[xmca] Artifacts, tools and classrooms

From: Geraldine McDonald (geraldine.mcdonald@clear.net.nz)
Date: Fri Jan 20 2006 - 19:14:39 PST

What a pleasure to know that people have responded to our paper. Thank you Mike, Eric, Steve, Mary and bb.

I appreciated the child's eye view of the classroom provided by bb. Lots of artifacts on the walls. Do they function as wallpaper? Or, do they function as mediating tools? (Treat these as proxy questions for the AERA presentation!) I agree that things can be both tools and signs and also that objects such as mountains can also signify (referred to in our paper).

We began writing the paper because, apart from studies of mathematics and science, artifacts had been largely overlooked in classrooms and the unit of analysis was generally speech. Studying artifacts opened up the field of signification. Artifacts can be considered from the viewpoint of what they "say" or from how we interpret them, and both points have been made in this correspondence. This is a division similar to that of the authority of a written text versus the response of the reader. In "Is there a text in this class?" Stanley Fish shows how statements can have a plurality of meanings, which can be interpreted only by recourse to a matrix of context, norms and intentions, a process he calls "institutional nesting". This seems to be in line with Mary's comments about "institutional and cultural norms" even if seen through a glass darkly. Word meaning may be fixed in a dictionary but the meaning of statements is not. However, on an aircraft I always trust that the flying manual is not subject to multiple interpretations

It is not always easy to see the process in classrooms but the building up of institutional understanding was illustrated in our paper, by the five-year-old boy who had just started school and whose interpretation of his experience was dependent on places and spaces. Any interpretation of on-going behaviour has therefore an historical dimension. In our paper this point was made in relation to the two small girls and a "tricky" jigsaw where we noted the need for synchronic as well as diachronic information in order to understand what led to an artifact being used successfully.

Two of the artifacts, the blown-up book in the beginning classroom, and the text for Vietnamese students, held written language. Although messages from the EFL text were discussed in the paper the deeper issue of the relationships between writing, speech and meaning was not. Has anyone else had difficulty reconciling speech as the primary vehicle for internalising meaning, whether in classrooms or more generally, with the role played by both written artifacts and socially determined activities? Neither speech nor writing is primary, both representing a system of meanings. Prawat has suggested that LSV was working towards such a position. Nor is speech necessarily prior developmentally. Young children in literate societies understand the activity of writing (but do not posses the skill) at a stage when their oral language may be limited and they certainly know the tools.

I would like to apologise to Mike from whose work I have learnt so much if, in looking for a range of views on tools and artifacts, I failed to present his position fully. Will try harder next time.

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