Science Students’ Classroom Discourse: Tasha’s Umwelt

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  • Science Students Classroom Discourse: Tashas Umwelt

    Jenny Arnold

    Published online: 28 September 2010# Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

    Abstract Over the past twenty-five years researchers have been concerned withunderstanding the science student. The need for such research is still grounded incontemporary issues including providing opportunities for all students to developscientific literacy and the failure of school science to connect with students lives,interests and personal identities. The research reported here is unusual in its use ofdiscourse analysis in social psychology to contribute to an understanding of the waystudents make meaning in secondary school science. Data constructed for the study wasdrawn from videotapes of nine consecutive lessons in a year-seven science classroom inMelbourne, post-lesson video-stimulated interviews with students and the teacher,classroom observation and the students written work. The classroom videotapes wererecorded using four cameras and seven audio tracks by the International Centre forClassroom Research at the University of Melbourne. Student talk within and about theirscience lessons was analysed from a discursive perspective. Classroom episodes inwhich students expressed their sense of personal identity and agency, knowledge,attitude or emotion in relation to science were identified for detailed analysis of thefunction of the discourse used by students, and in particular the way students werepositioned by others or positioned themselves. This article presents the discursiveUmwelt or life-space of one middle years science student, Tasha. Her case is used hereto highlight the complex social process of meaning making in science classrooms andthe need to attend to local moral orders of rights and duties in research on studentlanguage use, identity and learning in science.

    Keywords Positioning . Social psychology . Discourse analysis . Girls in science . Scienceclassroom practice . Video study . Classroom research

    Res Sci Educ (2012) 42:233259DOI 10.1007/s11165-010-9195-0

    J. Arnold (*)International Centre for Classroom Research, Melbourne Graduate School of Education,The University of Melbourne, 109 Barry St, Carlton 3053, Australiae-mail:

  • Introduction

    I dont pay attention the whole time. Seriously! I havent heard about theArchimedes in the bathtub thing (Tasha, lesson 2).

    Tasha is a year seven student who participated in the video study at the focus of thisreport. Her statement above was made during class time. In analyzing the content of thisstatement from a cognitive perspective (Costa 1995; Harr 2006), we may find a clearexpression of Tashas own lack of knowledge. Her unfamiliarity with the legend ofArchimedes could reflect a lack of scientific cultural knowledge, suggesting some disparitybetween her life world and the world of science. Tashas portrayal of herself as someonewho doesnt pay attention in science class the whole time, could be explained in terms ofthe implied difficulty of cultural disparity when crossing borders into the world of science.However, when the function of Tashas talk is taken into consideration it will becomeevident that the content of an utterance is not sufficient for an analysis of meaning. Tashasconstruction of herself here as not paying attention, as with any language use, is part of adiscursive practice used for a particular local purpose in conversation. We will return toTashas utterance later in the paper.

    From an anthropological perspective, research based upon interviews with students andtheir relative success in school science has shown that the life-worlds of students can beincompatible with the culture of science. Such a perspective has been used to explain thevarying dispositions of students in relation to school science. Learning science has beenlikened to border crossing, and teaching to the enculturation of a diverse range of studentsinto the world of science (Costa 1995; Aikenhead 2001). Sensitivity to students culturalorientations outside school has prompted calls for humanistic approaches to sciencecurriculum (Roth and Barton 2004; Aikenhead 2005) and the re-casting of the role of theteacher (Aikenhead 2001, p. 1867). From a sociocultural determinist perspective, studentsuse of language in science classrooms has been studied in order to classify studentsaccording to their discursive identity (Brown 2004). Student use of everyday language hasbeen interpreted as a sign of resistance to the scientific practice of using scientific terms andas the maintenance of cultural identities (Brown 2004; 2006; Brown and Ryoo 2008;Brown and Spang 2008; Brown et al. 2009). From a social constructionist viewpoint,students life experiences and resulting nave explanations for phenomena have been shownto be underlying barriers to the learning of science, which in many instances can becounter-intuitive (Osborne and Freyberg 1985; Talanquer 2009). Teaching and learningscience from this perspective has been conceived in several studies as the exposure,interrogation and (re)construction of students cognitive schema. From the perspective ofsituated cognition, learning in science has been conceived as a process of identity formation(Brickhouse 2001; Lemke 2001; Kozoll and Osborne 2004). This perspective has beenutilised to interrogate the role of gender and economic status in science learning. In recentstudies focused on girls and students from communities with limited socio-economicresources engagement in science has been fostered in a variety of ways that are notnecessarily in alignment with conventional school science practice (Barton 1998; Bartonand Osborne 2001; Brickhouse and Potter 2001; Brickhouse et al. 2000). In instances wherenon-traditional ways of engaging with science have been supported in learning environ-ments the outcome has been significant in terms of the transformation of classroompractices and student participation in school science (Barton 2001; Barton and Tan 2009;Barton et al. 2008; Tan and Barton 2008).

