The various features of classroom talk characterize the communication of most teachers and students, at least when they are in a classroom and “doing school”. (Communication outside of school is a different matter: then teachers as well as students may speak, listen, and behave quite differently!)
As you might suppose, the extent and balance among the features varies depending on grade level, curriculum area, and personalities of students or teachers. But failing to use a classroom register at all can easily create communication problems.
Suppose, for example, that a teacher never asks informal test questions. In that case the teacher will learn much less than otherwise about her students’ knowledge of the current material.
Then also suppose that a student does not understand the teachers’ questions as test questions.
That student may easily respond in ways that seem disrespectful
(Teacher: “How much is 23 x 42?”
Student: “I don’t know; how much do you think it is?”) (Bloome, et al., 2005).
There can also be problems even when students understand the usual expectations about classroom communication, simply because the expectations can sometimes constrain certain activities indirectly.
A case in point is science education. Jay Lemke has studied dialogue during science lessons among students and between students and teachers (1990). He concluded that much of it is inconsistent with genuine scientific practice.
For example, lab experiments are not actually conducted in a spirit of open scientific inquiry, because students (and their teacher) are more intent on matching results to previously proven findings and conclusions.
Discussion of both procedures and results is framed around this not-so-hidden goal. The goal is to prove what is already known, not the more genuine goal of exploring or discovering what is not known. The misunderstanding of science that results is not the fault of teachers, however, but of the constraints of classroom and curriculum, and of the kinds of communication that classrooms and curricula require.
The teacher's job is to manage conversation while also focusing it on specific lesson goals; the students' job is to indicate cooperation or else to ignore the teacher's goals without creating excessive trouble for himself or others. In the case of student laboratory activities, the result is often dialogue that is somewhat more directed, and less open-ended, than “real” scientific dialogue.
Note, though, that some educators have disagreed with this somewhat discouraging view of classroom-based science (for example, Gallas, 1995), though even these educators have documented that encouraging genuine inquiry in a classroom setting requires special effort on the part of the teacher.
This means that the classroom talk register constrains how communication between teachers and students can take place, but it also gives teachers and students a “language” for talking about teaching and learning. Given this double-edged reality, how can teachers use the classroom talk register to good advantage? How, in particular, can teachers communicate in ways that stimulate more and better thinking and discussion?
The answers to those questions are more like a network of ideas, not a list of priorities to be considered or followed in sequence, and will be discussed in the upcoming unit.
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