1.4 The meaning of ‘context’

‘Context’ is a term that is commonly used in research on the social use of language. Its use reflects the widespread realisation amongst language researchers that the meanings that words or texts have for listeners or readers may be dependent on situational factors, such as the other words that surround them, the physical setting in which words are uttered, gestures and other non-linguistic signs which accompany speech, the history of the relationship between a speaker and listener, and so on.

Mercer (2000) states that ‘context’ is defined from a sociocultural perspective, as a joint, socially constructed frame of reference. Other research suggests that ‘context is not a container for a learner, but rather a weaving together of the learner with other people and tools into a web or network of sociocultural interactions and meanings that are integral to the learning’ (Russell, 2002, p. 68).

Similar interpretations are offered by Edwards and Furlong (1978) and Wells (1999); and see also the quote from Mehan (1979) in ‘What is discourse’ in Hicks’s reading. However, if you scanned the research literature on language in education, you would find the term ‘context’ being used in different ways. For example, sociolinguists commonly use the term ‘context’ to describe the physical, social and cultural settings in which language is produced or interpreted (Graddol et al., 1994, Chapter 1; Rothery, 1996).

As Hicks mentions, one of the claims regularly made by researchers into the process of teaching-and-learning is that its success depends on the maintenance by participants of a shared contextual frame of reference. This can be thought of as a resource of ‘common knowledge’ which develops through time, and to which a teacher can expect continuing members of their class to have access (Edwards and Mercer, 1987). This develops over the course of a particular lesson or activity, but it can also persist and accrue over longer periods of time. It is constructed using language and other cultural tools (such as books and other texts); it supports communication in the classroom, and the intelligibility of communication comes to depend on it. Teachers and students feel able to assume the mutuality of some knowledge, based on their past shared experience.

Activity 1 The concepts of ‘context’ and ‘common knowledge’

Timing: Allow about 1 hour 30 minutes

The sociocultural concepts of ‘context’ and ‘common knowledge’ can be examined further by considering the short extracts of classroom dialogue which are reproduced as Examples 6a and 6b in Hicks’s reading. Both were recorded by the educational researcher Gordon Wells, and came from the same lesson in a primary school in Canada. Hicks uses them to discuss the variety of functions which IRF exchanges can fulfil; but as is often the way with observational data, they can be used to gain other kinds of insights too. Re-read those extracts now, with Hicks’s introductions to them, and consider:

  1. What objects in the classroom are given contextual significance in the talk?
  2. What assumptions about ‘common knowledge’ about language use do participants seem to be making in this classroom talk?

In Example 6a, it seems that a textbook is an important part of the contextual framework which the participants are using to talk to each other and to make sense of each other’s talk. The book not only contained the cartoon to which they refer, it is also probably the source of the teacher’s remark that the students are ‘not supposed to use a clock’. There would of course be many other artefacts around the speakers in their classroom – chairs, desks, cupboards, perhaps computers – but these would not necessarily be part of the ‘context’ in the sense the term is defined in the second paragraph of this chapter, unless they were in some way invoked by the conversation.

Participating in the talk also invokes a certain kind of shared past experience. The participants readily generate the usual teacher-led IRF because their current activity is built upon their past participation in this genre of talk. Everyone treats this as a normal way to behave – as we have seen it is in classrooms (though it is not at all normal in many other types of social setting). This relates to a further concept, that of ‘educational ground rules’. The idea of educational dialogues being based on a set of normative rules (which are usually ‘taken for granted’ by teachers) is a key aspect of a sociocultural analysis of classroom interaction. Some researchers would describe them as elements of the ‘activity system’ within which teaching and learning takes place (Russell, 2002). Hicks uses the term ‘participant structures’ to refer to the same phenomenon.

In Example 6b we can see the contextualising influence of shared history in a more specific way. Pupil E explains her recent actions saying that she ‘started clapping’, knowing that will make perfect sense to the teacher on the basis of their shared knowledge of, and past discussion of, the content of the textbook. In this way, we can see that the process of classroom education is carried along in the fluid, regenerating context of shared knowledge and understanding.

Language is not only used to create a foundation of shared understanding in educational settings; we can observe it happening in many social situations, when people are involved over time in some joint activity. But the process of creating such a context may have particular significance in education because the knowledge involved also serves as a foundation for the developing understanding of the learners. The sense that people make of any future activities may depend crucially on what sense they have made of previous ones and a teacher may assume that past experience can be evoked as ‘common knowledge’ in carrying out further activities.

The research of both Stokoe (1996) and Gibbons (1995, 2001) illustrates a method of analysis for tracking the short-term history of communication in classrooms (and similar settings). Gibbons’s research draws explicitly on systemic functional linguistics and the concept of cohesion developed by its founder members Halliday and Hasan (1976). Although using a similar technique, Stokoe’s research is based on a different analytic tradition, known as ‘discursive psychology’, which is discussed briefly by Hicks (following her Example 3). It is also the basis for research on ‘collective remembering’ by Middleton and Edwards (1990). Such convergence illustrates the cross-disciplinary nature of much recent research on talk.

1.5 Discourse strategies used by teachers