University of Bath
School of Education
Action Research 2.
Creating Educative Dialogue in an Infant Classroom
- My Educational Journey.
Kathryn M. Yeaman
A living educational theory !
I am not used to the idea of theory being something which can be alive. So often it is something once studied, perhaps partly assimilated into one's teaching then long-forgotten. The view that educational theory can be something less abstract and more meaningful is an exciting one.
I have found action research to be an empowering process. It has has led me to what is right or educational and in doing so it has empowered me to follow this path. It is empowering in that it shows your actions to be the right ones and in doing this you prove to yourself that your ideas work.They then become more than ideas; they change into truths.
The following action research was undertaken as a single module towards an M.A. at the University of Bath.I chose action research as I wanted my study to have direct relevance to my work in the classroom as a teacher. It is possible to have what might be termed a `good knowledge' of educational theory without actually using it in one's own situation.It could then be argued that this superficial learning is not in fact knowledge at all. In doing my action research I have discovered for myself the relevance to me of some traditional, propositional theories and also discovered gaps and contradictions in the field of educational theory.
The `living educational theory' for me is not an alternative one or indeed a subversive one as some might suggest(see Newby 1994), but one which combines traditional theories with practice to form a new understanding and in doing so provides new theories which may have some generalisability to the profession as a whole.
'Critical research is praxis. Praxis involves the inseparability of theory and practice-i.e.,informed practice.We must understand theoretical notions in terms of their relationship to the lived world, not simply as objects of abstract contemplation.'(Kincheloe 1991).
Schön stresses the need for such research to be `I'-based.Such research can construct a new theory of a unique case. My action research report is written in the first person as this is how it was. The research was done by me.`I' was at the centre of my research question. If others as they read wish to propose what might happen to others in a similar situation that is for them to imagine. I am concerned with the specifics of my research not, in the report itself, with generalities or indeed with relevance to other situations. I will however consider these points after the report. I have also chosen not to write an introduction for readers as I would like them to read the report and find significant points themselves.
My reasons for presenting this report are many. I am making public my action learning. I am presenting it as evidence of my own professional development. I would like fellow professionals to learn from it.In presenting my findings my intention is not to be prescriptive but to demonstrate some insights into the subject of educational dialogue. I hope too, that by revealing the self-educative nature of action research I will inspire others to become involved. I would like others to question and research for themselves my findings and those of others; I would like others to become involved in creating their own educational theory. As teacher- researchers, by focusing our enquiry on our children's learning and integrating the insights of existing theories into our enquiry we can make a significant contribution to educational knowledge.
In this, my second Action Research Module I have become much more involved in the dialogical and dialectical aspect of action research. Over the last term our group have presented data in taped and written form. We have discussed meanings of terms such as `quality', `values', `educative'as they have arisen in our work. They have been discussed not as abstract terms but as meanings in our research. This is part of the validation of such research, to make sure that it is clear and comprehensible to others. In my own research in the classroom I have have become acutely aware of the importance of meanings and the interpretation of terms used. As educators it is of paramount importance that we understand each other and that we understand our pupils, and they, us. Such dialogical debate helps us to tease out our own understandings and develop them further.
As other members of the group and other fellow teacher- researchers outside the group have read my work they have recommended literature which might be relevant to my research. So, someone interested in the creation of educational dialogues, indeed not just interested in but directly involved in creating such dialogues, is able to point me in exactly the right direction towards relevant traditional theory.
The dialectical nature of the research, involving testing the truth of opinions by discussion, continues right up to and after the final assignment is handed in. This aspect comes to the fore at the validation meeting when draft reports are read and the validity of them is discussed by members of the group.
This action research report has been read and validated by the other members of the group. It has been subjected to a validation procedure where a number of criteria were applied. This ethic of peer validation consists of engaging in dialogue about the research and the report. In this discussion we have followed the four criteria used by Habermas to judge the validity of a communication.
`He ( Habermas) has identified four characteristics which, if agreed by persons engaging in communication, he believes will ensure the validity of that communication. The criteria are:
1. that a statement is TRUE;
2. that the speech act is COMPREHENSIBLE;
3. that the speaker is AUTHENTIC(sincere)
4. that the situation is APPROPRIATE for these things to be said.'(Mc Niff,1988)
Firstly we looked at truth. We looked at evidence in the report to substantiate any claims that I had made. As most of the claims I had made were related to data which had been presented at earlier meetings and revised after discussion it was agreed that my claims were backed up by evidence. For example, if I had claimed that learning had taken place then I had shown where a child had understood something which had not previously been comprehensible to him. In this way the truth of my statements was verified. Secondly, we looked at whether or not my account was comprehensible. It was generally felt that my report was powerful and clear but some readers felt that occasionally they needed a little more guidance possibly in the form of headings. I had not wanted to have titles and headings in my story as this would be inauthentic to me. I do not write in that way when I want to tell a story of how something happened or how it was. I feel that such headings are not part of a continuous story and that they detract from the flow of a story and make it less powerful. However in view of the readers requests I have added pointers to show where decisions were made and action started. I have also printed all speech in a different typeface. By making these adjustments I have hopefully added to the comprehensibility of the account and therefore to it's power.
We looked too at authenticity. Here we looked at my account to see whether or not I was living out those values that I claimed to have. We looked at the account to see whether there was evidence within it that I had done what I claimed to have done. In my particular research did I show by my actions and in my conversations that I really wanted to improve the quality of the children's spoken language or were these just empty claims? The group were in agreement over the authenticity of my work but looking at the text alone they felt that the action research cycles in my work were not made absolutely clear in my account. They knew that I had been involved in several cycles of action research but would the reader be sure of this? I had not wanted to spoil the authenticity of my story by overlaying it with an action research sructure. As a reader, I feel that the constant reference to action research cycles in accounts actually detracts from the claims which are made in them and the messages which they are trying to put over. As mentioned above, I have added pointers to the story. These should enable the reader to see action research patterns without the story being interrupted. The action research model used was that used by action-researchers in the School of Education at the University of Bath.
