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Review of  Classroom Discourse and the Space of Learning

Reviewer: Richard Watson Todd
Book Title: Classroom Discourse and the Space of Learning
Book Author: Ference Marton Amy B.M. Tsui
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Discourse Analysis
Ling & Literature
Issue Number: 16.25

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Date: Tue, 28 Dec 2004 13:55:04 +0700
From: Richard Watson Todd
Subject: Classroom Discourse and the Space of Learning

AUTHORS: Marton, Ference; Tsui, Amy B. M.
TITLE: Classroom Discourse and the Space of Learning
PUBLISHER: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
YEAR: 2004

Richard Watson Todd, Department of Applied Linguistics, King Mongkut's
University of Technology Thonburi


This book is an edited collection of papers concerning classroom-based
learning. Intended primarily for applied linguists interested in
educational discourse but also for educationalists generally, the book
consists of eight articles and an epilogue. I will look at each of these
briefly in turn.

Part 1: On Learning and Language

Chapter 1: "The space of learning", Marton, F., Runesson, U. and Tsui, A.
B. M.
This chapter aims to set up a theoretical framework for the analyses of
classroom discourse which follow in the rest of the book. The key concepts
in the theory of learning presented here are 'the object of
learning', 'variation' and 'the space of learning'. The object of learning
is the capability that is to be learnt in a given lesson. From the
teacher's perspective, the goal of the lesson is to present an intended
object of learning, which through the discourse of the lesson becomes the
enacted object of learning or what it is possible to learn in the lesson.
Finally, from the learner's point of view, what is actually learnt is
termed the lived object of learning. The key way in which the object of
learning becomes enacted is through the teacher's use of variation.
Learners can only learn an object when it is presented in comparison to
something with which it differs. For example, if the object of learning is
the colours, 'red' and 'green', learners who are colour-blind will not be
able to see the difference between these and therefore opportunities for
them to learn will not be available. These variations create a space of
learning which refers to what it is possible to learn in that particular
situation. This space is largely created through language. This theory of
learning is perhaps following in the tradition of Jerome Bruner, while the
emphasis on the importance of language in learning follows the work of M.
A. K. Halliday.

Part 2: On Learning

Chapter 2: "Variation and the secret of the virtuoso", Ko, P. Y. and
Marton, F.
The first research article in the collection reports on the use of
variation in lessons on semantics and geometry in China. The methodology
in the research (and indeed in most of the research in this book) uses
techniques in discourse analysis where a transcript of part of a lesson is
given which is then commented on by the researcher based on the
theoretical framework used.

Chapter 3: "Discernment and the question, 'What can be learned?'",
Runesson, U. and Mok, I. A. C.
On the surface, this paper examines the concept of discernment, the need
to be aware of relationships in order to be able to learn, a concept which
was also covered in the first chapter. While the preliminaries to the
research focus on discernment, much of the findings and discussion concern
variation. The lessons investigated are a pair of lessons from Sweden on
fractions in which the two teachers used variation differently with
different effects on the space of learning, and another lesson on geometry
from China.

Chapter 4: "Simultaneity and the enacted object of learning", Chik, P. P.
M. and Lo, M. L.
The research in this chapter involves comparisons of three pairs of
lessons: a pair of mathematics lessons from Sweden, a pair of Chinese
language lessons from Hong Kong, and a pair of English language lessons
from Hong Kong. In each pair, the way in which the content is presented is
compared, and for the Hong Kong lessons students' learning is compared
using a post-test. Where two aspects of the object of learning are the
focus, it was found that teaching was more effective when both aspects
were focused on simultaneously.

Part 3: On Language

Chapter 5: "Questions and the space of learning", Tsui, A. B. M., Marton,
F., Mok, I. A. C. and Ng, D. F. P.
In focusing on how language creates the space for learning, this chapter
again compares pairs of lessons. The first pair are both physics lessons
from Hong Kong, one taught in a second language, English, and the other
taught in the mother tongue, Chinese. The second pair, again from Hong
Kong, are primary English lessons focusing on teaching the word 'some' to
signify inexact quantity. Although the argument concerning the transcripts
is organised around the teachers' use of questions, especially for the
physics lessons, it may be better characterised as how teachers rephrase
and revise the content in order to elicit student contributions. The
findings, perhaps unsurprisingly, are that students contribute more when
taught in their mother tongue.

Chapter 6: "The semantic enrichment of the space of learning", Tsui, A. B.
Again using lessons from Hong Kong, in this chapter a Chinese language
lesson and a pair of history lessons, one English-medium and one Chinese-
medium, the research examines the effects of varying the context of
learning (e.g. teacher-led discussion or student-led discussion) and how
the mother tongue can help collaborative construction of meaning.

Chapter 7: "The shared space of learning", Tsui, A. B. M.
Using data from English, physics, Chinese and history lessons, this
chapter examines how the teacher and students negotiate meaning to come to
a shared understanding of what the discourse is about. As in the previous
chapter, collaborative construction of meaning is shown to be more
effective in mother-tongue classrooms than in classrooms where a second
language is used to teach a content subject.

