Power in the classroom: How the classroom environment shapes students' relationships with each other and with concepts

Citation Cornelius, L. L., & Herrenkohl, L. R. (2004). Power in the classroom: How the classroom environment shapes students' relationships with each other and with concepts. Cognition and Instruction, 22(4), 467-498. Taylor & Francis. Sidewiki
BibDesk PDF




author = {Cornelius, L.L. and Herrenkohl, L.R.},
date-added = {2012-03-12 01:13:36 -0400},
date-modified = {2012-03-12 01:14:46 -0400},
journal = {Cognition and Instruction},
keywords = {Discourse; D&L in M&S -theory},
number = {4},
pages = {467-498},
publisher = {Taylor & Francis},
title = {Power in the classroom: How the classroom environment shapes students' relationships with each other and with concepts},
volume = {22},
year = {2004},


My Summary and Insights

Cornelius and Herrenkhol (2004) use a new analytic lens to examine how 3 aspects of power affect social relationships and disciplinary relationships within a grade 6 science classroom. They see power as existing “within human relationships mediated by tools” (p. 4).

The authors broaden the term 'participant structures' to include 'participant frameworks' (i.e. classroom social arrangements, including 'social positioning' of participants during discourse in relation to subject matter and other participants). They also adopt Wertsch's notion of 'cultural tools'/'mediational means'.

Their 3 aspects of power are:

  1. ownership of ideas (relationship of power between an individual and a concept; a student's relation to an idea is influenced by who/what the student perceives owns the idea)
  2. partisanship (student-to-student power relationships; developed through peer interactions and their interactions with the concepts)
  3. persuasive discourse ('internally persuasive speech' - Bakhtin 1981 recipient accepts a message and compares it with personal knowledge, hence recipient is at higher power position than speaker; 'authoritative discourse' - requires recipients to passively accept the message)

Their data sources come from grade 6 science PATH lessons on a unit about Sinking and Floating, and interviews of 2 students. Cultural tools in PATHS included:

  1. SenseMaker boards (from WISE, software tool to help students make their thinking visible)
  2. “thinking like a scientist” poster (i.e. “predicting and theorizing, summarizing results, and relating predictions and theories to results”)
  3. audience roles (used for scientific discourse, correspond to 3 roles of 'thinking like a scientist' above)
  4. questions chart (student-generated cultural tool to be used during group presentations; list of potential questions for each of the 3 audience roles)

The authors point out that the teacher's role was instrumental in creating the student-subject matter power relations in a classroom, and transforming the classroom's participant structure. They draw on Engle & Conant's (2002) 4 principles for fostering productive disciplinary engagement (i.e. problematizing content, giving students authority, holding students accountable to other and disciplinary norms, providing relevant resources) and illustrate how the grade 6 teacher fulfilled each of these.

Interview data suggested that:

  • ownership of ideas shifted power from teacher to students and students demonstrated great agency in their own learning; students became creators of their own re-workable theories
  • partisanship redefined power relations between the 2 students because they became spokespersons for the respective theories; allowed focus students to iterate their ideas and explanations in their successive presentations to the class
  • persuasive discourse created a new power relationship between the 2 focus students and the rest of the class. Peers and teacher became monitors of focus students' ideas, which balanced these 2 students' power within the class; in trying to convince their peers, the 2 focus students engaged in an aspect of true scientific inquiry by having to provide convincing evidence for their arguments

The authors propose 3 reasons why PATHS cultural tools were more successful in spurring scientific discourse:

  1. highly scaffolded process of “thinking like a scientist” (e.g., audience roles, question chart, SenseMaker board for guiding students through process of making their own theories)
  2. new social and disciplinary power relationships created opportunity and motivation for student inquiry (e.g., ownership of an idea, persuasive discourse)
  3. teacher's role (i.e. respect students inquiry attempts, promote confusion as a starting point, design participant structures that foster meaningful conceptual engagement and meaningful peer discourse)

Links here


Changes in participant structures in classroom environments are often examined in terms of their effects on student learning p. 1

In this study, we proposed a way of examining participant structures in terms of power p. 1

When researchers or teachers introduce new tools into classrooms including new participant structures, they create the potential for transforming many relationships of power: between students and teachers, among students, and between students and the material being studied. p. 1

