Language and Learning in the Classroom

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  • This article was downloaded by: [BIBLIOTHEK der Hochschule Darmstadt]On: 12 November 2014, At: 00:46Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House,37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    Language and Learning in the ClassroomDouglas Barnes aa University of Leeds Institute of EducationPublished online: 09 Jul 2006.

    To cite this article: Douglas Barnes (1971) Language and Learning in the Classroom, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 3:1, 27-38,DOI: 10.1080/0022027710030104

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  • Language and Learning in the Classroom

    Douglas BarnesUniversity of Leeds Institute of Education

    JM. D. Waimon, "Judgingthe Effectiveness of Teaching"in Journal of CurriculumStudies, Vol. I, No. 3 (Nov-ember, 1969).

    *See A. A. Bellack et al.,The Language of the Classroom(Teachers' College, Colum-bia, 1966). Papers by Smithand by Flanders can be seenin B. J. Biddle and W. J.Ellena (eds.) ContemporaryResearch on Teacher Effective-ness (Holt, Rinehart andWinston, 1964).

    Morton D. Waimon of Illinois State University pointed out in a recentarticle in this journal1 that forty years' research in the United States into"teacher effectiveness" had been generally fruitless. Such research failedbecause it looked for the permanent characteristics of an ideal teacher, asif a teacher's aims and behaviour never changed during a lesson, and as ifall pupils responded best to the same teaching. The researchers weretherefore unable to say anything to teachers which would help them im-prove their teaching.

    Having thus dismissed earlier research into classroom behaviour, Dr.Waimon turned to three more recent lines of research, those associatedrespectively with B. Othanel Smith, Arno Bellack, and Ned Flanders.2

    He pointed out that these studies have abandoned general statementsabout teachers in favour of the study of "linguistic behaviour duringteacher-pupil interaction". Such studies of language in the classroom arebased upon written transcriptions of tape-recordings made during lessons.By moving closer to the verbal give-and-take of lessons the researcher ismore likely to be able to make statements which will be useful to teachers."Knowing what to observe about one's own teaching is the first steptowards improving effectiveness." So far one cannot but applaud.

    It is when Dr. Waimon goes on to demonstrate a method of analysiswhich he approves ofusing methods very different from those of Bellackor Flandersthat one must dissent from his judgment. He quotes a shortpassage, but does not indicate whether it is constructed or comes froma real lesson. The teacher's statements have been analysed into largefunctional categories, such as gaining pupils' attention, disciplining pupils,making a statement about goals. The teacher's statements are also putinto one of three categories derived from Thorndike: getting or maintain-ing readiness, helping pupils to emit an appropriate response, and ratingpupil responses.

    It is hard to see how either of these crude forms of categorizing teachers'language will be of any more help to teachers than the earlier researcheswhich were so justly dismissed. In effect, the researcher, in his eagernessto find categories which will allow him to quantify, moves away too soon

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  • 28 JOURNAL OF CURRICULUM STUDIES

    'See the valuable discussionof this in Phillip W. Jackson,Life in Classrooms (Holt,Rrnehart and Winston, 1968).*H. A. Thelen, Dynamics ofGroups at Work (Universityof Chicago Press, 1954).

    6As in D. R. Gallo, "Towarda more effective assessmentof poetry teaching methods"in Research in the Teachingof English Vol. 2, No. 2,(1968).

    from the language itself into generalities, before he has found what it isthat the teacher can most usefully perceive about his language. (This couldbe argued against Handera's methods too.) Language functions not onlyon the large scale of whole utterances and their overt and deliberatemeanings, but simultaneously at various lower levels which sometimescarry quite other messages through the details of formal organization andintonation. It seems likely that pupils interpret not only the teacher'sovert statements about what he wants, and how he values what they sayand do, but also interprets signals carried at other levels. Thus it is notenough to analyse the teacher's language only at the so-called "functional"level. Some writers have used the phrase "the hidden curriculum"*(by analogy perhaps with Thelen's "the hidden agenda"4) to refer to anyclassroom learning which goes on in spite of the teacher's conscious aims,perhaps determined by the personalities of teachers or pupils, by theteacher's unacknowledged assumptions about classroom control, and soon. For example, many teachers who include amongst their auricularaims that of teaching pupils to "think critically" can be shown to beencouraging pupils in passive habits of learning which are far from critical.5

    The kinds of information likely to escape from Dr. Waimon's analysiscan be illustrated by an extract from a transcript of an actual lesson. Ateacher of Religious Education was asking eleven-year-old pupils torecapitulate information about life in New Testament Palestine.

    T. How did they get the water from the well?. . . do you remember?. . . Yes?

    P.i They . . . ran the bucket down . . . er . . . and it was fastenedon to this bit of string and it (Here the words become inaudiblefor a phrase or two). . . other end to the water.

    T. You might do it that way Where did they put the water . . .John?

    P.2 In a big . . . er . . . pitcher.T. Good . . . in a pitcher . . . which they carried on their . . .?P.2 Heads.T. Good.

    In Dr. Waimon's system this might be categorized as:

    Recall questionNeutral rating (or Negative Rating)More effortPositive rating

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  • LANGUAGE AND LEARNING IN THE CLASSROOM 2 9

    And these would go to swell the number of items in each of these cate-gories. But this would totally miss what is of interest to the teacher in thisepisode.