Part 4: On Improving Learning

Chapter 8: "Toward a pedagogy of learning", Lo, M. L., Marton, F., Pang,
M. F. and Pong, W. Y.
In contrast to the previous chapters which describe classroom discourse,
this last full chapter is interventionist, in that it reports research
aiming to effect changes in the way teachers teach. The largest part of
the chapter focuses on the teaching of economics, and looks at the extent
to which groups of teachers develop their teaching depending on whether
they are working with or without an explicit theoretical grounding (in
this case, the theory of variation focused on in many of the previous
chapters). The findings suggest both that the theory of variation is valid
and that teacher development focused on the theory is productive.

The final short chapter in the book attempts to review the main findings
from the chapters in light of broader trends in education. The main
argument is that many of the current concerns in education, especially
methodological concerns, are less important than the rather less tangible
aspects of teaching, particularly variation and the use of language to
create meaning, highlighted in this book.


With the same authors involved in writing several of the chapters, this
book in many ways has more of the characteristics of a monograph than a
collection of edited papers. Although most of the chapters report
different pieces of research in the style of an edited collection, there
is a coherence of argument across chapters akin to that usually found in a
monograph. While this could be viewed as a strength, it also means that
the collection exhibits a single viewpoint with no dissenting voices.

The singularity of perspective perhaps means that the main findings of the
collection should be treated with caution. The two key findings concern
the importance of variation for learning, and the key role that language
plays in creating meaning in classrooms.

The findings concerning variation are probably the main contribution this
book makes to the field. While there have been a few reports concerning
the importance of variation in the educational literature (and these are
cited in this book), as far as I am aware, this collection is the first
major attempt to examine the issue from the perspective of applied
linguistics. In doing this, the findings are fairly convincing (but see my
criticisms of the research methodology below). In classroom research,
there are so many potentially important factors influencing the discourse
and learning that it is often impossible to show how any single factor,
such as variation, affects learning. In an isolated study, this means that
any findings concerning the influence of a single factor should be viewed
as tentative at best. With this collection, however, because of the
singularity of purpose, the same finding that variation is crucial in
classrooms is repeated several times making it more persuasive, and this
perhaps is the main benefit of the way in which this book is organised.

While the research reported in the collection highlights the importance of
variation for learning, the intangibility of the concept of variation
means that much more needs to be done for teachers and learners to benefit
from the research. The findings from the research reported in this book
take data from educational settings and examine how these shed light on
educational and applied linguistic theory. There is a danger that the
relationship between teaching and research becomes a one-way relationship,
with researchers taking what they want from classrooms without giving
anything back (see Hoey, 2003). The audience for the book under review is
primarily researchers (and I can see very few classroom teachers reading
the collection), and the danger is that knowledge of the importance of
variation for learning, especially given the difficulties of explaining
such an intangible concept, is kept restricted to this audience. I
sincerely hope that the authors write an article concerning variation for
one of the less technical teachers' journals or magazines so that the
findings from their research has a much greater chance of having benefits
for learning in many situations.

The second key finding concerns the ways in which language creates, as
well as conveys, meaning in classrooms. As I hope to show below, the
arguments concerning this are far less convincing than those concerning
the importance of variation. In itself, this is perhaps not very
important, as there has been extensive previous research on the creation
of meaning through language, but it does highlight some of the problems
with the research methodology used throughout the majority of the book.

As the title of the book, "Classroom Discourse and the Space of Learning",
suggests, the main research methodology used throughout the chapters is
discourse analysis. There are probably two main approaches to analysing
discourse. The first involves identifying categories of discourse and
examining instances of these categories, and is probably best illustrated
by the classic work of Sinclair and Coulthard (1975). In their study, they
examined classroom discourse for functions of language used by the teacher
and students, and from this were able to identify predominant patterns of
interaction, including the Initiation - Response - Feedback pattern common
in many classrooms. The second approach to discourse analysis, originally
influenced by ethnographic approaches, involves taking a stretch of
discourse and providing a researcher commentary and interpretation of it.
This latter approach is the dominant method used in the collection under

There are two key problems with this second approach. Firstly, it
privileges the researcher's interpretation of the discourse over that of
the participants, and in doing this, such discourse analysis sometimes
smacks of hubris. Secondly, since the researcher is interpreting the
discourse from a particular theoretical standpoint, there is a danger of
bias in the interpretation, so that the researcher will nearly always find
what they are looking for, irrespective of whether the finding is actually
salient in the data or not.

As we have seen, the current collection starts with a theoretical
framework which is then applied to various stretches of discourse, and
thus the research reported in the book runs the risk of being biased in
that the researchers may unconsciously look for evidence that supports the
theory but which is not really present. I will show two instances in which
this may have happened.