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  • The research reported here is unusual in its use of discourse analysis in socialpsychology (Wood and Kroger 2000) to contribute to an understanding of the way studentsmake meaning in secondary school science. Discursive psychology was drawn upon for thestudy because there has been convincing theoretical and empirical work in the socialsciences related to what has become known as the discursive turn (Kroger and Wood1998) or the second cognitive revolution (Harr 1992b) that calls into question many ofthe assumptions underlying some of this previous research, including:

    1. Presupposing the existence of a culture of science as an attitudinal object.

    From a discursive perspective, the variability in the construction of science and theculture of science for different social purposes in different contexts is acknowledged andthis variability becomes of central interest (Wood and Kroger 2000).

    2. Assuming that student utterances are indicators of the presence of enduring, underlyingattitudes.

    From the discursive perspective, attitudes are performatively constituted through actionfor specific local purposes. Instead of an underlying attitude, the function of attitudinaldisplays as a discursive practice in various contexts becomes the focus for research (Potterand Wetherell 2001).

    3. Making translations from un-explicated student discourse to un-explicated researchersdiscourse, for example the translation of language used by students to thecategorization of students according to cultural affiliation.

    From a discursive perspective, language has a social function entailing a shift in focusfrom the content of utterances to utterances as speech-acts. Utterances have a locutionary orreferential sense, but also an illocutionary and perlocutionary force (Harr and vanLangenhove 1999a; Potter 2001; Cornejo 2004). In discourse analysis, the relevantcategories are those used by participants (Wood and Kroger 2000; Potter and Wetherell2001).

    4. Ignoring student agency to treat students as passive entities in the culture of the scienceclassroom and holding the teacher as individually responsible for science classroompractices.

    From the discursive psychological perspective, science classroom practices aremaintained or transformed relationally through interaction (Linehan and McCarthy 2000;Wood and Kroger 2000; O'Connor 2001; Harvey 2002). The focus from the discursiveperspective shifts from the role of students as passive receivers of curriculum imperativesand pedagogical moves to the discursive practices of students as they make meaning incontext, including the way they position themselves and are positioned by others (Daviesand Harr 1999).

    The shifts to a discursive perspective: from a concern with what people are talking aboutto a concern with what they are doing in and with their talk; and from a concern with whathappened to a concern with how events are discursively constructed, require major shifts inthe specific kinds of research questions that are asked (Wood and Kroger 2000, p. 17).Through the study of discourse as social action, the focus of this study was how studentspositioned themselves as participants in science. Rather than seeking to apply predeter-mined categories to student discourse, this research identified the ways in which

    Res Sci Educ (2012) 42:233259 235

  • participating students actively constructed and employed categories in their discourse whilstparticipating in and talking about science. The questions addressed by the research reportedhere include: How can discursive practices employed by students in their science classroombe described? How do students use psychological categories in their talk in and about theirscience classroom? How are students positioned, and how do they position themselveswithin science classroom discourses?

