Vygotsky and education: The sociocultural genesis of dialogic thinking in classroom contexts for open-forum literature discussions

Suzanne M. Miller

State University of New York at Buffalo,

Graduate School of Education, 368 Baldy Hall, Buffalo, New York 14260 USA

Problem and Framework. Recent research and theory suggest that the kinds of thinking students develop in literacy activities depend largely on the social- cognitive contexts for language use in classroom interactions (e.g., Bloome & Green, 1984; Heath, 1983; Langer, 1987; Miller, 1991). In this sociocultural approach to mind, thinking originates in collaborative dialogues which are internalized as "inner speech," enabling children to do later in "verbal thought" what they could at first only do by talking with supportive adults or more knowledgeable peers (Bakhtin, 1981; Vygotsky, 1962, 1978; Wertsch, 1991). A recent line of inquiry in colleges, for example, has focused on how through instructional dialogues related to literacy students learned to think in academically appropriate (yet diverse) ways (Berkenkotter et al., 1988; Herrington, 1985; McCarthy, 1987). Calls for such naturalistic investigations in secondary schools (Fillion & Brause, 1987; Langer, 1987) focus on whether in the discourse of different subject-areas contexts students learn distinct ways of thinking (Hedley, 1985) or fundamental thinking strategies (Baker & Brown, 1984; Dewey, 1933; Resnick & Klopfer, 1989). For example, some have posited a distinct disciplinary role for the study of literature in the school curriculum (Bruner, 1986; Langer, 1990), yet there is also evidence that students develop general reflective and metacognitive stances and strategies, as well, that can carry over from one format or context to another (Abercrombie, 1960; Birnbaum, 1982; Langer, 1985; Lytle, 1982; Miller, 1990).

The purpose of this four-year long ethnographic study was to examine classroom literature activities in English classes where teachers supported discussion of multiple interpretations to describe what role such open-forum discussion (Alvermann, 1989; Bridges, 1979) plays over time in developing students' creative and critical thinking. Of particular interest was how ten students moving from class to class and teacher to teacher made sense of the reading, writing and talking they encountered in classes during their high school years, what thinking they engaged in, and whether they used ways of thinking developed in literature class in their other school experiences. This report will focus on a descriptive-narrative analysis (Erickson, 1982) of individual students' developing inclinations and abilities to think in classroom activities over the first two years of the project.

Method. In phase one of this study I observed the on-going class activity in two suburban-school English classes, selected because teachers supported thoughtful discussions of literature. With the teachers' help, I focused on ten case-study students representing a range of performance (honors, average, at-risk) and began observing in their content-area classes. In the four year project, audiotaped observations included over 400 English classes, 100 mathematics classes, 140 social studies, and 145 science classes. Semi-structured interviews of teachers and14- 16 interviews of each student focused on perceptions of class activity through both direct questions and reading transcriptions of classes to stimulate response to and reflection about the social-cognitive context and thinking involved in participation. Other sources of data were descriptive field notes and student writing from each class.

Throughout the study I continued annotation and recursive analysis of emerging data (Goetz & LeCompte, 1984, 1992), triangulating different data types and sources to identify salient themes or categories relevant to student engagement in thinking for each case-study student. These were taken to students and teachers for verification or disconfirmation. Initially I constructed descriptive- narrative accounts of developing thinking for each student. Then, typologies of categories were developed by comparing and contrasting instances across students to create pattern explanations (McCutcheon, 1981) of how supported opportunities for thoughtful discussion contribute to students' developing thinking. These descriptions were elaborated with cross-year and cross-student comparisons.

Findings. These case studies provide evidence that individual students were developing new habits of mind through open-forum literature discussions. English teachers successfully transformed classroom ways of talking by constructing a new classroom epistemology where texts were open to multiple interpretations and ways of knowing; case- study students developed new views of knowledge which, they said, they had never before encountered in school. As students in open-forum text discussions became aware of the multiple perspectives that individuals gave voice to, this awareness dramatized the need to consider conflicting possibilities and, in this social context over time, students learned the means of "choosing one's orientation among them" (Bakhtin, 1981). During discussions, teachers encouraged students' response to the text and each other, guided attention, and scaffolded strategies for questioning, monitoring, and elaborating--at points when students needed such strategies; in varying degrees each lent her "structuring consciousness" (Vygotsky, 1978) to enable students to think in increasingly complex ways about alternative interpretations. In short, at points when students needed support--when they were puzzled or did not elaborate--English teachers in their conversational turns used sequences of questions to scaffold strategies for elaborating and testing meanings. Generally these strategies supported the move from students' initial responses toward more reasoned ones in a dialectical procedure that shuttled between text and self, interpretations and evaluations, personal response and public responsibilities.

