Evaluating school classroom discussion
Evaluating school classroom discussion

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1. Language as a tool for social action

1.1 Persuasion, control and argument

The Reading below contains examples of interaction that you may or may not be familiar with. The book that it comes from is concerned with how people use language in many kinds of situations to solve problems and get things done. Before examining ways in which teachers can help students develop their understanding and use of spoken language, it may be useful to step outside the classroom and consider some of the ways that language is used in everyday life as a means for ‘getting things done’.

In order to fully complete this course you need to obtain Words and Minds by Neil Mercer (ISBN: 0-415-22476-4). If you would like to purchase an eBook copy please go to www.eBookstore.tandf.co.uk [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . Customers using the coupon code MercerOU will receive a 30% discount on the published price.

Activity 1: Reading

Timing: 1 hour 0 minutes

Now read Chapter 4, ‘Persuasion, control and argument’, from Words and Minds by Neil Mercer.

As you do, pay special attention to:

  • the concept of ‘rhetoric’, as it is used in the chapter;

  • the use of lists, contrasts and metaphors as rhetorical strategies;

  • how rhetorical techniques can be used in exerting power and control;

  • the three types of talk: disputational, cumulative and exploratory.

A widely accepted aim of education is to help students become better at using language. This is not only the case in modern language classrooms, or in those concerned with the English curriculum. Studying science, mathematics and other subjects also involves becoming able in using language as a tool for constructing and sharing knowledge. Teachers are expected to help their students develop ways of talking, writing and thinking which will enable them to travel on wider intellectual journeys, understanding and being understood by people in wider domains that those of their home community. While the strongest emphasis in mother tongue language education has always been on literacy, in recent years in many countries there has been an increasing acknowledgement in educational policy and curriculum guidance of the importance of children becoming effective users of spoken language. For example, within the National Curriculum for schools in England and Wales, the guidance for teaching English to Year 7 children (aged 11–12) includes the following objectives for group discussion and interaction.

Pupils should be taught to:

10identify and report the main points emerging from discussion, e.g. to agree a course of action including responsibilities and deadlines;
11adopt a range of roles in discussion, including acting as spokesperson, and contribute in different ways such as promoting, opposing, exploring and questioning;
12use exploratory, hypothetical and speculative talk as a way of researching ideas and expanding thinking;
13work together logically and methodically to solve problems, make deductions, share, test and evaluate ideas;
14acknowledge other people's views, justifying or modifying their own views in the light of what others say;
(DfEE, 2001, p. 25)

However, formulating a set of teaching objectives does not address the question of how they can best be achieved. For several years, some educational researchers (mainly in the UK) have used the findings of observational studies to suggest that students need more explicit guidance than they normally get on how to talk and work together effectively in groups (e.g. Barnes and Todd, 1995; Bennett and Cass, 1989; Bennett and Dunne, 1992). Without explicit guidance, it is suggested, group-based activity (which is a common feature of education in some countries such as the UK), may be of little educational value. Research on language use in homes and communities, such as that of Shirley Brice Heath (1983) and Gordon Wells (1992), has shown that ways of using language to make joint sense of experience vary between cultures and communities, and so children from different backgrounds cannot be assumed to come to school with similar language repertoires. Yet it seems commonly to be assumed by teachers of students of all ages, right through to higher education, that when students are asked to go and discuss a topic together, or to work together to solve a problem, they will have the necessary strategies for doing so (or at least will know to use those they have in the most effective ways). Chapter 6 of Words and Minds describes some research which has addressed this issue.

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