Many class activities take on patterns that guide communication in ways that class members learn to expect, often without even being reminded.
Each pattern is a participation structure, a set of rights and responsibilities expected from students and teacher during an activity.
Sometimes the teacher announces or explains the rights and responsibilities explicitly, though often they are just implied by the actions of class members, and individual students learn them simply by watching others.
For example, a lecture has a particular participation structure: students are responsible for listening, for raising a hand to speak, and for keeping comments brief and relevant if called on.
The teacher, on the other hand, has the right to talk at length, but also the responsibility to keep the talk relevant and comprehensible.
In principle, a host of participation structures are possible, but just a handful account for most class activities (Cazden, 2001).Here are some of the most common:
The teacher talks and students listen. Maybe students take notes, but maybe not.
Questions and Answers
The teacher asks a series of questions, calling on one student at a time to answer each of them. Students raise their hands to be recognized and give answers that are brief and “correct”. In earlier times this participation structure was sometimes called recitation.
The teacher briefly describes a topic or problem and invites students to comment on it.
Students say something relevant about the topic, but also are supposed to respond to previous speakers if possible.
The teacher assigns a general task, and a small group of students work out the details of implementing it. The teacher may check on the group’s progress before they finish, but not necessarily.
Each of these structures influences how communication among teachers and students tends to occur; in fact each is itself sort of an implied message about how, when, and with whom to interact.
To see how this influence works, a small case study will be undertaken: how the participation structures affected classroom communication for Kelvin Seifert as he taught one particular topic – children’s play – over a twenty-year period (2009). The topic was part of a university-level course for future teachers.
During this time, Kelvin’s goals about the topic remained the same: to stimulate students’ thinking about the nature and purposes of play. But over time he tried several different structures of participation, and students’ ways of communicating changed as a result.
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