Over the first year students began to internalize the teacher-scaffolded discussion heuristics, initiating a kind of dialogic reading and reflection (Gadamer, 1967) that shuttled between text and self, response and reflection, private and public understandings. In particular, students learned to extend and question initial responses for themselves in ways that became socially valued in the class: for example, in the collaborative group and then alone in writing, they connected text and personal experience; questioned the text and each other; evaluated possible interpretations; identified difficult passages and generated plausible explanations; moved back and forth from the landscape of actions to speculation about human intentions and consciousness; and created imagery, metaphor, dramatization to generate understanding. There is much evidence of students' initiating movement among perspectives to create reasoned positions in discussion and writing about literature. Most students used the dialogical thinking strategies learned in one English class in their subsequent one. Evidence from two years of discussion-based literature classes suggests that their discussion experiences shaped a new kind of "dialogic thinking," characterized by both self- reflexive strategies and the intellectual disposition to use them.

But learning cognitive strategies for reflecting about literary texts did not assure use of these strategies in other classroom contexts. Findings from the study support the conclusion that students' interpretations of purposes for instructional activity in specific interactional situations influenced what thinking they were motivated to do (e.g., Brophy & Alleman, 1991; Doyle, 1983). As the ten students moved into their science, social studies, and mathematics classes, the nature of the instructional context influenced whether they adapted the strategies for these content-areas. Students distinguished classes on the basis of which social contexts invite or require active engagement in thinking. Differences in students' inclination to respond to, elaborate, question, and monitor understanding of the content of class lessons was not related to specific disciplines, but to students'interpretations of the purposes for and the nature of class talk and activity. In interviews, students reported how they "read" the class talk and activity as instructional texts that were open or closed to transformation by students (Dole et al, 1991), what Bakhtin (1981) would call univocal--not modifiable by others--or dialogic--an invitation to thinking and producing meaning (Wertsch, 1991). Accordingly, students variously found that these dialogic thinking strategies internalized in literature discussions were (1) useful for understanding and making meaning of subject-area content in some class activity, (2) discouraged as inappropriate to knowing in some class contexts, or (3) privately useful in creating personal understanding.

When the teacher and students in a class were able to construct a meaningful purpose for student engagement in thinking during discussion or other tasks, most students felt that purpose as a guiding motivation that prompted dialogic strategy use. Such inviting contexts occurred in social science, mathematics, and science classes. For example, when subject-area teachers encouraged the consideration of alternatives or engaged in a dialogue among possible procedures, students used scaffolded strategies learned in literature class, both publicly and privately engaging in personal elaboration of content (e.g., in sccience labs, mathematics learning groups, global studies trading simulations and debates, but also in classroom conversations). teachers in these contexts engaged students in activity and conversation as a kind of "cognitive apprenticeship" to "enculturate students into authentic practices" (Brown, Collin, duguid, 1989, pl. 37). St8udents who had been engaged in literature discussions had a strong sense of the "real;" world feel of these classes: they spoke of an openness to their own language, feeling and knowing; to a questioning spirit; to a feeling of purpose; to a sense-making attutide in the talk and activity. They saw these teachers as "real" people who in different ways demonstrated how to think about the world as a scientist, a mathematician, or social scientist.

On the other hand, in contexts where students interpreted knowledge as static, students did not perceive this talk as meaningful or authentic. Interviews and stimulated-recall sessions both revealed that students often disengaged mentally. In contrast to the dialogic classes where students used organic metaphors for describing the classroom interaction and thoughtfulness("we ask a question, like a seed and think about it together, like fertilizer, until it blooms"), students perceived themselves mechanically in monologic contexts, as one students said, like a "vacuum cleaner that sucks up some facts that will be on the test."

In all, using Vygotsky's sociocultural approach to mind and Bahktin's dialogicality to formulate an explanatory framework, this work contributes to our understanding of what inclines students consciously to think and make meaning in classroom contexts. The study's findings contribute to our understanding of how classroom social contexts for reading, discussion of texts, and writing potentially foster or inhibit student development of dialogic thinking and the ways that thinking which develops in literature classes supports, contradicts, or interacts with thinking in other contexts in students' school experience.


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