Category Archives: science education

Catching Up + Discourse for Learning

Catching Up!

It’s been a looooong time since my last post – apologies!  I’ve been coordinating Educoder meetings (June 2011 in Washago, Ontario, Canada; and January 2012 at Asilomar, Pacific Grove, California, USA).  I’ve also had the privilege of doing a poster presentation at the 2011 annual conference of the American Education Research Association (AERA, April 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA)  and a paper presentation in a featured research session about “Technology-Supported Learning in K-12 Science” at the 2012 AERA conference (April 2012, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada).  I’ve also been working with the Encore Lab, led by my supervisor, Dr. James (Jim) Slotta.  In June 2011, we did a pilot run of Common Knowledge and the HelioRoom Embedded Phenomena (EP) in 2 grade 6 classrooms, where we utilized tablet, SMART Board, and XMPP technology within the S3 technology framework for the very first time!  Summer 2011 was an intense co-design and collaboration effort within our lab and with our co-investigators at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Learning Technologies Group (led by Dr. Tom Moher) and the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study.  This was in preparation for our 8-week WallCology EP run that was implemented in 2 grade 5/6 classrooms, in October and November 2011.

I should probably also mention that our Encore Lab‘s work received some press coverage:

  • Globe and Mail (Tues. Dec. 20, 2011)
  • Maclean’s magazine (Thurs. Jan. 26, 2012; also in hardcopy of Jan. 30 issue, p. 60)
  • CBC Radio-Canada (Feb. 2012, TV interview news clip)
I’ve also been auditing a course at UC Berkeley taught by Dr. Randi Engle, called Discourse and Learning in Math and Science Classrooms (you can access all my course reading notes here).  Oh yeah, and I’ve been trying to complete my comprehensive exams, while also living life (but maybe did more of the latter and not enough of the former).  So I’ve designated May as my “comps lock down” month.  Thanks to Stian Haklev and his Researchr workflow (i.e. which includes this blog and my wiki), I hope that the technological tools I have at my disposal will help to expedite my learning process!


Discourse & Learning

In an effort to understand the role of collaborative classroom discourse in learning and inquiry, I’m auditing Randi Engle’s Discourse and Learning in Math and Science Classrooms at UC Berkeley (as previously mentioned).  Actually, I’m in the process of catching up on the readings, and I thought I’d synthesize my thoughts on “classroom discourse from a Bakhtinian perspective building on Vygotsky” (a.k.a. “Week 7”) here.

Wertsch and Smolka (1994) argue that Bakhtin’s constructs (i.e. ‘dialogicality‘, ‘social language‘, ‘speech genre‘) can be used to explore and clarify Vygotsky’s claims about the social origins and social nature of human mental functioning (i.e. inter-mental and intra-mental functioning).  The authors suggest that ‘social languages’ and ‘speech genres’ (Bakhtin) as ‘mediational means‘ (Vygotsky).  They suggest that since social language and speech genre mediational means are sociocultural in nature, these ‘import’ the sociocultural into the mental.  Wertsch and Smolka then introduce Lotman’s notion of the ‘functional dualism‘ of texts (‘univocal‘ – conveys meaning, and ‘dialogic‘ – generates new meanings, is a “thinking device”), where all texts serve both functions, but 1 function always dominates.  Whereas univocal speech genres provide little opportunity for the receiving voice to question/challenge/influence the sending voice, dialogic speech genres assume that each voice will take others’ utterances as thinking devices towards a negotiation of meaning through challenge, ‘interanimation’, and transformation.  Near the end of the paper, the authors hypothesize that different intermental functioning associated with dialogic/univocal speech genres will result in different intra-mental functioning, and that “Maximum intra-mental benefits can be expected from 1 form and minimal benefits from the other form of interaction”.  Although they don’t explicitly state which form of interaction is the beneficial one, their examples strongly imply that dialogic interactions are the more beneficial.  The dialogic interactions are very similar to how Knowledge Building views the improvability of ideas/knowledge artifacts.  Wertsch and Smolka call for more consideration of sociocultural issues to understand why intermental functioning is at the root of intra-mental functioning.  This will be informed by an understanding of how intermental functioning shapes and is shaped by cultural, historical, and institutional settings in which it occurs.

An interesting notion from Bakhtin, is that for Bakhtin, unspoken words aren’t neutral or impersonal – one must take the word (not from a dictionary) and “make it one’s own”.  Furthermore, the receiving voice (i.e. the listener) is never passive.  I wonder if this has any implications on the Knowledge Building idea of a community’s Knowledge Artifact – that once an idea has been contributed to the knowledge community, that the idea now becomes the knowledge community’s knowledge artifact and members of the community are collectively responsible for improving this idea. Perhaps a learner in this knowledge community needs to make an attempt to improve the idea (i.e. interact with the idea) in order to assimilate/accommodate it into one’s own personal construction of meaning? Without attempting to improve the idea, the individual doesn’t interact with the knowledge object, and therefore doesn’t incorporate it into their knowledge structures.

