[xmca] Talking Science With Dr. Christie

From: David Kellogg (vaughndogblack@yahoo.com)
Date: Fri Jan 19 2007 - 15:07:29 PST

  Thanks very much for the Halliday. Quite an unusual article and in many ways uncharacteristic of the man (full of odd anecdotes about his Chinese, for example, and a surprising willingness to take "inputtist" methods seriouslyending quite abruptly). But I fully expected the critique he makes of Hymes' "communicative competence" (and in fact I have heard very similar from Henry Widdowson and Roy Harris).
  Thanks too for forwarding the discussion to Frances Christie, and many thanks to Dr. Christie for replying.
  Obviously, had I known she would be joining the discussion I would have expressed myself a little more cautiously. I'm afraid, though, that mostly means that I would have expressed myself at greater length, not that I would have expressed myself differently.
  First of all I should have made it clear that the position on "teaching English through English" was a deduction that I made from her position to the effect that the regulative register has to appropriate and speak through the instructional register. I was aware that this position was one she shared with Bernstein, with whose work I am familiar.
  I should also have made it clear that my idea that Dr.Christie stands for making primary school teaching more like secondary school teaching is also a deduction of mine, made along much the same lines, on the basis of her Classroom Discourse book.
  David Kirshner points out that this position involves getting the child to opt out of his/her own culture, and "want to be" a mathematician or a scientist. It is in this sense that he uses the term "teacher centered" to describe what Dr. Christie calls "tradition".
  But now that Dr. Christie has joined the discussion, there is no need to deduce what she thinks. There are three points in her own words that I would like to comment on.
  a) Dr. Christie says: "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."
  Dr. Christie shares, with Jay, a view of science that I would characterize as non-materialist: it is the view that science is primarily a register of discourse, and not, as Engels described it, "a reflection of the material world in the thinking brain". The only thing that I would add to Engels is that the thinking brain is also a speaking one, but for Vygotskyans that addition seems hardly necessary.
  b) Dr. Christie says: "Critical capacity depends upon understanding what it is you want to critique, and that does for me require apprenticeship."
  When I used the term "mystique of science" I was referring to Jay's work, Talking Science, and not Dr. Christie's. Jay holds that the child needs to be given options, and that science teaching sometimes works best when it appropriates the register of the child and not the regulative register.
  Jay believes that in so doing we destroy "the mystique of science" and put it within reach of everybody. Actually, Halliday says much the same thing when he carefully distinguishes scientific English from bureaucratic English (which is parasitic upon the high nominalized form of writing that was developed by Newton and Priestey and other scientific writers)
  I would agree with that, but I would add a mircrogenetic reason why it is important that we do this, with specific reference to foreign language teaching. It is because in order to learnable, discourse roles must be reversible: what the teacher says to the learner is also sayable, by the learner, to the teacher.
  This state of affairs does not always obtain in "traditional" classes, and yet it is very clearly an important part of foreign language teaching--and foreign language teaching, as Vygotsky teaches us, is really a form of teaching scientific concepts.
  I notice that Dr. Christie implies a kind of "two-stage" theory of developing critical faculties in children: first, understand what you want to critique; then develop critical thinking.
  This is non-dialectical on two counts. First of all, it seems plausible that we understand what we want to critique in part by critiquing it; this is certainly how I came to understand Dr. Christie's book, and I don't really think that the problem is much different for, e.g., a child trying to make sense of the absurdities of English grammar.
  Secondly, teaching presupposes the ability to put complex ideas into simpler language; there is no obvious point in this process of simplification at which the teacher can say, alright, you've understood it enough; now let's criticize it. The very act of simplification implies and imposes a certain critical distance.
  c) Dr. Christie says: "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’."
  The term "abstract constructions" does not mean what Dr. Christie seems to think it means here. It is not a reference to abstract concepts, although I certainly do have data in which children use "Morning News" to refer to concepts such as time, space, and even life (and so does Dr. Christie).
  I used the term to mean what Tomasello means, that is, forms of language beyond fixed expressions like "Hello" and item-based "islands" which do not generalize, such as "I want X" or "I like Y" or "Let's Z". Abstract constructions involve recognition that utterances contain functional entities that have absolutely no real world referents, such as "noun", "verb", "subject", etc.
  It is not possible for a child to participate in Morning News without these abstract constructions. Show and Tell is possible, but I would argue--strongly--that the ability to use iconic and indexical forms of meaning making are a key waystage in the development of abstract constructions.
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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