1. I experience problems when some of my educational values are negated in my practice.
2. I imagine a solution to my problems.
3. I act in the direction of the chosen solution.
4. I evaluate the outcomes of my actions.
5. I modify my problems, ideas and actions in the light of my evaluations.(Whitehead,1991)
The final characteristic to be considered was that of appropriateness. Was an action research appropriate for discussing this problem? I will answer this question myself.I consider an action research situation to be especially appropriate for looking at children's language because of the dialogical nature of such a research method.
In addition to these four criteria we looked at my claim to know my own educational development. It was agreed that that I had identified a problem and through a number of action research cyles had evaluated what had happened, shown an understanding of the present and had made plans for the future based on my learning. I had also engaged in relevant literature and shown this in my report.
A report of my research- How Can I Improve The Quality of Language used in My Infant Classroom?
Why did I choose this as the question for my second venture into action research? Why indeed? It certainly turned out to be a rather amorphous question which I redefined more than once. Perhaps this is not unusual in an action research. It was only by entering into the research that I began to understand the question itself and discover exactly what the answering of it really entailed. Inevitably as the research proceeds the question is pared down to specifics as you try to answer it.In answering it other questions demand to be answered along the way
This original question was formulated as a fusion of two interests. The first was a desire to follow a path created by my previous action research in which I looked at my teaching of Science and attempted to improve it's effectiveness. This improvement came about by furthering my understanding of how children learn science. For some time I have realised that `learning' is not always the outcome of what is commonly termed `teaching'. During this piece of research I became very aware that you can only really teach something to a child when you have adequate knowledge of what that child already knows about that subject. I worked with small groups of children talking to the children individually to find out what they knew and what they were observing and learning. The other adults who helped in the classroom worked in a similar way closely questioning the children and giving them opportunities to convey their ideas and observations as fully as possible.
I found this invaluable to the effectiveness of my Science teaching as it is only by finding out what children really know already that you can hope to further their understanding and in doing so really `teach' them anything new. It is all too easy to presume that a child has a certain previous knowledge and understanding of something when really all they have is a very superficial idea of what something might mean or a totally incorrect concept altogether.
All too often in the past I had decided what I was going to teach without checking on the children's previous knowledge. I had not always made sure that they had a firm base on which to build their new learning. So from this research came a desire to continue this constant checking of children's understanding before attempting to move on to new learning.
In addition to this desire I wanted to pursue my long-standing interest in language and it's power in the process of children's learning. This is a subject which has fascinated me for years, in fact since the 1970's when I took part in a piece of research carried out by Joan Tough. The project culminated in the publication of Listening to Children Talking (Tough,1976) and Talking and Learning(Tough,1977). Over the years in my teaching of young children I have noticed how often learning and behaviour problems have a link with an inability to use oral language fluently. I have read too of studies which bear out these observations.
Therefore it was with these two ideas in mind, the use of language as an indicator of understanding and the use of language as in the act of learning itself which led me to formulate my question- `How can I improve the quality of language in my infant classroom?'
What was the nature of my problem?-
What did I mean by improving the quality of the language? Straight away I was asked by my action research group to define what I meant by this statement. What were my concerns? Well, I felt that I needed to enrich the interchanges of language between myself and the children. I wanted to give the children time to speak their own individual ideas and thoughts just as I had in my previous action research. I had found then that it is only by listening to children that you really know where they are educationally. I was interested in looking closely at what the children were saying and using dialogue to move them on in their learning. Already I had redefined my question:
How could I enrich the interchanges of language between myself and the children?
For some time since teaching infants I had been a little concerned by the quality of the dialogue between children and adults, myself included. I have found a tendency to talk down to children and to oversimplify language so that the pattern of language that children are hearing is not a particularly rich one. Too often the infant teacher's language is peppered with the `hands in the air, fingers on lips' type of language which does not invite any useful discourse from the children. Although this controlling language can be effective in creating order and response from the children I do not believe that it is beneficial to their learning of communication and language skills. I want the language that the children hear from me to be similar to that which I use with older children and I would like the children to be able to communicate with me as equals whenever possible and not as subordinates. In order to do this they need to have every opportunity to express themselves orally in different situations.
Gradually I realised that what I was concerned with was the creation of exchanges of speech which would in effect be educative. Thus a new question, `how can I create educative dialogue in the infant classroom?' was created.
The part played by the `group'-
Already there has been mention of this body of people. They had already played an active part in my research. In my case this group consisted of other teachers attending an Action Research 2 Module at Bath University. However I was not to have the help of the group for long as I did not start my action research until the following term. It had been agreed that I should defer the start of my action research until the following term as I was already engaged in another study module at the time. I was quite confident that this would work well as I was not a complete newcomer to Action Research, having successfully and enjoyably completed a project looking at my teaching of science the previous term. This did not in fact prove to be a wise decision on my part as I realised much later when I felt the lack of someone or group with whom to share my work. This resulted in a certain lack of direction which I found hard to overcome.I had met others at the group meetings who had seemed to stop and start their research and had come to dead ends and I had not really stopped to consider why this might have happened. I had read too in numerous writings of the need for a third party with whom one could share and discuss ideas during the research period.
`Involve others. Action Research is for independants, but not for solitaries.'
`Validation groups are part of the procedure of an action research enquiry.-----Their task is to listen attentively to the individual teacher's claim to knowledge, consider the evidence, and agree that movement has or has not taken place. ---The task of the validation group is to help the researcher move his ideas forward.'(Mc Niff, 1988)
I had even written myself of the value to me of such a group.
`A mention must be made here of the important part played by the rest of my group.----My group of fellow students and researchers were greatly supportive to me. The dialogue between members of the group was used to clarify ideas and perceptions. The group disputed one's claims about pupil learning.'( Yeaman 1992)
Should I have seized upon this as an opportunity to set up a group within my own school? It is only with hindsight that I have considered this as an option at all. During a busy Summer term in a large lower school teachers spare time is at a premium with children's assessments, Sats and the writing of reports being foremost in many teachers minds. I wonder though when is the climate educationally right for the setting up of such a group?
