We will be asking questions like, should we get the playground balls because people like playing balls a lot or should we not get the playground balls because people may get hit with them. Something like that… I might agree, then disagree. Same thing with the sunshade… What I mean is, I may change my mind… We’ll work together, solve the problem, making decisions. (148, 155–157, 165–169, 177–180, 220)

Similarly, Paula said, “I would give them reasons why I chose something and then I would let them give reasons and then we would choose the reasons that would be better” (143–144).

The table below represents the number of children intending to enact differing roles. In all, four children intended to abstain, one to compete, two to manage, one to apply abstract procedures, and eight to collaborate in an effort to reach compromise.

Table 6. Children’s Intended Roles


Consistent patterns emerge when we consider children’s goals and their intended roles together. The table below represents each child’s primary goal and intended role.

Table 7. Children’s Primary Goals and Intended Roles


Primary Goal

Primary Intended Role





















































Situational Disinterest


Children who assumed a self-preservation orientation intended to either abstain or to assume the role of technician, competitor, or manager. Never did a child preoccupied with self-preservation intend to assume the role of collaborator as defined here. Thus, children who are concerned with protecting their own image, keeping the peace, or surviving the experience without getting in trouble were less willing to engage in collaborative processes of listening and compromise. Contrarily, children who assumed goals of engagement with others (agreement, inclusion, and participation) always intended to collaborate. This finding is captured in the table below.

Table 8. Relationship Between Children’s Goals and Intended Roles



What contributes to some children holding more collaborative goals and intentions than others? To answer this question, we revisited children’s pretask interview transcripts to see how children talked about others, the task, and their expectations. There we found that children’s varying degrees of trust seemed to powerfully influence their thinking about what they thought was possible and probable. When they had little faith in themselves, they intended to leave the task to others, often abstaining. When they had little faith in others, they intended to assume more assertive positions themselves. As their trust grew, they seemed more willing and able to consider relinquishing control and asserting themselves in ways that were more balanced and collaborative.

Children made thoughtful predictions about the trustworthiness of others—predictions about their competence to manage the task given and the likelihood that they would consider their peers’ interests. And these predictions played a powerful role in shaping their approaches. Employing Cook et al.’s (2005) definition of trust as an analytic lens, we examined students’ reasoning around their relative trust in order to understand some of the influences at play.


Students’ assessments of their peers’ competence were seemingly informed by impressions they had developed about their peers over time in school. Children spoke often of their expectations about their peers’ behavior—their peers’ ability to get along well with others, to stay on task, and to make wise contributions to the conversation. Anna, for instance, had very little faith that her group mates would engage collaboratively as they worked to complete the task given them. Early in her interview, she stated, “I don’t like Eddie and I don’t like Daniel … Eddie don’t do no work. We ain’t gonna get nothing done” (83, 91–93). Later, when asked how she thought the discussion will go, she said, “Crazy… Weird… because sometimes Eddie doesn’t listen, he plays around and sometimes things can get out of hand… All of us have been in a group before. We’ve all been in a group before and that didn’t go so well” (157–165). As the interview progressed, Anna outlined the many ways she intended to manage her group mates so that they could get the task completed. She admitted that she was “scared” they wouldn’t respond well to her efforts to manage and the group wouldn’t reach a decision. Her experience with these specific children in the classroom and in small group settings taught her to expect the worst. Her distrust meant she intended to assume a domineering position, putting faith in herself alone to get the job done.

Maggie, who was preoccupied with her concern over keeping the peace, feared that her peers would descend into “loudness and arguing” that would make her uncomfortable. Her distrust of her group to work together contributed to her intention to offer a series of abstract procedures for decision-making. Unsure that she and her group mates could manage a civil conversation, she suggested that she would invite them to “vote” or “draw an answer from a bowl.” Such processes seemed to give her a sense of escape from having to work through the difficult experience of reaching consensus, which might leave her feeling emotionally unsafe.

When asked how she thought the conversation would go, Helen anticipated that her peers wouldn’t agree with her: “I think they’re gonna really hate this… I don’t think they’ll really have fun under the sunshade but it’s still safe and good. But they’ll like balls or hula hoops or swing sets better” (81–84). When asked to make predictions about what ideas her specific group members might offer, she laughed and rolled her eyes, saying, “Taylor would like more of something fun and [something] they could play [with]” (96) and “I think he’ll [Dominic] want the ball too and he would definitely put the sunshade in the last spot” (121–122). Despite her collaborative intentions, Helen seemed to position herself as wiser and more capable than her peers. She seemed to think that her peers lacked the ability to consider safety or what is good for the community; rather they were more likely to focus on their personal wants. At one point, she stated that if her group mates were arguing she would, “just settle it…” (168–172), suggesting that she might need to take charge.

