Re: [xmca] Talking Science

From: Jay Lemke (
Date: Tue Jan 16 2007 - 10:18:59 PST

David calls attention to what I sometimes call the "magnifying glass"
effect in discourse analysis. We put short episodes under the
magnifying glass of word-by-word analysis, in a way that is often not
phenomenologically real for participants. But the advantage of the
method, of course, is that we can see the POSSIBILITIES for what
could happen significantly for participants on other occasions, and
given the millions of monkeys at their millions of typewriters (i.e.
all of us), almost inevitably does happen, whether we were lucky
enough to catch it on tape or not.

So in the two contexts of two books, I use the episode to make
different points. I use it not so much as evidence for what did
happen, as for illustration of what can (and often surely does)
happen. In fact, in the corpus of data from which this episode is
drawn, I did have many other such examples. Sometimes teachers simply
use appeals to authority to suppress student disagreement, and
sometimes they rely on longterm sympathetic relationships with
students to slide out of tight spots. And they can do both at once.
In this episode there were gender issues involved, authority issues
re both science and my own presence, longterm issues having to do
with this teacher and this student and with the teacher's general
reputation for humor and self-deprecation.

David is certainly right that interpreting any episode in situ
requires situating it in developments on much longer timescales than
that of most data collection or observation. We all wish we did
longterm ethnographic studies, but few of us do. Nonetheless, we can
learn a lot about typicality and norms and generally about the
repertoire of possibilities by shorter term observations. We should
just not confuse what CAN happen, what typically happens, and what in
any one case actually DID happen (phenomenologically, emically).

As to Fran Christie's analyses, which use some of the same linguistic
techniques as mine (and she is an old friend), the point she is
making is more conservative than my view. We agree that letting
students do more authentic science talking would help them understand
how to use scientific concepts and modes of reasoning. For her, this
is the goal, a mode of empowerment with cultural capital. I am more
inclined to promote subversive perspectives as a goal of education,
empowering people to make the world differently, using some of the
tools normally used to make it as it is. So I'd want any use of
scientific discourse to be framed by critical choices about when and
why to use it, not use it, change it, mix it with other discourses,
etc. Fran may think that's too confusing and anomic for students at
younger ages, and that some mastery of the standard discourses has to
come first. There was in fact a big debate about this between people
of Fran's opinion and a view rather closer to mine, represented by
Alan Luke, in Australia in the late 80s and early 90s.

My current view is that disciplinary specialization is a bad way to
think about education generally, up until fairly late in the process,
when it's a path deliberately chosen by some advanced students. If
you want to use any discourse, such as scientific discourse,
critically, then you need to be education more realistically in the
messy inter-tangled world of multiple and not always comfortably
consistent discourses and practices that happen across sites and
settings and tasks and activities. The artificial simplifications of
schooling and standardized curriculum are the worst possible
preparation for life, especially for life in the 21st century. They
are a rather good way of maintaining the status quo and wasting the
time of a lot of intelligent and potential creative (read renegade) people.


At 12:41 PM 1/16/2007, you wrote:
>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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Jay Lemke
University of Michigan
School of Education
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Tel. 734-763-9276
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