[xmca] Talking Science

From: David Kellogg (vaughndogblack@yahoo.com)
Date: Tue Jan 16 2007 - 09:41:12 PST


I've been reading and re-reading Jay (Lemke)'s "Using Language in the Classroom" and "Talking Science", and I've got two problems.
   
  First of all, and most importantly, in "Using Language in the Classroom" (1989, OUP and Deakin University) Jay says this, with which I find myself in raucous agreement:
     A startling feature of classroom practice is that neither the activity structures nor the thematic systems into which students are initiated by participation are openly discussed and agreed upon by teachers and students. There are minor negotiations, certainly, over what will be talked about and done and how, but there is relatively little free exercise of judgment by the teachers and students whose potentially most productive waking hours, for years on end, are directly affected by what will be done and how. Indeed there seems to be more responsibility taken by students in primary school than by those in secondary schools, who would be said to be better able to do so. Education seems to grow more authoritarian, to more rigorously deprive both teachers and students of their right to choose for themselves what they shall spend their many hours together doing, as they acquire the wider social perspectives within which they could well differ in their choices and follow
 paths that might lead in unpredictable directions. (p. 32)
    
    Here hear! But Jay's editor, Frances Christie, published a slim volume ("Classroom Discourse Analysis: A functional approach", London and New York, Continuum: 2004) in which she used a similar method (viz. systemic functional analysis of whole lessons) to arrive at the same result (viz. that primary school kids have more control over interaction than secondary school kids do). She then draws exactly the opposite pedagogical conclusions: she wants interaction in the primary school classroom to be more like secondary school interaction and maybe "real" science discourse (whatever that is).
   
  In particular, Christie wants the "regulative register" to appropriate and speak through "the instructional register"--she wants scientific discourse to be more like that of real scientists, and of course (in my field) teaching foreign language to be done in the language itself. She wants less learner control of interaction and certainly much less learner control of content at primary level.
   
  I'm completely with Jay on this, not least because I think nobody develops control of interaction without being given the opportunity to actually control it. And that brings me to the second problem.
   
  The second problem is this: the "heat and light" episode, which takes up a whole chapter in "Talking Science" appears in a very different light (no pun intended) in "Using Language in the Classroom".
   
  In the former account, we see a teacher using a number of rhetorical and interactional tricks and finally appealing to the impersonal authority of the law of conservation of energy to squelch an importunate objection to what is, in retrospect, a not very felicitous formulation of the teacher "the ground creates heat" (rather than the ground transforms the light energy of the sun into heat energy).
   
  But in latter account, we learn that the teacher and Eric/Erin actually get along very well, we also learn that the teacher ends the episode by knocking down erasers upon herself and appealing, not to authority, but to sympathy ("Oy! Attacked! Attacked by erasers in my old age!"). Most importantly (for the purposes of the dreck I'm currently writing) we learn that the teacher does not appeal to the impersonal law but actually defers to the personal authority of an observing physicist (namely Jay himself).
   
  Now it seems to me that this is actually a good example of something that Jay himself strongly approves of, namely the use of fairly loose and informal language to get at scientific concepts (which is then hammered into shape through personal debate). Jay notes that Eric/Erin is a promising candidate to be a future scientist; I agree, not least because of the spirited way she tackles her teacher. But I wonder if this spirited way of tackling her teacher would be possible if the teacher had not thoroughly softened the ground by allowing Eric/Erin to tackle her on previous occasions.
   
  I guess I'm objecting to the idea that the organization of classroom interaction is linear and (at least within an exchange) Markovian. That's a convenient fiction for observers, who would always like to be able to pretend that the world began when they entered the room, or that interaction always begins with an initiation move.
   
  But I find the better contextualized and less linear account of the "heat and light" incident in "Using Language in the Classroom" far more human and believable than the one in "Talking Science", precisely because it rather suggests that we are looking at a single engagement in an epic, though good natured, battle. There isn't any evidence that I can see that Eric/Erin is being beaten down; quite the contrary! And it's by giving rather sloppy formulations and then debating them into shape that meanings that children can appropriate really get co-constructed; it may be that the only thing that really prevented that from happening more fully here was the intimidating presence of an outsider.
   
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education
   
   
     

 
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