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Review of Classroom Discourse and the Space of Learning
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
SUMMARY OF CONTENTS
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. M. 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.
Epilogue 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 review.
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 valuable.
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.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
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.