Sometimes, children’s experience led them to make hopeful predictions about the ensuing dialogue. Paula said, “We all know each other, we are all friends…” (154–155). Cody offered, “I think they’re cooperative people” (111). These children had confidence in themselves and others that it would be okay to disagree. They didn’t think it was risky to take a stand and give reasons they felt were sound. As Paula said, “I would give them reasons why I chose something and then I would let them give reasons and then we would choose the reasons that would- that would be better” (143). These children thought disagreements could be settled. “And it is okay to change their mind too” (Paula, 144).

Students drew upon their prior personal experience in the class to make predictions about whether or not they could trust their peers to behave competently. Competence here was understood as peers’ ability to stay on task, to make wise contributions to the discussion, and to get along well with others. Embedded in children’s talk about who could be trusted were understandings they had gleaned about their position relative to others. Helen’s dismissal of her peers’ likely contributions suggests she expected little in the way of thoughtfulness from her peers. Anna was sure the other kids would fail to behave and do their share. Maggie was convinced that the conversation would degenerate into an argument. Paula, rather, assumed that the members of her group would likely show respect for one another’s ideas and participate equally.

These predictions seem to be informed not only by children’s one-on-one encounters with their peers but also by implicit hierarchies and social stratification within the classroom. Like any social milieu, the students’ classroom had a culture of its own, shaped by forces within and outside of the school walls. Because this group of children had been together for an extended period of time (looping from third to fourth grade), narratives seemed to have evolved about individual and groups of children—narratives built on experience and shaped by stereotypes. Children came to know who among them was “smart” “well-behaved” or “trouble.” These narratives also informed children’s sense-making about what was likely to take place when specific children came together to complete a task such as this one.


To assess their peers’ willingness to act on behalf of others, children seemed to rely less on previous personal interaction with their peers and more on their deeply held beliefs about gender roles and about how power and culture worked at school. Sometimes children made predictions about what positions others would choose in the discussion based on specific observations of their playground behavior over time. Often, however, children invoked stereotypes about gender—describing typical boy and girl activities, stating what boys and girls like, and applying general principles about character traits of girls and boys to explain what they thought others would do. For instance, children called on gender stereotypes to explain how they expected their peers to take sides. David stated early and often throughout his interview that he anticipated that there will be two sides of a debate: “It’s gonna be us against them…” (90). He explained, “it’s going to be boys against girls… you choose a side…” (91–96). David further called on his understandings of gender to predict that the girls would choose to give the money to Pre-K because girls “usually do nice things” (85). He, however, intended to make clear his non-girlhood and assert himself in opposition. Paramount for him was winning the argument and maintaining his place as a real boy.

Other children called on beliefs about typical boy and girl behavior to predict which solution their peers might choose and whether that solution would align with their own interests. Oliver said that he expected Addie to choose to give the money to Pre-K because she’s a girl. He hoped that she would, because he wanted to give the money to Pre-K as well. Maggie also predicted that Rachel, because she’s a girl, would take her side and wish to give the money to Pre-K. Most often, boys and girls alike predicted that girls would choose to give the money to Pre-K despite the fact that more boys than girls chose this option at the outset (three boys; two girls). Boys, contrarily, were expected to serve their own interests, most likely choosing playground equipment since they “like to go run around a lot.”

Still other children predicted peers’ behavior in light of general distrust they held about how schools privilege some ways of being over others. In Curtis’ interview, we asked him to reflect on his worry about getting in trouble. Curtis explained that there are different ways of talking and engaging—at school and in other communities in which he takes part. At school, he said, “I supposed to talk kindly cause if I don’t, I’ll get in trouble…” (118) whereas at home, “with my friends, they talk normal… like they talk, hey what’s up!? … stuff like that” (113). When asked why he acts differently at school than at home, he explained that there were different rules at school than in his world at home. For instance, “Well my mom always told me when somebody’s hitting me, punching me or messing with me I, my mom told me if they hit me I hit ‘em back, but not at school… so I don’t get suspended. She would tell me, just go tell a teacher… she tells me to talk nice to people and like act normal around people at school” (177–190). Curtis seems to understand that people at school play by different rules than he is used to. Curtis distrusts a school culture that feels foreign to him—a space where his interests are most certainly not represented. Not only does he distrust the space, but he also seems to distrust himself to “act normal” in that space. It seems that Curtis believes his peers know the rules better than he does, and so it is best if he doesn’t try to participate.

Children’s immediate assessments of their peers’ trustworthiness was shaped by previous interpersonal experience, but also by larger cultural forces such as the relative status of individuals and groups within the school, constructs of gender identity, and understandings of school culture as counterculture. Children were self-preservation oriented when they read the context and arrived at reasons to distrust what would unfold. Guided by their distrust, they chose to protect themselves by abstaining (not taking risks) or by managing, competing, or applying abstract techniques. Contrarily, children who were other-oriented when they read the context trusted that things would go well. They intended to engage in collaborative ways.