Using data from a 6th-grade classroom involved in a science unit, p. 1

In considering the role of participant structures, we look at how a match between the participant structures and the structure of the discipline can positively affect these relationships of power. p. 1

Giving students the means of approaching the discipline of science as scientists do requires equipping the classroom with activities and means of participating that give students access to scientific ways of thinking p. 1

The pedagogical moves involved in implementing these new participant structures in science classrooms are typically analyzed in one of two ways. First, researchers look at the nature of the participant structures in terms of the social changes and related discursive practices (Palincsar & Brown, 1984; Polman & Pea, 2001; Tabak & Baumgartner, 2004/this issue). Encouraging active participation in learning and creating classroom environments where all voices can be heard has become an important goal for transforming participant structures in itself. In addition to this goal, researchers have followed a second major implication of classroom participant structures, that is, how particular structures directly support and enable discipline-specific learning (Herrenkohl & Guerra, 1998; Lampert, 1990). This consideration comes from a growing body of evidence that disciplinary-specific ways of thinking can and should be represented in the teaching of school subjects (Bruner, 1960; Shulman & Quinlan, 1996). p. 2

In our analysis, we broaden the concept of participant structures somewhat to include what other authors have termed “participant frameworks” (Goodwin, 1990; O’Connor & Michaels, 1996). The concept of participant frameworks combines an interest in conventional classroom social arrangements including concomitant rights and responsibilities (or what is often called participant structures; Au & Mason, 1981; Erickson, 1982; Phillips, 1972) with the notion of “social positioning” or the ways in which particular dis- p. 2

cussions within participant structures linguistically place speakers in relation to subject matter and other classroom participants (Goffman, 1974). p. 3

This concept allows one to recognize the dynamic relations between planned structural features of the classroom and the many kinds of discussions that can emerge within these purposefully chosen classroom arrangements. p. 3

we adopt Wertsch’s (1991, 1998) view of cultural tools as historical, cultural, and institutional mediators of human action. Wertsch (1998) placed cultural tools or “mediational means” at the center of analysis, describing individual action in terms of the tools used to carry out that action p. 3

Our analysis focuses instead on the ways in which cultural tools create and transform these relationships and how such tools mediate disciplinary engagement. p. 3

First, we do not see power as something exterior to the process of learning. p. 3

Similarly, as articulated by Foucault, we assert that power does not exist in any one form, nor is it imposed from the “top down.” p. 3

we conceptualize relationships of power as existing on a balance scale, with situational factors causing the positions of persons in an environment to constantly shift and change with the potential of being tipped in different directions. Like Foucault, we see the nature of power as “strictly relational” and as containing “many points of resistance” (p. 477). In an educational setting, this means that manifestations of power could be found in any interaction or relationship. p. 3

As we adopt this view of power as something that exists not within a person but within human relationships mediated by tools, we must develop new vocabulary for explicating the locations of power in interactions and for conceptualizing the dynamic ways in which persons and tools influence each other in sociocultural settings. p. 4

We have identified three such conceptualizations of power in the literature that relate to classrooms and education: (a) ownership of ideas, (b) partisanship, and © persuasive discourse. p. 4

ownership of ideas implies a relation of power between the individual and a concept. p. 4

In education, this idea constitutes a major component of power in that whomever students perceive as having ownership of an idea—either themselves, their teachers, their textbooks, or their peers—will influence the relation that the student has to the idea itself. Perceptions of who owns particular knowledge could simultaneously affect a student’s relationships to other people p. 4

Goodnow’s work explores how ideas are not value-neutral and stated that the acquisition of knowledge involves knowing the restrictions or guidelines that are placed on the knowledge by the culture. As a specific example of this, Goodnow stated that knowing which “areas of knowledge belong to some people more than others” (pp. 264–265) becomes a central determinant of the kinds of learning in which children will engage. p. 4

partisanship describes relationships of power among students that can develop through their interactions with concepts and with each other. p. 4

The basis for students’ taking sides, according to Hatano and Inagaki, is not always a function of their individual understandings of the material. Preexisting relationships among students can influence these lines of solidarity. p. 4

it is conceivable that if students view themselves as owners of particular ideas as described previously, then the lines of partisanship could fol- p. 4

low students’ understandings or representations of the material rather than the more harmful social alliances that Lensmire describes. p. 5

relationships of power can develop among classmates as certain students become champions for particular ideas and work to gain support and agreement from their peers. p. 5