With news, as I write this, of Ron Dearing's recommendations for the paring down of the National Curriculum and it's attendant record-keeping, action research could be one of the freedoms which teachers may have, to improve and invigorate their teaching.
Creating educative dialogue? Where should I begin?
I decided that in order to create a situation where the children and I were most able to talk to each other in an educative way, I needed to concentrate on sitting down with groups of children in turn and really talking to them about what they were doing in order to guide their thinking, talking and subsequent learning as I had done in my previous research. I looked at why I was not doing this all the time if this was the way that I believed that children learn. The sheer number of children in the class does not enable me to have the luxury of sitting down really talking with individuals without interruption and without having to oversee what the rest of the class is doing. Were there times when I could engage in this type of groupwork? If there were then why wasn't I already doing it? I realised that all too often I had organised the children so that everyone could 'get on 'and then taken an opportunity to hear readers. With a class of nearly 30 children reading takes up a lot of time. Incidentally at the time that I was deciding that I needed to spend more time sitting with the children in groups our Minister of Education was busily extolling the values of whole class teaching and a return to traditional teaching styles. I decided that I would enable myself to spend more time with small groups of children by making a conscious effort not to hear them read at every opportunity but instead to have a reading session where I could concentrate on reading. I also enlisted extra parental help with reading. I then considered how I would collect evidence during my action research and decided that the best way of collecting oral evidence is by tape-recording, as I had done in my previous action research.
I began to explore the classroom for educative dialogue-
Before starting to collect any data I decided that I would look closely at the language which we (the children and I) were using in the classroom and discover whether or not the children were entering into educative dialogue with each other or with me. I would then have a starting point for my research. I wanted to look at all the children in the class not just a group for my research as I wanted my research to be part of my teaching of the whole class. If I were to seek out one particular group for my attentions the other children would almost certainly get less of my time. In addition to this I want my research to have some long-lasting beneficial effect on my class teaching. My class consisted of a mix of Year 1 and Year 2 children most of whom were six or seven years old at the time when I was carrying out my research. During some Maths work in groups I sat at the weighing table observing and listening to the language which the children were using. It was interesting, if slightly disconcerting, to note that some of the children were doing a balancing activity (putting a toy on one side of the scales and balancing it with conkers on the other side) but were unable to use the corresponding language. They were not able to verbalise what was happening.
Teach.What's happening now?
I also listened to what the children were saying to each other as they worked at their tables. The children were drawing and writing about what they had been doing over the weekend. They were sitting in groups and talking as they worked but I was disappointed to note that I did not hear any children engage with one another in what I might term `useful' dialogue. What did I expect to hear? I was hoping to hear something that might indicate that the children were learning from one another. Maybe one would question another about what they were doing? I did not make a recording but sat notebook in hand expectantly waiting for some interchange of ideas, some indication that they were learning from one another, but I was unable as I listened at each table to note down any language of this kind.
I needed to speak to every child-
Remembering somewhere reading thatmany children were not spoken to individually by their teacher each day I decided to see if I could possibly go round to each group and talk to each individual child about something! The obvious choice seemed to be to talk about what they were doing. After a few attempts at this I gave it up as it seemed to me to be a futile excercise. Yes, I spoke to every child and they spoke back to me, but often a child was not at a point in their work when it was of any benefit to them to break off and discuss it. This is anecdotal evidence. There is no data relating to these attempts to set up dialogue. I found the situation a rather contrived one which I felt uncomfortable with. It was also very time-consuming and difficult to set an agenda for each child's conversation with me.
Later the same week I decided to work with groups of about 8 children to design their own string puppets. It was a good time to work closely with small groups of children as I had the help of a classroom assistant who was used to questioning the children. The classroom assistant and I worked with a group of children each for about half an hour and then another group of children each for a further half an hour thus working with every child in the class. The children closely observed, described and evaluated a selection of string puppets and then went on to design their own puppet, first orally and then in drawings. I used a lot of close-questioning with the children as I had done in science, in my previous research. The children verbalised their ideas before putting pencil to paper and this may have clarified their designs. I did not record the sessions as I was not yet collecting data but feeling my way into the action research so I have no evidence of educative dialogue but I was happy with the resulting designs, some of which were very detailed, more detailed and involved than those particular children had done previously.
I had to find out more about language-
I began to consider what sort of language I was trying to elicit from the children and decided that I needed to read more about children's language. I found a wealth of books about language in the university library and delved into many of them only to discover that they were not really what I was looking for. Many of them were concerned with the study of the language which a child or teacher uses but I needed to learn more about the interchange of language and ideas from child to child and from adult to child. I was more interested in dialogue or conversation rather than in categorising language. I later read the following.
`The 1960s and 1970s brought about a wealth of knowledge concerning children's acquisition of linguistic structure. The identification and isolation of discreet units of language provided a window for viewing children's individual linguistic systems. It allowed us to create norms and compare specific areas of development as well as to document growth and change.'(Bates,1976)
Bates suggests that we have paid a price for this focus by losing sight of the ties of language structure to communication and context.
I was fortunate in finding `Lipservice: the story of talk in schools.' In this book Pat Jones devotes a chapter to quotes from educationalists in the field of language. These, he says, reveal a powerful consensus of opinion about the centrality of talk to learning. He echoes my own thoughts on the importance of spoken language.
`Talk is a natural means of learning, but in schools it tends to be overshadowed in importance by reading and writing. To talk something through with others is an important way to grasp new ideas, understand concepts and to clarify your own feelings and perceptions about something.bIt is important to encourage a more varied range of pupil talk in the classroom where, for example, pupils have the opportunities to discuss ideas at length; explain concepts;describe; narrate; speculate ; reason; instruct; work together on common tasks and problems; role-play.'(Jones,1988)
I was ready to start collecting data-
It was with these ideas from Lipservice echoing in my mind that I started my data collecting. I felt that ideally I would like to work with small groups of children in order to encourage them to express their own ideas and ask questions but I knew that realistically I would not be able to do this all the time because of the manpower available; I realised that my ideal of working with small groups would only be possible for a small amount of time and that inevitably I would need to find ways of encouraging individual dialogue whilst children were in a whole class situation.
