1.5 Discourse strategies used by teachers

Various discourse strategies or techniques have been identified which – like the IRF exchange – are commonly used by teachers in many parts of the world. Some experts suggest that the ubiquity of these ways of using language reflects the fact that all teachers have some similar responsibilities for guiding the learning and understanding of their students. Thus they use recaps and exhortations to create links between past, present and future educational experience.

As analysts, we may infer that the intention of teachers in using various discourse techniques or strategies is to build a shared context for supporting classroom dialogue and the process of teaching and learning. This is a worthy and sensible intention. However, achieving such shared understanding is a problematic procedure as even teachers’ best laid plans go awry; and misunderstandings are a common product of teacher–student interaction.

There are powerful and salutary illustrations of how difficult the communicative process of teaching and learning can be. They also illustrate well the weakness of the claim by Pinker (1994) that ‘Simply by making noises with our mouths, we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other’s minds’. Torrance and Pryor (1998) highlight some ways in which the nature of a teacher’s questioning can have a strong influence on the process of classroom education. One implication of their analysis might be that if teachers changed their conception of the functions of dialogue with their students, and/or had a more insightful understanding of the pragmatics of classroom dialogue, this might change the ways they chose to manage classroom communication. The kind of reconceptualisation of the process of teaching and learning that would be most welcome would, of course, be one that led to a better quality of teaching and learning.

There are a range of concepts which are now quite commonly employed in sociocultural research (and so part of what Hicks calls the discourse of the relevant research community). One of these concepts – and an important one – is ‘scaffolding’.

The concept of scaffolding and the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) offers educational researchers an attractive metaphorical image of a skilled teacher’s intervention in a student’s learning. But to use it in a systematic, rigorous way we need to decide what, in classroom interactions, counts as ‘scaffolding’ and what is merely ‘help’. (Using the term to describe any intervention on the part of a teacher would reduce it to no more than empty jargon). One way we can explore the use of the concept is to apply it in an analysis of actual episodes of teaching and learning and to relate it to strategies or discursive techniques used by teachers.

Whether self-consciously or not, teachers organise the patterns of communication in their classrooms in different ways, and these may affect how learning takes place.

1.4 The meaning of ‘context’

1.6 Language as a tool for social action