A third conceptualization of power, persuasive discourse, relates the idea that certain ways of communicating can in themselves affect the relationships of power among people. p. 5

Internally persuasive speech, according to Bakhtin (1981), allows the recipient of a message to accept the speaker’s word in part and compare it with his or her own knowledge. The recipient is placed in a higher position of power relative to the speaker p. 5

authoritative discourse “binds us, quite independent of any power it might have to persuade us” (p. 342). Authoritative discourse requires people to passively accept the word of another without contemplation of how it fits in with other things that we know or how it fits in with other things that the speaker has said p. 5

the relationship of power that authoritative discourse creates would not be acceptable among colleagues who would view themselves in a more or less equal relationship in terms of power. In traditional classrooms, however, one typically sees teachers using a more authoritative style of speech. p. 5

Cazden (1988) and Mehan’s (1979) description of initiation–response–evaluation (I–R–E) sequences in classrooms illustrates this point: because the teacher’s charge is to evaluate student responses, one can infer that he or she has assumed some role of authority over the subject matter content. p. 5

The aspects of power—ownership of ideas, partisanship, and persuasive discourse—reflect different relationships that exist in classrooms (between students and concepts, among students, and between students and teachers) that should be considered alongside each other. An analysis of classroom interactions on these terms allows us to simultaneously consider the tools that students use, the participant structure, and the disciplinary learning that we observe. p. 5

Based on our data, we propose specific ways in which the three aspects of power manifested in various relationships within this p. 5

learning environment and then later discuss how these relationships differ from those found in typical classroom participant structures p. 6


This study took place with a subset of data from a larger study called Promoting Argumentation in the Teaching of History and Science (PATHS; Stevens, Wineburg, Herrenkohl, & Bell, under review). Two 5th and two 6th-grade elementary classrooms p. 6

This study uses data from one of the sixth-grade classes. p. 6

To examine the ways in which the relationships of power manifest through participation in a particular science unit called “Sinking and Floating,” we analyzed the videotaped classroom lessons and interviews of two students following the unit p. 6

Our focus on interviews serves the purpose of matching students’ own perceptions of power relationships with the ways that they actually engaged in the context of their classroom activities. p. 6


main purpose of the PATHS project was to explore students’ epistemological understandings of history and science and to find ways that pedagogical structures in the classroom could foster connections across these seemingly disparate disciplines. p. 6

The project utilized a curriculum that aimed to help students understand how to think like historians and scientists. p. 6

One main link between the disciplines of history and science, as stated in the title of the project, is argumentation. p. 6

After students worked in small groups p. 6

to build their own theories, for instance, they subsequently presented and defended those theories in front of the class. The class then attempted to build an understanding of the issues together. p. 7

Sinking and Floating unit, consisted of a series of experiments in which small groups of students (a) predicted whether certain objects would sink or float, (b) tested the objects in buckets of water, © recorded their results, and (d) created and revised theories based on these experiments. p. 7

The experiments implicated the concept of density, although the teacher did not introduce this term in class herself. p. 7

We emphasize here that the main purpose of PATHS was to explore students’ understandings of the intellectual work in which historians and scientists engage and to assess the extent to which they would utilize these ways of thinking when given adequate disciplinary tools. p. 7

the measures that were devised for our research purposes tapped students’ understandings about the discipline itself. p. 7


PATHS project introduced a number of new cultural tools into the classroom, all of which were attempts to model different aspects of disciplinary thinking p. 7

The SenseMaker boards in the PATHS classrooms were adapted from a software argumentation tool that allows students to make their thinking visible (Bell, 1997, 2004; Bell & Linn, 2000). p. 7

A second important cultural tool in this unit was a “thinking like a scientist” poster. p. 8

A third element adopted in the PATHS classroom was Herrenkohl and Guerra (1998) and Herrenkohl et al.’s (1999) use of audience roles for scientific discourse communities. p. 8

The audience roles corresponded to the three strategies listed previously for thinking like a scientist, and audience members rotated daily through the different roles during group presentations. p. 8

According to Herrenkohl and Guerra (1998), audience roles serve the function of transforming student participation by helping students to “assume the intellectual roles in the context of the whole class reporting” (p. 455) and diminishing the role of the teacher as questioner. p. 8