    An intuitive description of this episode might run like this: the teacherwants a one-word answer "pitcher", but his first pupil interprets hisquestion as an invitation to describe a mechanical device, thus translatinga request for simple recall of information into a request to generate asequence of reasoning. The teacher, his attention mainly on his own in-tentions, receives the pupil's reasoning with a neutral form of words butan intonation which is firmly rejective, and this rejection is intensifiedby the warm tone of approval with which he greets the answer whichgives him the words he wants. If such a rejection were to happen severaltimes during a lesson it would be likely to signal to children that thisteacher valued the recall of names more highly than the use of languageto go through a sequence of reasoning. "What is interesting here is not thatit is a rejection, but that it is a rejection of one activity in favour of another.

    Now there is nothing in this account which could be proved, nor willthis precise situation ever occur again. But this is not to say that thiskind of examination of classroom language is of no use. It is much morelikely to be useful to teachersthat is, to help them to inspect their ownteachingthan that represented by Dr. Waimon's example. Moreover,the future development of objective research may necessitate the detailedexamination of recordings and transcriptions to elicit from them thosedimensions of situation which affect children's performance.

    What has so far been argued against Dr. Waimon's approach is that it isover-rationalistic. The example just given was intended to illustrate howeasily the essential nature of an exchange can be lost in such an analysis.Another inadequacy of this approach is that in focusing upon the teacher'sintentions it totally ignores the pupils' contributions, and what lies behindthem, that is, their interpretations of what the teacher says and does. (Itis only fair to point out that this is not true of the work of Bellack and hisassociates.) The teacher's behaviour does not exist in a void, but answerson the one hand to his auricular objectives and on the other to his per-ceptions of what his pupils are saying and doing. Part of good teachinglies in perceiving how the language used by pupils is contributing to orinhibiting their learning.

    To call Dr. Waimon's approach over-rationalistic is not to abdicateresponsibility for what goes on in one's classroom. Indeed, to recognizethe "hidden curriculum", to perceive that pupils are learning to cope withthe teacher's demands and with one another's as well as (or instead of)

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  • JOURNAL OF CURRICULUM STUDIES

    See James Britton and Ber-nard Newsome, "What islearnt in English Lessons?"in Journal of CurriculumStudieiVol. r ,No. i (Novem-ber, 1968).

    with the demands of the subject matter, is a step towards taking responsi-bility for one's part in this. Although the personal interactions of the class-room will probably never fall completely under the deliberate control ofeven the best teachers, we all wish to take as much responsibility aspossible for what is learnt in our lessons. To do this teachers must becomemore aware of their classroom behaviour: at the same time as they arehelped to be clear about curricular objectives, they should be helped tobe more sharply perceptive of their own and their pupils' behaviour, andthe relationship of this to their aims.

    It is not enough to see the language of the classroom merely as themedium of classroom communication. Two other aspects of languageare of importance to the teacher, and awareness of these must informstudies of classroom language. Language is so deeply embedded in manysubjects of the secondary curriculum that it is sometimes difficult toseparate learning the concepts and processes of a subject from learning touse language to represent and use these concepts and processes. Thesecond aspect of language is potentially even more important: to put itsuccinctly, language is a means of learning. The very act of verbalizingnew knowledge often requires a re-organizing of the old and the new to-gether.6 For these reasons language in the classroom must be discussed in awider context than that implied by Dr. Waimon's interest in classroominteraction.

    This paper is based upon the assumption that langauge is a major meansof learning, and that the pupils' uses of language for learning are stronglyinfluenced by the teacher's language, which prescribes to them their rolesas learners. (The degree to which they accept this prescription dependsupon the socio-linguistic expectations which they have built up duringtheir past experience.) The mother tongue has an ambiguous status inthe curriculum, because "English" at once indicates a subject area, and amedium of learning and teaching. For this reason, it is not easy in secon-dary schools to apportion responsibility for the mother tongue. A slogansuch as "Every lesson is an English lesson" does nothing to specify toteachers, primary or secondary, what kind of responsibility for language istheirs. It tells them nothing about how their uses of language expand orlimit the kinds of participation in learning open to their pupils. Thus, astudy of the language of classroom interaction can be seen as a contributionto curricular theory in a second respect, in that it can help teachers otherthan English specialists to define their responsibilities for their pupils'uses of language.

    Any study of the uses of language for teaching and learning in class-

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  • LANGUAGE AND LEARNING IN THE CLASSROOM

    rooms is of more than theoretical interest. Teachers are only partly awareof their own uses of language, and still less aware of how and to whatextent classroom language determines the kinds of involvement in learningwhich are open to their pupils. Nor are most teachers able to give asystematic account of which language activities best contribute to differentkinds of learning, and this suggests that they may not be clearly perceptiveof their pupils' uses of language. For example, most science teachers fromtime to time set their pupils practical work in small groups, but it is noteasy to find any account of what kind of discussion will best help pupilsto make explicit to themselves the principles exemplified in the practicalwork, nor of how the teacher can see to it that such discussion takes place.Similarly, some secondary schools are increasingly using "packets" ofmaterials accompanied by instructions addressed to pupils for work in thearea of Humanities; there is need for theory about the effect of differentverbal formulations of such instructions, about the contexts in which theyare carried out, and about the teacher's role in such work.

    There is an urgent need in educational discussion not only for a generaltheory of the part played by language in cognitive learning, but for specialtheories of languag...

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