[xmca] Response from Fran Christie

From: Phil Chappell (philchappell@mac.com)
Date: Thu Jan 18 2007 - 17:54:25 PST

David, Jay, et. al.,

I took the liberty of sharing the discussion with Fran Christie and
although she's madly scrambling to prepare a trip to Hong Kong, she
has taken the time to respond.


To David

Thanks for the interest in my book. I have not written a lot about
science education (I am not a science educator), though I have done
so in three places: the book you mention, and I had a chapter in a
book that Jim Martin and Robert Veel edited a while ago, and also one
in a volume edited by Lynne Young and Claire Harrison called
‘Systemic Functional Linguistics and Critical Discourse Analysis’.
The last paper in Young and Harrison was called ‘Authority and its
role in the pedagogic relationship of schooling’ which tells you
something of my orientation. There I wanted to offer a critique of
what I have seen as a very damaging trend in education over the whole
of the 20th century, expressed variously as ‘progressivism’ or
‘constructivism’ which, in the name of ‘personal development’ caused
teachers to see children as working things out for themselves rather
than having teachers to guide their learning. Jay knows what I mean,
and in the past he and I have talked about this. Constructivism has
had a significant impact on science education in Australia but it has
also spread to other areas of the curriculum. There is a need in my
view to assert the claims of the authority of knowledge- i.e. there
are received traditions of knowledge and of scholarship that
schooling should be teaching children. This does not mean that I see
knowledge as some fixed and static entity, though that is a criticism
sometimes made by those who would propose a constructivist position
instead. (And it does mean an important role for the teacher in
mediation and in teaching the knowledge.) Any area of knowledge
worthy of the name is both in some ways built on significant
organising principles which are part of a received tradition while
also being constantly reshaped under the pressure of new questions of
various kinds: stability on the one hand but also change. The change-
I would add- is normally change made in the light of that which is
stable, so you need to understand the stable to be aware of the
change and is implications!.

In the work I did on classroom talk a few years ago I wanted to
address the apprenticeship of learners into areas of knowledge and
many years of collecting classroom talk- more than I ever wrote up in
fact - caused me to argue that successful teachers are those who are
clear about their roles in apprenticing young learners. (I have never
by the way studied discourse in universities but always in schools).
Good teachers among other things value the traditions they teach and
they necessarily value the discourses in which the traditions are

I am not aware by the way that I ever referred- as David seems to
imply I did - to a ‘real’ science discourse, though I think it is
clear that scientific language identifiably differs from that of
other areas of knowledge (e.g. subject English, history). I also
think it a very inadequate way to speak of the language of science in
terms of its offering an ‘empty shell of the mystique’ of science. I
also can’t remember saying that ’ teaching foreign language should be
done in the language itself’ (rather than, I gather, by allowing use
of the L1 in the classroom as well). I can honestly say that I have
no opinion about that, though many of my PhD students from Korea,
Vietnam and Indonesia in my years at Melbourne University who did
theses on their research in teaching English as a foreign language in
their own sites would often advocate use of their mother tongue in
the TESOL classrooms.

David cites me thus:

  In particular, Christie wants the "regulative register" to
>> appropriate and speak through "the instructional register"--she
>> 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.

Well my response is to say that I am here working with the ideas of
Bernstein. It is a misunderstanding of what I have written to say
that I want ‘less learner control’ in classrooms: I actually want
learners in being apprenticed in their learning to become independent
and in control. In this context, I note that Jay says I am more
conservative than he is. He writes:

‘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.’

I think am more ‘conservative’ in the sense that Jay says. However,
my comment on all this is that I too am interested to see students
take up, and make critical choices and this was, as Jay says, an
issue with Alan Luke and others a few years ago. The issue that many
critical theorists never addressed was this: critical capacity
depends upon understanding what it is you want to critique, and that
does for me require apprenticeship. One of my strongest objections to
much that has been written in the name of ‘critical literacy’ for
example (not all of it by the way), is that it is often merely facile
and really empty in its claims to be educationally useful. One is not
– or one should not be- ‘critical’ without recognising real issues
about which to be critical, and that has consequences for a ‘content’
to be considered.

One other, related, comment I would make is that I also have strong
objections to teaching practices that are conservative in that they
would teach things as given, fixed or unalterable in some way. This
was the way I was taught at school myself and I remember the pleasure
I felt at university in discovering that many issues were subject to
research and debate. I loved history at school, for example, and was
reassured and excited to discover that history was subject to ongoing
research. The biology I did at school was similarly taught.

To go off in another direction now, there are I think some profoundly
important questions to be addressed re the nature of knowledge, to
which we are really referring here, and I here refer to what I have
learned from the sociologists of knowledge in the new book I have
edited with Jim Martin. The three are Rob Moore, Joe Muller and Karl
Maton. I do commend their contributions to all because they touch on
some of the matters mentioned. There is also a good chapter on
science in the book by Kay O’Halloran. I attach the blurb about
this. Joe Muller in all his work is very interesting about the damage
that has been done to South African education in the post apartheid
period with the import of ‘process’ and ‘constructivist’ theories
there- Australia has played a role in this!

One final comment to David, who writes the following

Christie wants to do away with activities like "Show and Tell" and
"Morning News" where children are called upon to work with abstract
constructions before they are fed the fixed expressions and formulaic
language they need. Vygotsky would disagree with this; he would argue
that such situations, where the child is called upon to do more than
he or she can with fixed expressions or item-based "islands", are
precisely the starting point of foreign language learning.

You are simply wrong here re Show and Tell and Morning News, if you
think such activities allow children ‘to work with abstract
constructions before they are fed the fixed expressions and formulaic
language they need’. I once spent three years recording hours and
hours of these activities with 7 different teachers and in some cases
watched the same children progress from prep to year 1, to year 2 and
to year 3. I also read all I could on these matters from researchers
in Australia like Caroline Baker, as well in the USA, such
researchers as Sarah Michaels and Courtney Cazden, while I also read
as much as I could in the UK situation- the Plowden report makes
passing reference to such activities, though I found not a lot of
research in the UK. I actually contemplated writing a book on Morning
News but in the end abandoned that, because though it was
interesting, it seemed a reasonably small part of the total
pedagogical picture. Three conclusions I reached:

1) For the most part such activities involve children in recreating
aspects of personal experience, which is not in practice developed
any further, and I see little evidence of abstraction in them. The
experience dealt with is by its nature ‘concrete’ and immediate.
Also, I did observe that many children talked less freely and
animatedly than when I met them in the school playground when
arriving at the school in the morning to visit their classrooms.
2) The pattern in these activities is highly formulaic, and not as
subject to the free choice you may think occurs. If you subject the
whole pattern of talk to close discourse analysis using the SF
grammar you find three or four typical generic patterns, which get
revisited time after time.
3) The children who are not very strong in performance in such
activities - contrary to the beliefs and expectations of their
teachers- do not become stronger, even over an interval of three
years of early childhood education in some cases.

I would also note that Brian Gray, who did many years of research on
classroom talk with Aboriginal children found the same thing.

There may indeed be advantages in using such activities in teaching
foreign languages in sites such as your own. But for the contexts I
studied I do know what I have stated to be the case.

My general view these days is that if early childhood teachers find
it helpful to have such activities in their classrooms, then that’s
up to them. But I do know they are less educationally effective than
the teachers would believe.

Thanks again for the interest in al this: it has caused me to revisit
some things I had not thought about for a long time.
And regards to Jay if he ever receives this!

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