On the first day of group presentations, the teacher assisted the class in developing another cultural tool to aid classroom discussions, the “questions chart.” With the teacher’s guidance, students anticipated what types of questions they might need to ask of the presenting group to better understand their theory and methods. p. 8

they generated lists of potential questions for each of the audience roles: predicting and theorizing, summarizing results, and relating predictions and theories to results. p. 8

presence of this questions chart during whole-class discussions aided audience members in asking appropriate and relevant questions if they needed assistance. p. 8

Group presentations resembled science convention presentations in that each group presented their predictions, method, results, and theories, and members of the audience asked clarifying questions and sometimes challenged the theories and assumptions of the presenting group p. 8

This tool, along with the use of audience roles, modified the participant structure during whole-class presentation time by transforming the roles of audience members from passive listeners to active participants in the creation of meaning. p. 8


elementary sixth-grade classroom p. 9

The teacher, Mrs. Garrett, had been teaching 4 years at the time of the study. p. 9

Mrs. Garrett commonly threw the question back out to the student or to the whole class to get them to think about how to answer it on their own. When a student struggled to articulate an idea, Mrs. Garrett often encouraged a “think aloud” whereby the student can try to make sense of ideas in a public space. p. 9

Alicia, a Euro-American girl whose family had resided more than 10 years in the school district, and Alex, a Korean boy whose family immigrated to the United States just 3 years before the time of this study (his parents spoke little English), are the two sixth graders in Mrs. Garrett’s class that we follow in this analysis. p. 9


We present the findings in this article with a focus on the relationships of power in the classroom as perceived and experienced by Alicia and Alex. p. 10

the teacher’s support of student learning was instrumental in creating the relation of power between the student and the subject matter and in transforming the participant structure of the classroom p. 10

We list briefly here some specific (but by no means exhaustive) ways in which Mrs. Garrett’s instructional practice furthered the goals of social and disciplinary engagement in classroom knowledge-making discussions p. 10

We draw on the four major principles proposed by Engle and Conant (2002) for fostering productive disciplinary engagement in classrooms as a framework for this discussion. p. 10

Problematizing Content p. 10

According to Engle and Conant (2002), problematizing content in ways that represent the true nature of disciplinary-specific inquiry requires some intentional p. 10

moves by the teacher. p. 11

teachers should encourage “questions, proposals, challenges, and other intellectual contributions” (p. 404) from students. p. 11

The teacher’s approach to the problems raised either by herself or by the students frames intellectual work as a process of using and building on prior knowledge. p. 11

This conception of teaching is supported by others (Lampert, 1990; Lemke, 1990; O’Connor, 2001; Polman & Pea, 2001; Rogoff, 1990) who have defined the teacher’s role as one of support and clarification for students’ ideas rather than one of validating students’ responses. p. 11

She frequently “revoiced” students’ questions and comments (O’Connor & Michaels, 1996) to make sure the contributed ideas were understood by the entire class as well as the speaker. p. 11

Giving Students Authority p. 11

Effectively problematizing the content of the subject matter requires giving students the authority to conduct such investigations (Engle & Conant, 2002). p. 11

To give students authority, a teacher must treat them as contributors and allow them to be active participants in classroom discourses (Lensmire, 2000). p. 11

Mrs. Garrett consistently referenced ideas in class as belonging to their respective individuals or groups, asking presenting groups what their theory was and how that theory changed after they completed the experiments p. 11

students were positioned as stakeholders in their own understandings of the content. p. 11

Holding Students Accountable to Others and Disciplinary Norms p. 11

Holding students accountable to disciplinary standards of inquiry and to fellow students’ contributions and ideas constitutes much of the work that teachers in this type of learning environment must accomplish (Engle & Conant, 2002; Herrenkohl & Guerra, 1998; Lampert, 1990). p. 11

Mrs. Garrett reminded students of these standards periodically throughout the unit, reiterating the image of science as a process of coming to under- p. 11

stand the world p. 12

Providing Relevant Resources p. 12

As Engle and Conant (2002) stated, however, one of the most fundamental resources that this type of disciplinary engagement requires is time. In allowing this, Mrs. Garrett played a significant role. Each group was given ample time during whole-class discussions to present, answer questions, and revise their theories if necessary. p. 12