I really liked the Scott, Mortimer, and Aguiar (2006) paper!  It’s an extension of their book Meaning Making in Secondary Science Classrooms (Mortimer & Scott, 2003) that I think I’ll try to get my hands on, mostly because they present an analytical framework that I think I can use in my own research.  This paper only discusses 3 of the 5 aspects of this framework.  The authors see a necessary tension between authoritative and dialogic interactions in teaching for meaningful learning, leading to what Engle and Conant (2002) call “productive disciplinary engagement” (yes, the one and same Engle as the UC Berkeley professor of the course I’m auditing); which has 4 principles.  This dialogic/authoritative tension underpinning meaningful learning serves to acknowledge students’ everyday ways of thinking and engage them in disciplinary thinking and doing.  Scott et al. have developed a framework for analyzing speech genres in science classrooms, to investigate how teachers guide meaning making interactions.  There are 5 linked aspects to this framework, grouped in terms of ‘teaching focus‘, ‘approach‘, and ‘action‘:

  1. Teaching Purpose*
  2. Content
  3. Communicative Approach* (this is central to the framework; how the teacher works with students to develop ideas)
  4. Teacher Interventions
  5. Patterns of Interaction*

*(addressed in the paper)

I am considering using this framework to analyze my own spoken data, but I’m not sure how this framework would could be used with the Common Knowledge note data. Perhaps it can’t be used with textual data, in which case, I will need to figure out how I can connect oral discourse with CK discourse and what analytical framework to used for all this. I may need more than 1 analytical framework – perhaps Cornelius and Herrenkohl’s (2004) analytic lens for looking at power?

Cornelius and Herrenkohl (2004) emphasize the importance of power in meaningful scientific discourse.  They see power as existing “within human relationships mediated by tools” (p. 4), and focus on relationships between students, as well as participation structures and disciplines.  They use a new analytic lens to examine how 3 aspects of power affect the social and disciplinary relationships in a grade 6 science classroom:

  1. ownership of ideas
  2. partisanship
  3. persuasive discourse

The authors analyze participant structures and consider the role of ‘cultural tools‘/’mediational means‘ (Wertsch).  However, their paper doesn’t make it clear to me exactly what their analytical lens is, or how it can be used – very disappointing!  These methodological issues were probably addressed in class because BOTH authors were able to attend the next class (oh WHY don’t I live in Berkeley???).

I find Cornelius and Herrenkohl’s ideas about power to resonate with Scardamalia’s (2002) 12 Knowledge Building principles.  Particularly her “community knowledge, collective responsibility”, “knowledge building discourse”, and “epistemic agency” principles.

Pulling It All Together

For me, these 3 readings made explicit what I had taken for granted implicitly – that different types of discourse result in different types of social interactions which have implications on how learners may conceptually interact with the content matter (Wertsch & Smolka, 1994; Scott, Mortimer & Aguiar, 2006).  Since authoritative discourse doesn’t allow for exploration of ideas, one would assume that it can only be non-interactive.  However, authoritative discourse CAN ALSO be interactive (i.e. Initiation-Response-Evaluation sequences, triadic dialogue), and likewise dialogic discourse maybe non/interactive (Scott, Mortimer & Aguiar, 2006).  Furthermore, such triadic dialogue isn’t inherently bad, depending on its purpose (Wells, 1999).  To lessen the knowledge transfer gap between decontextualized knowledge and everyday knowledge, it makes sense to engage students in disciplinary ways of thinking and doing while also acknowledging their everyday ways of thinking; but there is an underlying dialogic/authoritative tension that drives this (Cornelius & Herrenkohl, 2004).  Engle and Conant (2002) assert 4 principles for fostering “productive disciplinary engagement” to address this.  ‘Cultural tools‘/’mediational means‘ (Wertsch & Smolka, 1994) are used to organize one’s or others’ behaviour – examples include language and counting systems (Vygotsky).  Incidentally, I wonder if Vygotsky’s Mediational Means are similar to Lucy Suchman’s and Jay Lemke’s ideas about “Boundary Objects”?  Mediational means empower and restrict human action, and such tools are worth considering in the context of various classroom interactions.  In my own research, tablets and SMART Board technologies are mediational means/cultural tools.  Cultural tools that scaffold disciplinary ways of thinking and doing can contribute positively to meaningful scientific discourse (Cornelius & Herrenkohl, 2004).  An example of this is the WallCology tablet app that our lab developed to scaffold grade 5/6 student observations and inquiry during our 8-week WallCology Embedded Phenomena (EP) run back in October-September 2011.