    Theoretical Framework

    The rich fabric of social life is woven not by physical beings whose actions arecaused by mental entities harbored under their skulls, but rather by social beings who,by virtue of their capacity for language, are engaged in an endless conversation andso create and maintain their relations with each other (Harr & Gillet 1994). It is inthis realm that discourse analysis finds its home (Wood and Kroger 2000, pxii).

    Discourse is used here to refer to human meaning making using semiotic systems, bothverbal and non-verbal, spoken and written. The focus of the study is on student discourse inand about their science classroom and I have used the terms discourse and conversationbroadly to include all communication modes and talk more specifically in reference tospoken language use, although in the use of each term I am referring to situated, relationalmeaning making or language use as social practice.

    Discourse analysis in social psychology was developed from various movements in thesocial sciences including: the influence of Wittgensteins claims about the practicality andheterogeneity of language; Austins theory of speech-acts; Bahktins writings on themultivoicedness of discourse and the concurrent centripetal and centrifugal forces onlanguage; Goffmans work related to the orderly production of discourse in interaction; andGarfinkels research on shared methods of practical reasoning for interpreting and acting inthe common-sense world of everyday life (Potter and Wetherell 1987; Wood and Kroger2000; Herritage 2001; Maybin 2001; Potter 2001). It draws upon the foundations laid byconversational analysts (Schegloff and Sacks 1973; Atkinson and Heritage 1984) and issimilar in that both offer qualitative analyses of the functional and sense-making propertiesof language (Wooffitt 2005, p. 71). However, discourse analysis is broader in its researchfocus and unlike conversational analysis is grounded in social constructionist ontology(Harr 1992a; Wood and Kroger 2000). Cartesian separations of inner mind spaces andouter social spaces are called into question because of the insight that persons and societycannot be separated but are always dialectically related (Vygotsky 1978; Harr 1984;Quigley 2001). A consequence of this is that rather than the inner mechanisms of individualminds or determining structures, discursive psychology is concerned with the intentionaluse of symbolic systems by active, skilled human beings in public and private contexts, forthe accomplishment of various tasks and projects, jointly with others (Harr and vanLangenhove 1999a, p. 3; Harr and Tissaw 2005).

    The discourse analytic perspective emphasizes the need to work with recordings andrecords (not reports) of verbal and nonverbal aspects of discourse (Wood and Kroger2000, p. 64). Words, grammar and phrases contribute to the locutionary meaning of anutterance. However the illocutionary force of the utterance (what the speaker does with it)also depends upon the standing of the speaker and the way in which the speaker ispositioned within the ongoing interaction (Harre 1997, p. 188). Consideration of the

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  • speakers relative positioning also affects an utterances perlocutionary force (its effectson the hearer). Therefore in order to interpret the social meaning, the analyst needs toextend his or her gaze beyond the single utterance to at least those preceding andfollowing it, and perhaps to a social episode (Harr and Secord 1972; Wood and Kroger2000). In summary, social meaning is made relatively determinate using three inter-dependent features of discourse: the conversational storyline; actors conversationallocations, or positions; and the content of the act/action. These three constructs arereferred to as the positioning triad (Harr and van Langenhove 1999a). Discourseaccomplishes social acts including the relative positioning of speakers and interlocutorsand the context for further action (the ongoing storyline). Woods and Kroger refer tothis as the scaffolding effect of speech acts; utterances both reflect and construct context(2000, p. 96).

    A position denotes a persons psychological location in a conversation (Harr and vanLangenhove 1999a, 2000), and certain positions imbue speakers with a sense ofresponsibility or duty. The linguistic device used for indexing responsibility for action inthe social world and speech-acts is pronoun use. Muhlhusler and Harr (1990, p. 94) referto an indexical progression in reference to the varying degree that a speaker can takeresponsibility for utterances, ranging from statements not explicitly indexed to the speakerby way of the unmarked first person where there is only weak speaker commitment to thereliability of the remark, to the use of the first person and epistemic verbs such as believe,think, know and understand, which can also index the degree of commitment to thecontent that the speaker is prepared to make.

    Use of the first person pronoun is an indexical feature of our language that locatespersonal responsibility for the content of the utterance to the speaker or marks the...


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