Although the teacher’s specific pedagogical moves are not the focus of our analysis, this depiction helps one to understand the classroom context and the ways in which the cultural tools were framed and utilized. Explication of the teacher’s role during discussions also supports the interpretation of our research findings and helps us to understand how and why power was located where it was. p. 12


In interviews following the conclusion of the Sinking and Floating unit, Alicia and Alex were both asked about their experiences with one another, their classmates, and with the subject matter. p. 12

Excerpts from these interviews have been analyzed us- p. 12

ing the criteria from the three aspects of power that were described previously: ownership of ideas, partisanship, and persuasive discourse. p. 13

For each aspect of power, we include an analysis of the cultural tools that were used and how they contributed to the formation of the various relationships of power. p. 13

Ownership of Ideas p. 13

The diminished role of the teacher during this time and the use of the SenseMaker board required students to come up with their own theories about why things sink and float. This new cultural tool within the participant structure of small groups reduced the feeling of knowledge belonging to others to a minimum for both Alicia and Alex. Both gave indications in their interviews that they viewed the ideas they employed in the Sinking and Floating unit as mostly belonging to themselves: p. 13

important to note here that she perceived her own ideas as existing before she even sought out information from other sources. p. 14

However, analyzing this quote alongside evidence from classroom data shows that Alicia sought answers that would serve her own understanding. p. 14

Alex believed his own observations and experiments were valid ways to evaluate his theory. Alex did not view sinking and floating as a prob- p. 14

lem to which others would necessarily have the answers. Although he acknowledged the possibility that others (parents or sources on the Internet) might know, he still placed his own ideas on equal footing with the information that he could find in an encyclopedia. p. 15

The interviewer’s question, “what was your theory?,” elicited an immediate response from Alex p. 15

Alex was used to thinking of the theory as his. In his last statement, “I’d have to test it a lot,” Alex further indicated ownership over that idea in that he perceived himself as capable of further changing and reworking the theory. p. 15

In contrast to students’ typical encounters with the discipline of science, Alex viewed the ideas in Sinking and Floating as accessible and as a process of coming to an understanding rather than as a product of someone else’s discovery. p. 15

In taking ownership over an idea or concept, the student perceives a higher degree of flexibility in using it, in asking questions of it, and sometimes (as in Alicia’s case) in dismissing it when it fails to explain observable phenomena p. 15

Because Alex owned his own understanding of the issues that have been discussed up until the last day of the unit, he was able to further question the ideas that he himself had heretofore developed. p. 16

As he began to sense that his “everything matters” theory might in some ways be inadequate, he sought out explanations to further refine the theory. Alicia, who had recently finished her own research on the concept of density, fielded the question that was actually intended for Mrs. Garrett and began to fashion an explanation for Alex for how he might control variables to reach his answer. p. 16

Students in classrooms with more traditional participant structures might not have the opportunity to work with concepts in this way because the teacher’s evaluation of the student’s idea could reclaim ownership of that idea and take the further refinement of it out of the student’s hands. As is seen in the clip, Mrs. Garrett did not do this, but rather supported the students in addressing each others’ questions with their own unique explanations. By owning their ideas, their theories, Alicia and Alex, in this sense, became more powerful than students in traditional classrooms. p. 16

Partisanship p. 16

the students with the most strongly owned ideas tended to lead the class in discussing their particular theories p. 16

The forum-style science presentations, along with the audience roles and questions chart, created participant structures in the classroom in which students were allowed and encouraged to question each other’s thinking and theories. p. 16

Through the process of questioning each other’s theories, students supported and opposed each other’s ideas p. 16

The cultural tools mentioned previously and the participant structure during the whole-class conversations set up a situation in which Alicia and Alex could try to win the agreement of their classmates p. 17

Signs of solidarity (Hatano & Inagaki, 1991) from classmates obviously held importance for Alicia; p. 17

Alex’s picture of whole-class discussion time resembles Alicia’s in its depiction of disagreements between students, but judging from Alex’s comments, he did not perceive the partisan motivations of his classmates as strongly. Alex talked about students as each having their own opinions and ideas about the unit and did not comment on how students aligned themselves with particular perspectives or with particular spokespersons for those ideas. p. 17

Whereas Alicia noted the importance of another student being on her side (if only temporarily), Alex seems to have viewed other students as possessing their own independent ideas that did not align with his or Alicia’s. Alex’s comments do indicate, however, his perception of difficulty in trying to get classmates to go along with an agreed on theory whether it is his own or someone else’s. p. 17