I decided to start by looking at the opportunites posed by newstime-
The children and I had always engaged in a newstime on a Monday morning. We sat together in the book corner where there is a carpet, myself facing the children. I had noticed over the preceding weeks that the number of children actually joining in orally was less than half the class and many of the children did not put up their hands to be chosen to tell their news. Often I asked children who did not have their hands up and sometimes they would say something which I could then encourage them to expand upon. In order for the other children to hear, the child telling their news would often have to come to the front and stand and face the rest of the class. The class usually became fidgety after a while, and at this point I would tend to wind up newstime, often before all the children had had a chance to speak.
I had read about using a shell or other object to pass around to identify a time when each child has an opportunity to speak. Over the next few weeks every time we had newstime we sat in a circle facing inwards so that each child could see the others in the circle. This, seemingly minor, adjustment in our seating arrangement with the addition of an object to pass round the circle certainly increased the opportunity for each child to speak. Each child was actually given the chance to speak in turn. It was also easy for me as their teacher to see which children passed on the shell quickly rather than say anything. Newstime lasted longer as the children were less fidgety as they could see and hear each other better. I was able to see exactly how many children were left and was able to allot time to each child accordingly. During the telling of news I would often repeat or emphasize and expound upon certain parts of the news in order to keep the children's attention. I would also ask questions in order to lead a child on to tell us more about something.
N. Next Sunday it's my birthday.
N. I'm coming.
C. I'm coming.
N. Loads of people are coming.
Teach.Loads of people are coming? Who's coming then?
N. Simon and Nicola and Craig and Jamie in the other
Ca. It's my birthday too.
Teach.There are two birthdays in the class this week. Caroline's and Nigel's.
B. My bike wouldn't go.
Teach.What's wrong with it?
B. The chains come off it.
Teach.What are you going to do about that then?
B. I can't get it on.
Teach. Can't Grandad do it ? He's usually good at mending bikes isn't he?
B. It's too small now.
Teach. So what are you going to do?
B. Buy a new one.'
V. I went to my grandads at Easter. They've got a new owl, a new turtle, a new squirrel and two new norms.
Teach. Norms? What are they then?
V. Those little people!
Teach. Gnomes! Oh right! Was the owl a model of an owl to put in the garden? And the turtle and the squirrel and the gnomes? They're all in the garden?
V. Yes. They're not real.'
Because of this a lot of the newstime was in fact taken up with me and not the children talking. I was thus reminded of a quote in Lipservice.
`Who needs the most practice talking in school? Who gets the most? Exactly: The children need it, the teacher gets it. William Hull.'(Jones,1988)
The children needed to do the questioning-
I decided that the next time the children told their news I would begin to teach them to ask questions of the child telling the news instead of me the teacher always doing the questioning. I hoped that this would encourage the children to listen really carefully so that they could ask a question. I also thought that they would get a chance to clarify anything that they did not understand or wanted to know more about. They would set the agenda rather than me .
Many of the children quickly took to the idea of asking questions
(After Simon had told us he was going to France.)
C. When are you going to France?
S. In 2 weeks time.
C. Which France?
Teach. Which bit of France? France is all one country. There's only one France. Which bit of France?
S. I'm not going yet!'
( After David had told us about going to Mc Donalds and getting a free Mighty Mini car.)
Teach. Has anyone got anything to ask David about his trip to Mc Donalds?
L. Why did you go to Mc Donalds?
D. Cos we were hungry so my dad went and got some food for us.
S. How does that little car work?
D. You wind it up and if you wind it up really tight and then you put it on the floor it goes along. My dad got it to work by winding it up really far .
Teach. So does that have a battery ?
Teach. Do you just push it ?
Teach. It`s got a ---?
D. Winder up.
Teach. So it's a wind-up toy like those we looked at and it's probably got a thing called a spring inside that winds up tight and when you release it it opens up again and moves the car along the floor.
B. My grandad's done the wall. He's made the wall smoother and mended it.
A. How did he smooth it?
B.He got some cement. He didn't put any stones in it. He smoothed it with a float.
Teach.Is that what you call them? He smoothed it with a float. Tell us what a float is.
B. It's a thing what makes the cement smoother.
Teach. You put the cement on it don't you? and you slap it on? and smooth it? (demonstrates.) Has the float got a handle on it?
M. Yes my dad's got one. It's metal with a handle and you put the cement on it.'
Snippets of conversation such as these soon made me realise that what the children wanted to know was not necessarily what I would have expected; Interestingly the questions were often not those which I as a teacher would have asked. By asking questions which they want to know the answers to and by listening to the replies were they entering into educative dialogue with one other? The dialogue was definitely educative to me in that it informed me of what the individual children did and did not know.
The next time that we had a news session I again encouraged the children to initiate the questions and then tried to extend the dialogue into something educative-
( Damian had just spent a long time telling us about his caravan holiday and his adventures in the campsite pool.)
K. When your head went under the water did you drown?
D. Did I drown? Well-----
Teach. Did he drown?, everybody , did he drown?
Teach. How do you know he didn't drown?
A. Cos he's still here.
Teach. He's still here, And alive, and still talking.
D. And I jumped in the water and water went in my mouth ---
(After Simon had been telling us about his mother eating frogs legs in France)
K. Did you have any snails there?
S. Ugh! No!
Teach. You can eat snails there as well. A lot of French people eat snails.
S. When we came back I went to my nans and I saw a snail without inside it.
Teach. A snail shell? Why do you think it didn't have a snail inside it?
A. It had left it's home.
Teach. They don't usually leave their homes because they get shrivelled up by the sun if they don't have their shells on.
B. It could have died.
Teach Yes, or what else could have happened to it?
K. It could have been eaten by a baby!
Teach. Or eaten by a bird. Birds sometimes pick them up and crack them and pull the snails out.
S. It wasn't cracked.
Teach. Wasn't it? sometimes they just pull the snail out!
