I have been asked about the differences between dialogue and discussion so many times recently that I have decided to add a page here in order to clarify. Understand that these are generalizations that have more or less relevance depending on the individual styles of the group leaders, the nature of the material, the students themselves, etc.
One of the biggest differences is in the power dynamic between the teacher or leader and the students. Discussions are generally teacher-led to the point where even the questions themselves constitute a clear agenda. Participants feel that there is a specific purpose and direction for the discussions and that they are passively along for the ride. Dialogues are student-led and controlled mainly by the participants who create their own emergent group agenda. Participants feel that they are an active part of a shared experience.
Discussions are often characterized by brief, individual answers to exploratory questions and are typically for broadening a topic by collecting multiple opinions. They tend to converge toward a “right” answer or conclusion that is often moderated by the teacher or leader. In discussions, participants tend to throw out individual ideas in the hope that they are relevant and useful and the teacher or leader must often synthesize the comments into a meaningful narrative. In discussions, the teacher is often the one working the hardest.
If you draw a picture of a discussion, where lines represent sections of conversation, then most would run from the teacher out to a single student and back to the teacher, forming V-shapes.
Dialogue, or shared inquiry, is characterized by collaborative answers to provocative questions, and is based in cooperative efforts toward a greater shared understanding. Participants work together to strengthen all positions for mutual benefit. Dialogues tend to diverge toward more questions and expand or deepen conversations. In dialogues, participants must actively listen in order to build upon previous ideas and synthesize for themselves what is important. In dialogues, the students are the ones working the most. There is a wonderful video presentation by Professor Neil Mercer on dialogue, or shared thinking, here.
If you draw a picture of a dialogue, where lines represent sections of conversation, then most of the lines would run between students, forming interconnected web shapes.