Whether perceived as important by individual students or not, partisanship shaped the experiences of these two students through their relationships to each other and to their classmates. Both refer to the difficulty of getting people to agree in the context of whole-group discussions, and both students lobbied for the acceptance of their own ideas throughout the course of the unit. p. 17

Partisanship can serve as both an affordance of and a constraint on the relationships of power between students such as Alicia and Alex, who hold their own particular well-developed ideas, and the rest of their peers. p. 18

Because Alicia and Alex held such strong ideas about their theories and because the classroom supplied a relatively open forum for them to pursue these ideas in a public space, the two gained greater access to the floor during discussions. This created a classroom dynamic in which they each held more sway over the direction of the conversation than any of their classmates and not always toward positive ends for the other students in the class. p. 18

Alicia and Alex’s ability and willingness to banter back and forth about the intellectual content of the unit lowered the position of power of students such as Susan who found it difficult to even enter the conversation. p. 18

However, these two students’ relationships of power to the rest of their classmates was also constrained by their ability to derive this support p. 18

The partisan motivations of students in Mrs. Garrett’s classroom, as we have shown, have both positive and negative implications. p. 18

Partisanship motivated deeper, prolonged discussions around the subject-matter content, which also involved many students besides Alicia and Alex who were engaged in supporting and challenging both sides of the argument. p. 18

on the other hand, the level of influence that Alicia and Alex obtained through their partisan efforts might not have proved helpful for the learning experiences of all students in the room. p. 18

Our observations of partisanship, as we have presented them previously, can be thought of as being mediated primarily through the subject-matter content, not through the teacher. p. 19

Persuasive Discourse p. 19

The exchange illustrates that at least a few other students had also adopted the view that engaging in discourse around scientific ideas required members of the conversation to find convincing ways to promote their ideas. p. 20

The process of interacting with peers through the cultural tools in this science unit allowed both Alicia and Alex to develop proficiency in persuading others in a way that is germane to scientific inquiry. p. 20

The teacher’s guidance in helping students to frame appropriate questions and provide disciplinarily adequate explanations also supported them in this process p. 20

Being able to prove their point involved gradually learning what kinds of evidence would count as good proof for this particular audience p. 20

With the tool of audience roles and the supporting tool of the questions chart in place during presentations, audience members were encouraged to question the methods and theories of the presenting group. The use of this participant structure made it possible to retain a balance in the relationship of power between any person’s or group’s ideas. p. 20

discourse during whole-group conversations did not follow the traditional patterns of student–teacher interaction and that students were taking on roles as questioners in the creation of meaning p. 20

To confirm these impressions, we sam- p. 20

pled five 10-min video clips from group presentations and tallied each student’s or teacher’s speaking turn under the categories “questions,” “warrants/claims,” and “other” (see Table 1). p. 21

Students in Mrs. Garrett’s class asked nearly three times as many questions of their fellow students as the teacher and researchers combined, and they made over 20 times more warrants or knowledge claims than the teacher. The teacher’s role in the classroom as a facilitator of these intellectual conversations shows up in the other category in which students and the teacher/researcher made about equal numbers of facilitating-like comments. p. 21

Alicia and Alex’s classmates asked a higher percentage of questions (60% of total), whereas the contributions of these two students fell more often under the category of warrants/claims (40% of total between the two) p. 21

these students found the internally persuasive word (speech that enables the listener to integrate a message into his or her own understanding) better adapted to their purposes in convincing their classmates than authoritative speech (speech that expects others to passively accept what is said). p. 21

In both of the previous quotations, when asked to describe what makes a good scientist, both students emphasized the importance of effective persuasion. p. 21

Their emerging view of science reflects an un- p. 21

derstanding of the discipline as a body of representations that scientific communities develop and scrutinize p. 22

Lemke (1990) confirmed that talking about scientific concepts involves “doing science through the medium of language” (p. ix) and that this language includes questioning, arguing, and discussing. p. 22

Persuasive discourse, then, as an outcome of the cultural tools mentioned previously, reflects the changes in the relationships of power in the classroom in two ways. First, in the largely social realm of the classroom, the expectation for persuasive discourse among classmates limited the power of students who advocated certain theories or ideas by requiring adequate evidence to support their claims. Second, in the largely disciplinary realm of the classroom, the use of this science-like discourse positively affected the relation of power between the student and the concept. p. 22