K. Or maybe a baby?
M. It might have got a new one.------
I was pleased with dialogues such as these because they showed that the children were being encouraged to focus on a subject and put forward plausible ideas. However there was no evidence that their ideas about a subject had been changed in any way by the dialogue in which they were engaged. Jones(1988) had suggested that talking things through with others was `an important way to grasp new ideas, understand concepts and clarify your own feelings and perceptions about something.' I had agreed with these statements but now in my action research I needed to have evidence as well as agreement.
The children were now used to asking questions of one another during newstime but it was taking alot of time to allow every child to tell news and ask questions. I felt that the time was being well-used for reasons already stated but there were many other demands on the children's time. For this reason, in order to `free' time for other activities I organised a group of children to work apart from the rest of us-
This would reduce the number of children telling news in each group and would give the smaller group a chance of working independently of me. Thus, their conversation would be child-led. The children approached this sensibly with little adult intervention. I continued this group news alongside class news over the next couple of weeks with the children asking questions of one another. A lot of the children's questions especially in the child-led group tended to be very basic.
C. I went to my grannies and stayed the night.
N. What did you do at your grannies?
C. Made a picture.
N. A picture of what?
C. A piece of paper with me on.
M. Why did you stay at your grannies?
S. Where did you get that pen from?
J. I got it from Warminster.
S. That's a long way
J. No it's not!'
I was pleased with the way in which the children were able to hold each other's attention and interest but was this discourse educative?
S. When it was raining yesterday very hard I went out and it was splashing on me. Then I went to the goats and Amy feeded the cows.
C. Did the rain splash on you really hard and make you sink to the ground?
S. No but when I went to the goats the sun came out . The goats jumped the fence and they tried to get out. Amy gave the carrot to the goat and it tried to bite her hand. Then we went to the woods. I feeled scarey cos there was something windy that blowed on me and it was a bit bad . I fell down and slipped in the mud and got mud everywhere.
C. Why did you go in the woods ?
S. My dad said that!
I considered again what I understood by the term `educative dialogue'-
Educative dialogue is, I believe, talk between two or more people which educates or informs at least one of them. If I include the informative aspect in this definition then this last piece of dialogue could be considered educative. Over the next few weeks we continued telling news in this way with one group working independantly of the teacher. I tape-recorded many of these group news sessions and was pleased with the results, in that the children were able to listen to and ask questions about each others news. I did so much recording that I suffered from data-overload-
I had more data than I had time to analyse. I was so afraid that I might miss good examples of educative dialogue that I recorded just about everything. In retrospect I realise that by recording so much data and by not immediately analysing it I missed opportunities to move on my action research. As mentioned earlier I did not at this time have a group to spur me on. I had no-one except myself to present my findings to.
However I did eventually re-join an action research group and present some of my data-
I needed to know whether others would judge such discourse to be educational. They agreed that the above examples contained instances of educative dialogue. I reaffirmed my decision to try and create educative dialogue with every child in the class.nI decided not to concentrate on any individual children or to spend time closely analysing snippets of conversation as that was not the purpose of this particular action research. Instead I chose to look at other areas in the curriculum where the children would be able to exchange ideas orally and in doing so possibly learn from one another.
I looked next at a design task-
The children were to design their own garden as part of a topic on plants. As I had recently had my own garden designed I began by showing the children the plans. Instead of giving them drawing materials I first let the children design their gardens orally. The idea behind this was that they could interchange ideas and organize their own ideas in their minds before committing themselves to paper.
First they talked individually about what was in their present gardens. I did not feed in any ideas and some of their information was unexpected.
B. We've got a cement mixer in our garden.
V. People keep on throwing rubbish over the fence on the soil.
We then moved on to what we might like to have in our gardens. The ideas here were not what one might expect from very young children. I was certainly expecting them to concentrate on play equipment but whilst one child wanted a swing and another a playhouse other ideas emerged too.
B.I'd like chairs and a table so we could sit outside.
D. I'd like a nice patio with steps going up and it's all covered with garden and a little corner of soil digged up to plant potatoes in and I'd put my potatoes in and I'd put my plant in there and it'd grow nice.'
While the children were talking their ideas through, again I felt that something worthwhile was going on. Most of the children would not have been able to write down such detailed ideas as for many of them their writing skills would not have been adequate for the task. Had they drawn their ideas straight away the task of drawing may well have altered their original ideas. However on listening to the recording later I was unable to pick out any instances of educative dialogue. Much of it was monologue. This may have been because I had not encouraged the children to question each other or comment on one another's designs. I do feel that this type of speech is in itself of benefit to the child concerned in that it enables him to express ideas that he might well not otherwise explore.
`But for the vast majority for whom writng is a struggle (and I refer both to younger children and all but the most able older pupils ) talk is the most natural and flexible medium to catch thought on the wing and thereby journey around the so far unknown areas of the mind.' ( Jones, 1988)
I wondered whether or not it was wise to concentrate solely on dialogue in this research when I am keen to encourage monologue too and believe such monologue to have an educational value in itself. What did strike me on listening to to the children on the recording was that as a teacher too often I have certain expectations of what the children ought to say. In reality, when given the opportunity to speak freely on a subject the children often say something totally unexpected but nevertheless very relevant to their particular situation. In effect the talk about gardens present and imagined taught me that I should always be ready to expect the unexpected and not the predictable. True discussions do not consist of the teacher asking certain questions in order to elicit preconceived answers.
The following day the children went on to draw their gardens and we all sat around, drawings in hands, and explained our designs to the rest of the class. It was interesting that the talk about the pictures was much less imaginative and tended to consist very much of labelling. The children found it difficult to do much more than itemise the parts of their gardens. However by asking questions myself and by encouraging the children to ask questions about the designs I was able to lead them away from simply naming and towards more educative speech.
Craig, as the other children had done before him, began by naming parts of his garden such as the patio and the wishing well and then went on to name the maze.
Teach. What's happening here then?
C. That's a maze.
Teach. What's a maze then Craig?
H. You can get lost in them.
C. Find treasure?
Teach. Heather says you can get lost in a maze.