In chapter 5, there is an extract from a physics lesson (extract 5.11)
which focuses on how a reed relay works. In concluding their
interpretation of the discourse, the authors state that "the understanding
of the processes involved was co-constructed by the teacher and the
students" (p. 135), since six of the main concepts in the discourse were
introduced by the teacher and five by the students. Looking back at the
discourse, however, of the five concepts introduced by the students, three
were responses to closed questions asked by the teacher where there is a
single acceptable answer and the other two were responses to partially
open questions with extremely limited ranges of acceptable answers. The
student contributions to the discourse, therefore, were stimulated and
controlled by the teacher. Calling such discourse co-construction of
understanding is clearly an overstatement and weakens the researchers'
arguments for the importance of language in creating meaning. I should
stress that I am not arguing that language does not create meaning
(Indeed, there is a clear example of this in a later chapter, extract 7.7,
where the students' contributions to the discourse come from very open
questions and are built on by the teacher thus setting the direction of
the discourse.) Rather, I am arguing that the research methodology used
throughout the book can lead to interpretations of the data which do not
really exist.

A second example of this danger of overinterpretation comes from chapter 2
(extracts 2.1-2.5) where the teacher was trying to lead students to an
understanding of homonyms and synonyms. As might be expected, the key
concepts in the lesson are that a homonym is a single word with more than
one meaning, whereas a synonym is a single meaning expressible in more
than one way. In the interpretation of the discourse, the researchers
analysed the discourse in terms of variation, arguing that for homonyms,
there was variation in meaning but invariance in the word, whereas for
synonyms, there was variation in the word but invariance in the meaning.
While this is true, it is a complex way of explaining what is essentially
straightforward, and it is very unlikely that the participants in the
discourse viewed homonyms and synonyms in these terms. The researchers'
interpretation here then appears to be a case of shoehorning the data to
fit the theory.

Within the book, arguments made at other points highlight the problems
with the approach to discourse analysis used. In chapter 1, the authors
discuss workshops conducted with teachers concerning the transcripts
analysed in the book and report that the teachers did not identify the
object of learning, variation or co-construction of meaning through
language as pertinent issues in the discourse. Since these teachers are
presumably similar to some of the actual participants in the transcripts,
it is likely that the participants would also not identify these issues,
raising the question of why we should accept the researchers' analyses.
While the privilege that researchers often assert may sometimes be
egocentric, there is one argument in its favour, which the last research
chapter in the book makes apparent. People can only identify things they
know (so that, for example, in needs analyses, language learners are
unlikely to state a need for, say, communication strategies since they do
not know that such strategies exist), and it is perhaps the researcher's
responsibility to expand the range of the knowable. The teachers at the
workshops did not know about variation and so on, and therefore were
unable to identify these as pertinent issues. In contrast, in chapter 8
where some teachers were asked to work with an explicit theoretical
grounding in variation, once they had learnt about the theory, they were
able to identify how to implement it in classrooms and manifestations of
the theory in lessons. For these participants, then, variation had become
knowledge and so could be identified. Privileging the researcher's
perspective, therefore, may allow new issues to become knowable.
Nevertheless, too great an emphasis on the researcher may also lead to
misinterpretations, such as the possible ones discussed above. In
conducting an interpretative discourse analysis, therefore, I would
strongly argue that both researchers' and participants' perspectives
should be considered, and the lack of consideration of participants'
viewpoints in this book is worrying.

The second key problem with the interpretative approach to discourse
analysis is that of bias, and I hope that my discussion above has
highlighted some of the dangers, albeit unconscious, of biased
overinterpretation. Again, chapter 8, following a different research
methodology from the rest of the book, argues the need for "unbiased
observations" (p. 192). The findings in the other chapters would have been
even more convincing than they are if this need to reduce bias had been
given greater consideration throughout the collection.

These criticisms of the research methodology of interpretative discourse
analysis are not restricted to this collection; rather they apply to all
research following this approach. The problems with the research reported
in this collection are far less serious than those in some other studies
using the approach. While there are hints of bias and an over-reliance on
researchers' interpretations in the chapters in the book (both of which
suggest the need for inclusion of some discussion of the research methods
in the book), the coherence, frequency and strength of the findings make
them convincing nevertheless.

"Classroom Discourse and the Space of Learning", then, is a book which
brings into the limelight a potentially key issue in classrooms which has
previously received little attention, namely, the theory of variation. In
spite of my misgivings about the research methodology, personally I found
much of the book enlightening and persuasive. For researchers, especially
those with an interest in education, this collection of articles provides
a different perspective on classroom discourse that is likely to prove


Hoey, M. (2003) What has research got to offer ELT (and what has ELT got
to offer research)? In Proceedings of the International Conference:
Research in ELT, 9-11 April 2003 (pp. 48-67). Bangkok: King Mongkut's
University of Technology Thonburi.

Sinclair, J. McH. and Coulthard, R. M. (1975) Towards an Analysis of
Discourse: The English Used by Teachers and Pupils. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.


Richard Watson Todd has worked at King Mongkut's University of Technology
Thonburi in Bangkok for over ten years. Among a wide range of interests,
his main one is classroom discourse analysis, the topic of his PhD thesis
from the University of Liverpool. He has published widely, including
books, research papers and newspaper articles.

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