By bringing students into contact with the true work and nature of science, the “mystique of science” (as Lemke, 1990, described) is dispelled. Concepts become accessible, negotiable, and evolving entities in the students’ minds. p. 22

What Did They Learn? p. 22

Alex still experienced some confusion during the interview about how things such as density, materials, weight, volume, and shape might fit together to explain sinking and floating more completely, he was aware that there were relations between these factors that he could test for by comparing “same shape and same weigh[t], except different materials to test the material.” p. 23

In this explanation, Alex also showed that he had developed an awareness of controlling variables to test one particular variable at a time. p. 23

Alicia made perhaps the greater progress in understanding the subject matter content during the unit. p. 23

By the time her interview took place, Alicia, like Alex, had looked up the mathematical equation for density and could clearly relate how this influenced the sinking and floating of objects. During the interview, she also showed an awareness of controlling variables to compare objects along a given dimension, stating that of two objects with the “same volume,” one can have a “bigger density … which will make it heavier.” p. 23

Alicia also integrated the theory of materials matter by stating that objects made with the same materials would have equal densities. p. 23

Alicia and Alex also made great gains in refining their epistemologies of science. In their interviews and in the classroom discourse data, both students expressed an understanding of the coordination between theories and evidence. p. 24

During her preinterview (at the beginning of the school year), Alicia’s response to the question of whether or not scientists disagree with each other alluded to differences in factual information that two scientists might disagree on p. 24

Following the Sinking and Floating unit, she understood disagreements in science to also include differences in the ways that evidence could be interpreted. p. 24

his post-sinking and floating interview that he appreciated the uncertainty of science and found it “exciting” when he could find proof for his claims that others would believe. p. 24

Given the progress that Alicia and Alex made during the Sinking and Floating unit, we are confident in claiming that the ways of participating enabled by the cultural tools and participant structures within the classroom promoted deeper learning of the subject matter for these students p. 24

we turn now in the next section to examine the extent to which affording students these higher positions of power in the classroom could potentially compromise the equally important goal of equity among students. p. 24

Was the Classroom Equitable? p. 24

our readers will naturally have concerns about the generalizability of our claims and the equitable nature of such classrooms. p. 24

we wish to point out that these two students did not show up in all classroom conversations in the same capacity. p. 25

Thus, the privilege or position of power that these two students seemed to have in the Sinking and Floating unit may have had more to do with their specific interests in the subject matter than with their intellectual capabilities. p. 25

To the question of whether or not other students were disadvantaged by these two students’ involvement in sinking and floating, we again answer yes and no. p. 25

Some students did express frustration with Alicia and Alex’s bantering and were silenced when they could not follow the conversation. We see these outcomes as serious shortcomings of our classroom design and we worry about the fact that a few students did not publicly participate at all during this unit. p. 25

By the final unit on Spontaneous Generation, which occurred in May, the distribution of student participants appeared to have evened out, with different students emerging on different days to explore their ideas. p. 25

although Alicia and Alex readily appropriated the participant structures and cultural tools as they were introduced into the classroom, this did not mean that other students would not have eventually done so. p. 25

we do caution anyone who engages in this kind of teaching or research to be cognizant of the fact that students can come into these learning situations with an established social pecking order and that such divisions can influence students’ access as participants to the conversations (Lensmire, 2000). p. 25

We have already alluded to an answer for our third question of whether or not students like Alicia and Alex would succeed given any participant structure or classroom setting. It is our opinion this is not necessarily the case. p. 25


The three aspects of power that we have named and described previously first define the social relationships of the focus students p. 26

Having ownership of ideas shifted power from the teacher to the students p. 26

Partisanship redefined the relationship of power between these two students as they became spokespersons for different theories throughout the unit, and it allowed them to have and voice their own opinions on the issue p. 26

Persuasive discourse created a new relationship of power among the students as well, as fellow classmates and the teacher became monitors of the ideas espoused by the focus students and served to balance their power p. 26

The three aspects of power also define the intellectual, disciplinary relations between the focus students and the concepts being studied p. 26

Ownership of ideas, in this case, closed the distance between the student and the scientific concepts, creating a feeling for the students of being creators of their own theories and a sense that they could use these ideas flexibly. p. 26