C. He's digging up to find it.
Teach. He's digging up to find it? Who's digging up?
Teach. Oh Lee's digging up some treasure in a maze. A maze, who's ever been in a maze? Who can tell us what a maze is?
M. Treasure, treasure hunt.
H. It goes a circle way or a square way.Teach. What's it usually made of?
Teach. It can be made of bricks. Can anyone else tell us anything about a maze?
S. You get crystals.
Teach. You're thinking of a crystal maze.
B. It's on telly.
Teach. Sam, what do you think a maze is?
S. Well when I went to Bath adventure playground I found a maze and I went in it and you have to try and find what they say you have to find and they give you a little map and some of them are wrong and when you go in there you get confused and you get dizzy and you can't get out .
Teach. Why do you get dizzy in a maze?
S. Cos sometimes you go round in circles and you get really dizzy.
Teach. So is it a sort of puzzle that you walk round?
Teach. And that's why the crystal maze is called a crystal maze because it's like a big puzzle that you walk around? At the end of the maze you have to be able to----get out of it don't you?
Who's ever been to the maze at Longleat? Can you tell us something about that?
Sa. Well it's made of hedges, little cut hedges and I tried to climb over the hedges once.
Teach. How do the hedges make it so that you can't get out then?
N. I saw it but it was closed so I couldn't go in.
Teach. You saw it but it was closed. so why can't you see the way out?
M. When you get too far near the hedge we couldn't see the rest of the hedges.
Teach. Good, Mark. The hedges are high and you can only see the bit that you're in. You can't see what the whole thing looks like. If you have a maze in a comic, in a picture, then you can see the whole thing and you can find the way out. If you're really in a maze with the big hedges all around you, you can't see the whole thing and so you can't see the way to get out very easily.'
On later analysing what had been going on in these interchanges of words we agreed that there were not any instances of educative dialogue. Again, the children and I had been exploring a subject together and they had been telling me what they understood about it but there was no evidence that the children had actually learnt anything. At the end, in order to bring the rather lengthy exploration to an end, I had summarized what we had said. It was pointed out that this is what teachers often do. Had I missed a chance here for the children to tell me what they now knew about mazes? If they had summarised instead of me would they have demonstrated that they had just learnt something? I think not. In order to have this sort of evidence I need to work with just one or two children. In order to know that a child has learnt anything I must work with him individually. This is some thing that I have not wanted to do in my research because inevitably working with one child, deprives other children in the class of my attention. I feel too that in working with an individual child I would be able to create educative dialogue with that one child but that there would not be any overspilling of this into the rest of the class. I did however begin to wonder if the task of creating educative dialogue with the children was too great an undertaking for this action research. Was it far too large a subject to tackle for this research?
`Keep the issue relatively small. No matter what you do, it will have effects outside the one you intend.'( Kemmis and Mc Taggart,1982)
I looked at where I had arrived in my research-
Was the creation of pieces of dialogue which could be termed `educative' the prime concern of this research ? This is where my research had led me. I had changed my aim from improving the quality of the children's language to creating educative dialogue and I had worked towards achieving this second aim. However I had reached a point in my research where I had become more interested in `educative talk for all' rather than `educative dialogue for the few'. Without plenty of educational talk between the children they would certainly not be able to create educational dialogues.
The original concern which sparked off my research had been a desire to improve the quality of the children's talk in my classroom. With the help of my group I had reshaped this original idea into one concerned with creating educative dialogue. But in order to do this I was finding that the children needed lots of opportunities to engage in educative talk in order for us to set up the background necessary for them to be able to engage in educative dialogue. Could I only hope to pursue the nature of educational talk and create ways of encouraging it in the classroom, in this enquiry ? Was this a necessary preliminary to the creation of educative dialogue ?
With this object in mind I decided to look at the type of talk generated by a different situation-
I set up an observational task in science. I include below a transcript of one of the groups of children engaging in some oral observation.
T. Now I want you to have a really good look at your bluebell and I'm going to ask you one at a time to tell me something about your bluebell. Sam could you start and tell us just one thing about your bluebell?
S. Well in the stalk there's lots of layers of lines.
T. (repeats) Right thankyou Sam. Right Kimberley.
K. They got some things with the flowers on .
T. What have they got on the flowers?
K. They got jingles.
T. They've got what?
T. ( repeats ) Thankyou Kimberley.
C. They've got water inside their stem.
T. ( repeats )K. Mine's got 15 bells.
T. Yours has got 15 of what Kimberley called jingles and you call them...?
J. They've got curls on the end of them.
T. ( repeats) Mine's a bit droopy mine's not curling as nicely as yours, but the bell shape curls backwards. Good.
M. There's little yellow stuff in the middle.
C. I've got 19 of them .
T. (repeats) 19 of what?
T. How many bluebells do you think she's got Mark? --(asks all children, one by one, and all answer with numbers other than one. Teacher shows bluebell again and asks pointing to the stalk)
How many bluebells is that?( children give various numbers again, teacher repeats question again pointing to the stalk.)
T. One, and it's got 15 or however many different flowers on it, but it's only really one bluebell because it's only got one---
T. Stem! So you really mean that it's got 15 little bell-shaped flowers on it, but it's actually one bluebell because it grows on one stalk. If there were 15 bluebells they'd all be (pointing to several )-different ones you see. You call one of those (pointing) a bluebell. Right who can tell me anything else about it, anybody, what can you see or smell or feel?
C. It smells nice.
K. Mine doesn't smell very much.
Ca. Mine smells like daffodils.
S. Inside you can see a little pollen and the stamens.
T. Let's have a look at that . You can pull back one of your flowers a little bit. There are some white stamens mine are a little bit bluey and on the end they've got some yellow--
T. Have a good look at that. Tell me any thing else about the plant..
K. It's white at the end.
T. Good, well done Katie, good girl, it's white at the end.
S. That's where it's got water.
T. You think that's where it's got water do you? It came out of the ground with the white part at the end. What do you think was at the bottom of it?
Children. The bulb.
( Teacher goes on to explain how blubell doesn't grow again if the bulb is picked. Children are given magnifying glasses to look more closely at the bluebells. More talk followed, mainly about where bluebells grow.)
