In the extract of classroom dialogue above the class appears to be constructing a collective understanding of whether a raisin is a seed or not and this learning is taking place in the pupil talk. It is not as a result of simply listening to the teacher, looking at the board, or reading some text – all common, valid, and effective modes of learning in the right context. How can we be sure that these pupil exchanges are part of the learning and not just a waste of time? Let’s hone in on the line of enquiry that weaves through this particular example. Below is the same extract stripped down to just the pupil contributions. Removing all the ‘teacher talk’ helps to focus on what the learner is constructing.
|Katrina||I don’t think it is [a seed].||This is a powerful demonstration of pupils taking ownership of the learning, using joint reasoning to work out if a raisin is a seed or not. So, what kind of role did the teacher and the pupils play in enabling this piece of social construction? Are we implying that good social construction requires that the teacher should ‘stand back’?
|Katrina||[It is a] Raisin. [General murmur from the class, ‘Yeah’. Ibrahim shouts out, ‘It might have a seed inside it’.]|
|Katrina||I’ve tried a raisin before and there isn’t a seed.|
|Katrina||A raisin before and there isn’t a seed.|
|Ravel||A raisin goes into a fridge and then, because that’s what my uncle said he said that it was a raisin, it grows into a grape.|
|Ravel||[Looks uncertain.] … Maybe a little bit.|
|Lauren||We thought that the raisin was not a seed because, urn, raisins, I think that raisins are made from grapes. [General murmur, ‘Raisins are made from dried up grapes’.]|
|Patel||Some, urn, grapes have seeds inside them so that when, maybe you can …|
|Ibrahim||All grapes have seeds inside them. [General murmur, ‘Yeah, no, some do’.]|
Here are some key lines from the earlier, whole extract that focus on teacher and pupil roles:
|Teacher||Is there anybody who would like to share what they think about …?||This opening question sets up the talk so that it is generated from and by the learner’s ideas and not about ‘knowing the right answer’. Think about your own opening questions: What motives do they promote? What motive do you want them to promote? How can you adjust them?|
|Teacher||Very interesting conversation I heard over here …||At this point the teacher finds a way of feeding earlier conversations that the pupils had while working in their thinking groups into the whole class talk. This isn’t simply done as a means of widening participation; the overheard contribution is relevant to the discussion and furthers the line of enquiry.|
|We thought that … because …||A transcript of the whole lesson shows many places where the teacher probes pupils to go beyond their first response, creating a sequence of exchanges that is longer than the traditional Initial teacher question-pupil Response-Evaluative (IRE) teacher comment triad frequently used in the classroom. Encouraging pupils to articulate their reasoning fosters a culture of learning, as in this class where the pupils have started to provide explanations independently. The talking frame, ‘I think … because’ has become part of their everyday language.|
|Ibrahim shouts out||It might have a seed inside it.||Another interesting feature is that some of the pupil contributions are uninitiated. Some of the pupils (see also Lauren, Katrina and Patel) are making spontaneous contributions in response to what they have heard other pupils say.|
For pupils to have this kind of genuine control of their learning, the teacher has to be prepared to release what can be quite a tight grip over the direction of the talk during social construction. Behaviour management is often used to justify maintaining absolute control of the talk but, although it is so important and necessary for learning, strategies that focus on behaviour should not be used at the expense of learning. Ibrahim may be perceived as domineering and controversial and you might feel that his contribution should not have been acknowledged by the teacher. On the other hand, it is often those spontaneous, unsolicited interactions that create cognitive conflict and, when harnessed well, can drive the learning forward. In his description of scaffolded dialogue, Alexander (2004) writes about ensuring an ‘appropriate balance between encouraging participation and extending understanding’. This is a teaching skill that is crucial for social construction.
The challenge in the frenetic world of daily classroom practice is to recognise and be clear about what purpose underlies the talk at particular points during a lesson, for example, when the whole class or teacher-pupil talk is used for recall of understanding, to pass on information, or to elicit a range of ideas. These different types of talk, when used effectively in conjunction with one another can build towards what has been described as ‘scaffolded dialogue’ (Alexander, 2004) or ‘exploratory talk’ (Dawes, Mercer & Wegerif, 2000; Mercer, 2000) or ‘dialogic teaching’ (Mortimer & Scott, 2003). This is a type of talk that is driven by the pupils as well as the teacher, where constructed meaning and reasoning is evident in what is being said. During this kind of classroom talk, each response provokes a further question so that a line of thinking weaves through the exchanges. Contradiction or cognitive conflict is often the trigger, which is why it is so important that pupils really experience ‘challenge’ during a thinking lesson as it opens up the potential for talk to be a social process of learning.