New Learning’s Updates

Hands Up! ... and Beyond: The New Classroom Discourse

In her pathbreaking book, Classroom Discourse, Courtney Cazden characterizes the classical pattern of classroom discussion as Initiate-Respond-Evaluate (I-R-E). E-Learning environments like Scholar also prompt discussion, but in ways which are deceptively different. In fact, we want to argue that they are better in some important respects.

But first, here’s the classical I-R-E pattern.

Teacher Initiates: “What’s the furthest planet from the sun in the Solar System?”

Students shoot up their hands, and one responds, a proxy for all the others: “Pluto.”

Teacher Evaluates: “Yes, that’s correct!” (Or an alternative ending: “No, that’s wrong, does someone else know the answer?”)

Now let’s look at the discussions that happen in the Scholar activity stream. They’re the same in this respect—this is a class discussion space which enacts the classic discursive Initiate-Respond-Evaluate pattern. And it’s utterly different. And it’s better in the following eight ways:

  1. Everyone responds. In classical I-R-E, one person is proxy, answering for all. Instead, in Scholar potentially everyone responds. In fact, there can be an expectation that everyone must respond. The result: a silent classroom that in classical classroom discourse would have been chaotically noisy, or where the class would have to wait an interminably long time for more or all to give their response.
  2. Lowered barriers to response. Here’s a rough rule of thumb—in classical I-R-E, it’s usually the wrong person who responds with the proxy answer—the student who has the confidence to shoot up their hand first or early, or the person who the teacher can rely upon to have the anticipated answer. In Scholar, the initiation happens in an ‘update’, and the response in a ‘comment’ on that update. Over and over again, students have told us that simply having a few extra moments to look over their response before they press the “submit comment”, button reduces their anxiety to participate.
  3. When everyone responds, differences become visible. In the classical I-R-E scenario, it is not practicable to get answers from everyone. The expectation is that there is one answer because the person answering for the rest of the class must act as proxy for the others. This becomes an exercise in guessing the answer that the teacher expects. In asking the question, they must have had something particular in mind. If only one person is going to answer, it must mean there is only one answer. But is Pluto really a planet? And if it is, might there be other small planets? The definition of planet is not so simple. Most things are interesting enough for there to be more than one answer, or differently nuanced answers, or different examples that students might give to illustrate a point based on personal interest and experience. In the Scholar Update <=> Comment dialogue, the univocal response of the proxy in classical I-R-E becomes polyvalent. Distinctive identities and voice come through. Students soon start discussing these differences, addressing each other @. If classical I-R-E erases the differences, now they become visible and valued as a resource for intellectual dialogue. Also, anxieties to participate and voice one’s own view are reduced as others’ responses start to come through.
  4. This is highly engaging. Classical I-R-E is boring—listening to the teacher and to another student give an answer. The cognitive load is suboptimal. Reading lots of answers is much more engaging. Instead of one answer, there may be as many as there are members of the community, and more. In the era of Facebook and Twitter feeds, the cognitive load is about right. And there is a social stickiness in the visibility of the discussion—you stay engaged because others will be reading and responding to your updates and comments.
  5. The read/write mix and the participation mix is right. Heritage classrooms had students listening more than speaking, reading more than writing. Like the participatory social media, e-learning environments such as Scholar offer a balance of read/write, and an expectation of active participation that resonates with the spirit of our times. Also, the text of the discussion is deceptively different from oral language. Linguist Michael Halliday has famously contrasted the grammars of orality and writing—speaking is linear, redundant, and strings of clauses; writing is in sentences, concise and carefully composed in a non-linear, backwards and forwards process. Looking back over a comment and editing it before submitting, moves part way from the grammar of speaking to the grammar of writing—and towards “academic literacy”.
  6. We can break out of the four walls of the classroom and the cells of the timetable. In an environment like Scholar, there is no difference between in-person, synchronous classroom discussion and at-a-distance, asynchronous discussion. And there are useful intermediate permutations—“Finish the discussion tonight,” or “Not at school today? No problem, participate anyway.”
  7. Anyone can be an initiator. It’s not only the teacher who can make updates in Scholar, to start a classroom discussion. If the teacher choses to open this setting, students can make updates too—and this can include any number of media objects, including image, sound, video and dataset.
  8. A new transparency, learning analytics and assessment. Whereas discussions in the traditional classroom were ephemeral, online discussions are for-the-record. In the new I-R-E where everyone responds, every response can be seen, and the responses can be parsed using learning analytics (frequency of engagement, extent of engagement, language level, discussion network visualizations, and a myriad of other measures). If you are not participating, it will be visible to others and your teachers. It will show up in your results.

This is the theory of classroom discourse in the era of the social web. If you want to see the practice in Scholar, see some of the videos where students and teachers speak about the experience, here.

  • Ana Calazans da Rosa