Partisanship allowed them to further explore and own these ideas by presenting them as potential explanations before the class p. 26

through their own persuasive discourse in trying to convince their peers, these two students glimpsed the true nature of scientific inquiry that for their theories to be powerful, they needed to provide adequate and convincing proof for their argument. p. 26

Implementing new participant structures in science classrooms, however, does not ensure that disciplinary-specific discourses will actually occur. p. 27

Some studies that have made use of new participant structures (e.g., small groups) in science classrooms have reported findings that reflected some social transformations of power but that failed to elicit new relations of power to the science content through appropriate disciplinary engagement p. 27

What we learn by contrasting these two studies with our study is that not all cultural tools and participant structures are as effective in transforming the relationships of power among students and between students and concepts p. 27

A review of these articles finds that putting students in small groups, having class presentations, or promoting only the social goals in the classroom did not guarantee that deep discussions around scientific ideas would occur. p. 27

We propose three reasons for why the cultural tools used in the PATHS sixth-grade classroom found greater success in encouraging discussion around scientific ideas and theories p. 27

First, the process of thinking like a scientist was highly scaffolded for students. Through the use of audience roles and questions charts, students had to do less guesswork in figuring out what kinds of statements and questions make for better scientific conversations p. 27

the process for creating their own theories was clearly laid out in the structure of the SenseMaker board p. 27

cultural tools gave students important information on how to talk about theories and what the status of a theory truly is in an ongoing scientific conversation. p. 27

Second, as stated repeatedly throughout this article, the new relationships of power in the classroom (both social and disciplinary) created opportuni- p. 27

ties and even motivation for students to explore scientific concepts in depth p. 28

Ownership of an idea and the desire to persuade each other led Alex and Alicia into deeper and deeper conversations around the ideas contained in the problem of sinking and floating. Their new relationships of power in their environment allowed these two students to engage in the discipline of science as a scientist would do. p. 28

teacher played a large role in shaping the students’ participation throughout the unit. Cultural tools, in and of themselves, do not convey the value of deeply engaging in scientific inquiry. Mrs. Garrett aided the students in thinking about sinking and floating by giving these tools shape and meaning. By respecting each student’s current attempts at understanding and promoting confusion as a starting point, she gave the students the support they needed to work through these very difficult ideas. p. 28

Designing participant structures that encourage meaningful engagement with a concept in a discipline while also encouraging meaningfully conversations with classmates allows these p. 28

students the opportunity to share and continue sharing their interests and ideas with each other. p. 29


What we in this study did that differs from previous research, however, was to analyze power not only in terms of the social relationships that exist in classrooms but also in terms of the disciplinary relationships, and we did these two analyses in tandem p. 29

The goal of this discussion of power in the classroom was not to imply that teachers should relinquish their responsibilities as guides in the learning process. p. 29

we have simply tried to show that for students to engage with and pursue learning in a disciplinary specific way, they must first possess their own motives and ideas p. 29

To craft participant structures that respond to students’ educational as well as personal and social needs, consideration of the interactions of multiple relationships of power in the classroom must be made p. 29

we used interview data from two students p. 29

The strength of such an analysis is that we can get a sense of how broadly one child can be affected by the tools and structures with which she works p. 29

also proves a weakness in that the social and disciplinary outcomes for these two students are limited in their generalizability to other students and settings p. 29

further studies must account for how different types of student learners come to accept the affordances of power made available to them by the environment, if at all. Lindsay Cornelius’s ongoing work involves delving into this very issue p. 29

Whereas motivation research typically has focused more on psychological aspects of the learner, we believe that bringing a sociocultural lens to bear on these issues will expand the ways of explaining why engagement in learning does or does not happen p. 29

This perspective includes looking at the ways in which allowing students p. 29

opportunities for legitimate participation (Lave & Wenger, 1991) in communities of practice and discourse can cultivate the identities and interests of students and thus provide students with personal reasons for engaging in school p. 30

Another related direction of research that we foresee coming out of this study involves understanding the forms of collaboration that are present in classrooms that afford this type of participation. p. 30

In this study, we provided an example of how a new analytic lens, looking at classroom learning through the relationships of power it allows, can create the potential for accounting for multiple interactions in complex learning environments. p. 30