Trust matters for learning. The more children trust their peers, the more likely they are to take the risks necessary to learn. Their participation in dialogue is more likely to be collaborative, consist of mutual transacts, and lead to enhanced reasoning, problem solving, and tolerance for difference (Azmitia & Montgomery, 1993; Gweon et al., 2013). To date, research reveals that children draw on prior experience with individuals to assess the trustworthiness of their peers (Howley et al., 2013) and also on their assessments of the social dynamics at play in the classroom (Clarke, 2015; Hemmings, 2000; Hess & Posselt, 2002). Findings from this study suggest that children’s trust assessments reflect complex understandings about themselves and others—understandings that reflect not only individual encounters with others and ideas children have about hierarchies in the classroom, but also their ideas about gender stereotypes and about their own and others’ positionality with regards to school culture.

Furthermore, it has been shown that children who are distrusting of their peers or of the social hierarchies in classrooms tend to refrain from participation in peer dialogue (Clarke, 2015; Hess & Posselt, 2002). Findings here point to a variety of ways such distrust may manifest in children’s dialogic engagement. Beyond abstaining from dialogue, children may decide to engage assertively (trusting themselves more than others to get the job done) or they may resort to abstract procedures as means for reaching consensus (distrusting that their group mates can manage a fruitful discussion). Scholars have made the case that distrust correlates with aggressive behavior in classrooms (Malti et al., 2013; Rotenberg, Betts, & Moore, 2013). Data here speak not to physical aggression but to verbal assertiveness. Abstaining, managing, competing, or resorting to abstract procedures result in less collaborative (and thus less productive) engagement.

Most strikingly, we believe, is the finding here that distrusting children (and thus those least likely to reap the benefits of peer dialogue) may tend to be socioeconomically disadvantaged children or children of color. Of course, given the small number of participants in this study, no firm claims can be made. At best, we can raise questions about patterns we see in the data in hopes that future research will continue to seek greater understanding. But given other scholars’ suggestion that SES may serve as an indicator of if and how children participate (Christie, 1999; Howe & McWilliam, 2001), we think it is important to pay careful attention to the talk of children like Curtis. Researchers have done little to understand how children of differing SES backgrounds make sense of the risk taking associated with peer dialogue. Without hearing from children, we are left to make assumptions about why children of differing backgrounds participate as they do. Typically, explanations are offered about children of lower SES backgrounds having less exposure to rich dialogue in the home. Given our own data set, we question this assumption, and suggest that rather than suffering from a deficit in their home life, these children may possess quite nuanced understandings of the culture of schools as it positions them as “other”—understandings that contribute to their unwillingness to join in.

For the most part, gaps in opportunities for children of varying backgrounds to participate in rich dialogic instruction have been explained by disparities in the types and number of courses offered in schools and the nature of pedagogy across tracked classrooms (Flanagan, Cumsille, Gill, & Gallay, 2007; Kahne & Middaugh, 2009; Levinson, 2012). These patterns are, of course, troubling. But just as troubling are the disparities that exist even within classrooms where dialogic instruction is engaged. Our findings build on the growing line of inquiry about the interior life of students to suggest that even when schools provide opportunities to diverse groups of children, children may experience these opportunities very differently (Mason, Cremin, & Warwick, 2011). In what follows, we discuss possible theoretical and practical implications of this work.

First, we hope that this window into the complexity of children’s approaches to deliberation will serve as a cautionary tale about the oversimplification and essentializing of children’s capabilities as participants. While we have offered here descriptions of categories (goals and intended roles), we acknowledge that these categories are neither fixed nor exhaustive. Across the 2 years that we worked with these children, we observed them in a variety of settings. Thus, we know that the immediate context of any dialogic space (the task, the peers with whom students worked, the time of day, the location, the topic) influenced children’s approaches and engagement. Thus, the categories offered here are not intended to be a means of evaluating or naming individual children. Rather, they are intended to represent different ways children approach deliberative dialogue. We do, however, submit that these categories seem useful in examining the relationship between children’s thought and their intended action. As we might expect, children do not think and act in monolithic or highly predictable ways. Though there may be patterns in children’s behavior, their ways of being are extraordinarily diverse and highly contextual. Understanding children’s knowing and doing, then, requires understanding the contexts that shape that knowing and doing and the many ways children make sense of and act on their experience.