The children found this group work demanding although this kind of work was not new to them. Each child had to contribute, even the least fluent. They had to quickly translate what they were seeing into words and contribute a new observation. I find it demanding too. I am trying to encourage every child to say something and listen to other children's observations. Alongside this I am trying to contribute to the talk myself, while at the same time oversee the rest of the class. In order to do this with every child in the class I have to do the activity four times. This time I did the activity twice and an assistant did the activity with the other two groups. On listening to my tape afterwards I realised that I had concentrated mainly on the children's observational skills and on encouraging them to verbalise their observations, as this is what I had wanted them to practise in this science activity. I had not concentrated on trying to create educational dialogue as such. Rather, I had accepted most of the children's ideas and had not tried to change them in any way. Overall, I had not been very concerned in changing any misconceptions that the children had. I was in fact content with educational talk rather than educational dialogue. I know that I tend be rather too accepting of the children's ideas and often accept them instead of correcting them. I think that as an infant teacher I am so keen that the children's ideas should be valued that I do not always correct misconceptions. On analysing the talk I thought that some of the children had learnt that the term bluebell refers to the plant and not to each individual flowerhead and that this could be considered educational. Here again I feel that the overall talk was educative in that it led the children to look at the bluebells much more closely and encouraged them to put their observations into words.
I moved on, continuing to explore and exploit other areas of the curriculum for educational talk and possibly educational dialogue too-
As part of the National Curriculum the children needed to learn about probability. We looked at statements about situations and decided whether it was certain, uncertain or impossible that things would happen. The following extract from the session is a dialogue between Damien, a child with language and learning difficulties and myself.
Teach. Tomorrow I will grow taller than my teacher.
Teach.Impossible! Does anyone thing it's uncertain,-- it might happen?
Teach. You think it might happen? Let's just listen to what Damien's saying. Tomorrow I will grow taller than my teacher. And you think that could happen? How could that happen Damien?
D. You grow and you grow and you grow.
Teach. And you think that could honestly happen? By tomorrow? Tomorrow, it says!
D. Yes, where you eat lots of food up and you grow--
Teach. So you think if you went home tonight and you ate an awful lot of food you could come to school tomorrow and be taller than me ?
Teach. No! I think that's impossible don't you ?
Teach. Except in fairytales.( repeating comment from a child?)
I think that's impossible.'
In this dialogue Damien had to reason out his answer. He had to think beyond the easy answer of `Yes' or` No' and look at the situation logically. Through this dialogue he changes his answer from `Yes it is possible' to `No it is impossible.' It is only by looking more closely at what might happen that he begins to realise the meaning of the question. In this case I was not able to accept Damien's incorrect ideas and felt the need to rectify his misconceptions. This is an area of absolutes and is therefore conducive to the formation of logical thought.
By now I felt that my action research in the classroom was coming to a natural end-
I had reached a point where educational dialogues were being created and were being recognised as such. By taking certain turnings, making certain decisions on what to follow up in my action research I had followed one particular pathway and in doing so I had steered away from other areas of the original question which I would still like to explore. Many other questions had evolved as I had tried to answer the original one. How can I make my controlling language to the class more informative and educative? How can I balance valuing the children's oral contributions with changing their ideas? How can the children's self-esteem be improved by encouraging them to use language effectively? Would it be relevant for me, in the lightof my findings, to look at existing language theory? These questions are all one's which I would like to answer.
I looked at what I had found out-
My research would suggest that educative dialogues do not necessarily happen, even in a seemingly active infant classroom. They have to be worked at. Certain conditions have to be present. Questioning children and questioning and guiding adults in an enabling relationship appear to help such dialogue to develop. The children need to know that their ideas will be listened to and that everyone can be expected to have something worth listening to and that often there are not necessarily right or wrong answers to questions which teachers ask. Different ideas can be acceptable as starting points. Such brainstorming can lead to brain reasoning as to which ideas are plausible. Teachers' questions need to be open enough to allow the children to express ideas. The teacher should not necessarily frame questions to get certain answers. This does not constitute discussion or educational dialogue. My research would indicate that children often come up with totally unexpected answers and that these may well show that their understanding of a concept is not the same as that of the teacher or that of another child. Barnes (1969) suggests that what pupils take away from a lesson is different from what a teacher believes he is teaching because what each pupil brings to the lesson is different. I found that lots of educative talk had to be happening to allow educative dialogues to develop. Such talk is very time-consuming and in the short term there is little to show for it. If you believe in what you do, by proving that there is educational value in it, then this does not become a problem. You are in fact being true to your values.
Can I then generate theories for others by this particular research or is the theory so bound up in the research itself that it loses it's truth by detatching it from the practice? For me the over-riding theory developed by my research is to do with the importance of self-knowledge and the responsibility for the results of one's own actions in the classroom.
I decided to look at language theory now, rather than later-
I was enthusiastic to know more about traditional language theory. An interest had been kindled by my own research. I would not leave this exploration for a future action research but look at the relevant literature now. Perhaps it would be interesting to look at the way theorists in the past have categorized language. I now had a clearer vision of what I would like to find out from the large amount of literature which surrounds the subject of language. This time I began by looking closely at authors who had been recommended to me. I also looked again at some of the books which I had put aside earlier in my research. I felt that I now had a need for their theory. I wanted to know more about what the theorists understood by `learning-talk'. I also wanted to know more about the differences between children's monologue and dialogue. I was interested too in learning more about the link between language and thought.
`A long-standing controversy can be discerned
between those who maintain that thinking largely depends on language and those who regard it as primary.' ( Francis. 1977.)
The names of Vygotsky and Piaget are foremost in this debate. I had vague recollections of learning about their ideas on language when I was training as a teacher over 20 years ago but had not consciously related this to my teaching over the years. This had been the first time that I had wanted to pursue their theories. Francis suggests that the two theories of language development need not necessarily oppose one another. Both recognised the importance of monologue in early childhood play. While Piaget saw it as having no significant effect on the development of logical thought Vygotsky believed that the monologue was an important meeting between early thinking and early speech and that through such monologue inner speech and verbal thought is developed. Piaget explored the child's ability to symbolise both internally and in his speech. For him the importance of the child being involved in dialogue was not that he was learning new language patterns but that he was being informed of others ideas and through this he would adapt his ideas and in doing so engage in logical thought.