Among other things, this means that what we see children do may not reflect what they are capable of doing. Children like Curtis may be incredibly thoughtful and capable of engaging in productive peer dialogue, but if they do not trust others to have their best interest at heart, we may never see what they can do. To assume that Curtis, because he abstains, is less capable than others would be a misinterpretation of his performance. Likewise, to assume that Paula, because she intended to collaborate, is more competent than Curtis in this context would be equally problematic. This assumption ignores the role of context and the privilege Paula may enjoy here. She feels free to take risks because she has faith not only in herself to be successful, but also in others around her.

This understanding makes assessment and measurement challenging. At the very least, we know that evaluation tools focusing exclusively on observable behaviors as measures of students’ effectiveness in dialogue, insofar as they ignore the many influences on students’ behavior, are inadequate as means of informing instruction and research. We cannot assess children’s engagement in dialogue through observation alone, because their participation is explained, at least in part, by understanding what concerns them and what they hope to accomplish. They make important decisions about how, when, and if to act in light of their read of the context. A commitment to developing students’ skill in dialogue will require assessment tools that are far more nuanced and comprehensive, reflective of our growing understanding of how children think and act in dialogic spaces.

Second, given the critical role of trust in children’s risk taking, we assert that educators should take seriously the responsibility of creating spaces in which all children feel they can take the risks necessary to learn. This, of course, is a tall order, given that schools are shaped by a complex web of social, political, and cultural contexts. Together, teachers and researchers will need to pay increasing attention to the culture of schools and the dominant values and norms of the larger culture in which schools are embedded. As in Hemmings’ (2000) study of two high school classrooms, students’ peer relationships and the hierarchies that structure them significantly contributed to students’ willingness to engage in dialogue. Teachers may need to become much more savvy about the ways in which individuals and group of students are positioned within the school and classroom, and work to disrupt the narratives that define them whenever they can. Taking Levinson’s (2012) cue, teachers might much more intentionally teach children whose cultural identities stand outside the dominant frame to “code-switch,” helping them to understand “when different languages or cultural expressions are appropriate and why” so that they might become capable agents within and across cultural fields (p. 88). If indeed students need to participate in dialogue in order to grow in skill and appreciation for talk as a means of problem solving, barriers to participation must be removed.

So long as schools merely reflect the inequities that exist in society at large, they have limited capacity to serve as sites of powerful learning for all children. Taking seriously the charge to educate all children for a world that is increasingly diverse and challenged by ill-structured problems is a complex endeavor that will require a great deal of intentionality and sensitivity to the individualistic and situated nature of their experience, as well as the courage to attend to overt and subtle barriers to risk taking.


The authors would like to extend a sincere thank you to Dr. Bruce VanSledright for thinking with us, offering feedback on drafts, and always believing that the work was important. We would also like to thank Dr. Lauren Harris and Dr. Keith Barton for their comments on early drafts of this paper, and the TCR reviewers for their careful and constructive reviews. Finally, thank you to Dr. Lyn Corno, for her support throughout the review process.


1. This research program was generously funded by the Spencer Foundation’s New Civics Initiative. We are deeply grateful for their support. The views expressed in this account are entirely our own and do not necessarily represent the endorsement of the foundation.


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What is the problem?


Which choice do you think is best? Why do you think that?


How strongly do you feel about your choice? Why?


How do you think others will feel about this problem? What do you think others will choose? How do you thinks others will respond to your idea?


How do you think the conversation will go? What makes you think it will go this way?


As a group your goal is to come to an agreement. By the end of your conversation do you think your group will come to agreement? Why/why not?


As you go into this conversation, what are you going to try to do?


What will you do if others disagree?


How are you feeling about having this conversation?


What do you hope will happen?

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 119 Number 10, 2017, p. 1-34
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21898, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 3:31:13 AM

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About the Author
  • Jennifer James
    University of Georgia
    E-mail Author
    JENNIFER HAUVER JAMES is Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at the University of Georgia. As a civic educator, she seeks to understand the institutional, discursive, and sociopolitical contexts that shape possibilities for democratic learning, particularly in public school settings. Her most recent research explores various dimensions of young people’s thought and action across civic spaces. Her recent works include Religion in the Classroom: Dilemmas for Democratic Education and Feminist Community Engagement: Achieving Praxis.
  • Jessica Kobe
    University of Georgia
    E-mail Author
    JESSICA F. KOBE is a doctoral student in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at the University of Georgia. Her research interests fall at the intersection of civic education, critical dialogic pedagogy, and multiculturalism. Embracing cosmopolitan and transformative definitions of democratic civic education, she is currently exploring how children engage in dialogue about and across difference with their peers. She is committed to doing narrative inquiry work that invites children to play a strong role in the research process.
  • Xiaoying Zhao
    University of Georgia
    E-mail Author
    XIAOYING ZHAO is a doctoral student in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at the University of Georgia. Her research interests center on civic education and spatial theories. She has a forthcoming piece in the journal Citizenship, Teaching & Learning.
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