Francis(1977) goes on to explain Piaget's findings relating to the limitations of language in moving on from pre-operational thought to operational thought. She suggests that discovery learning trends have possibly diminished the role of language as an aid to learning. She points out that we should as educators be concentrating not on discovery methods as opposed to verbal instruction but rather concentrating on how language may be best drawn on to help the learner in the classroom.
I found myself drawn to Vygotsky's explanation of a child's speech developing from the `egocentric speech' used to accompany play into speech which is used to plan what he is going to do, or to recall and re-experience what has already happened, and re-interpret these experiences. In Thought And Language, written in the early thirties, he presents speech as a means of guiding action and interpreting the world,
`Speech for oneself originates through differentiation from speech for others...It does not merely accompany the child's activity; it serves mental orientation, conscious understanding; it helps in overcoming difficulties.'
I believe that this and other similar theories about the importance of monologue actually underpin much of my thinking about the importance of talk in the process of learning.
Jones(1988) points out that despite a consensus of opinion among educationalists that talk plays a central role in successful learning little of this thinking has `filtered down' into the classroom. He also claims that despite a large amount of research into classroom talk most of it has been concerned with quantifying teacher and pupil talk and little or none has been concerned with assessing the quality of the exchanges. I would agree with this statement.
I looked at `Making Talk Work', a book which aims to help teachers to integrate Speaking and Listening statutory orders into 'successful classroom practice'. Howe states:
`Recent experience has shown that if we can understand the way that talk works, including the way in which it can be `work', then we are much more likely to be able to make talk work for more children, for more of the time in their learning.'(Howe,1992)
I would agree that knowledge about talk may help us as teachers but I do not think that we should leave the task of creating educative talk to likelihood or chance. Howe categorizes talk and looks at resourcing of classrooms and grouping of children but nowhere in his book does he consider educative dialogue and how to create it in a classroom, nor does he give any examples of it. I feel that his book concerns itself only with educative talk and that in not adressing the subject of educative dialogue it is not true to its title-`Making Talk Work'. For talk to truly `work' we need to learn how to use it in educative relationships with others.
I searched through other books on classroom language and teacher talk but failed to find any mention of educational dialogues. I was sure that a book about questioning would be concerned with the educative outcomes of questioning but on reading a recent teacher's `resource book' on questioning I noted the following,
`Given the range and frequency of questions that we ask of our pupils, it is curious that few of us attempt to classify the kind of questions we ask or indeed even to check occasionally how many questions we ask in lessons.'(Brown & Wragg 1993)
I would suggest that it is not at all curious but rather is it not curious that `eminent' names in the field of Education are asking this question at all ? Why, in their research are they not concerning themselves more with the educative possibilities of such questioning rather than with the classification and computation of it? I use this quote also to illustrate the enormous gulf between some researchers in education and those on whom they do their research! It also demonstrates the distance which separates a positivist researcher from an action researcher.
I have certainly found it difficult to find any research at all about educative talk. I did, however find terms of reference in Douglas Barnes' work. At the heart of his work is the assertion voiced by Vygotsky and Bruner( in Toward A Theory of Instruction) that language is both a means by which we can communicate with one another and a means by which we can actively reinterpret the world about us. He writes about `exploratory dialogues' and `learning talk'. He suggests that in this type of exploratory talk existing knowledge is re-articulated in the light of new information. I recognize this `exploratory talk' in some of the `educative talk'in my classroom research. He sees this talk as being a way of `groping towards a meaning'. He suggests that children need time to assimilate what they are learning by talking and writing about it in relation to what they know already. He stresses the need for `exploratory' talk to have a much higher profile than it normally has in school.
`The social order established in many schools excludes it (exploratory talk) in favour of final drafts.'(Barnes.1975)
Barnes research was done in the 1970's but, I feel the above is still true. On reading Barnes' work I find that I am reading much of what I believe in. However, many of the transcripts in his research are examples of bad practice and it is easy for the reader to share with Barnes and point out where educative dialogue is missing. I would suggest that this is a starting point for the reader but looking at the inadequacies in other's teaching does not necessarily improve one's own. It is one thing to read about ineffective and effective teaching but another to replicate the latter in one's own circumstances. Barnes, does recognize that his research situation is not a normal classroom teaching one.
`The group discussions which I have quoted were recorded under advantageous conditions; it is not easy in an ordinary lesson to create the sense of occasion generated when 4 pupils leave their lesson to be recorded by a strange and portentous gentleman from the university.'(Barnes.1975)
Throughout his work he stresses the need for teacher and pupil to understand each others' meanings if effective learning is to take place.
`It is all too possible for a teacher to be so intent on his own interpretation that it never comes into significant relationship to those of his pupils.'(Barnes.1975)
The need for common understanding is something which I have already stressed in my report. Again he writes:
`The teacher teaches within his frame of reference; the pupils learn in theirs, taking in his words, which `mean' something different to them, and struggling to incorporate this meaning into their own frames of reference.'(Barnes.1975)
On reading Language,the Learner and the School, written in 1969 I found some interesting ideas in a discussion document written by Harold Rosen. He suggests that some of his earlier work gave the impression to some teachers that most of what they were doing was wrong and that the researchers, himself included, knew how to put it right. He feels that this may have dissuaded teachers from implementing some of his findings. He also mentions the lack of communication between the theorists and the practitioners for whom the theory is proposed:
`Current ideas about the connexion between language and thought have not had wide dissemination.'(Barnes et al.1969)
I discovered a certain empathy with Harold Rosen as he writes:
`teachers who embark on observation, exploration and experiment concerned with the role of language in learning will make a valuable contribution to education particularly if they also take a not uncritical look at the relevant literature.' (Barnes et al.1969)
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