Harvard Educational Review
  1. Dialogic Inquiry

    Towards a Sociocultural Practice and Theory of Education

    By Gordon Wells

    Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 370 pp. $64.95, $21.95 (paper)

    Much has been made of the gap between research and practice in the field of education. Gordon Wells’s recent book, Dialogic Inquiry: Towards a Sociocultural Practice and Theory of Education, represents the fruits of one researcher’s efforts to span this gap. In this work, Wells documents his extended collaboration with a team of teacher researchers in an exploration of the interdependence of language and learning. Divided into three sections, Wells’s book moves from theory to illustrations of theory in action and ends with reflection on how the findings from his collaborative work with teachers contributes to our understanding of students’ learning processes.

    In the first section Wells constructs a theoretical framework for his research from a synthesis of Vygotsky’s developmental theory and M. A. K. Halliday’s theory of how language functions to make meaning. In this section he argues for the central role of language in meaning-making: “What is at issue here is not simply the ‘subject’ referred to variously as ‘Language Arts,’ ‘Mother Tongue,’ or ‘English’ but the role of linguistic discourse in making meaning — in mediating communicating and knowing right across the curriculum” (p. 119). Wells argues that the perspectives of these two theorists complement each other neatly in that, while “Vygotsky’s ultimate target is an explanation of individual mental functioning, Halliday’s might be said to be the nature and organization of language as a resource for human living” (p. 6). Also in this section, Wells provides a historical overview of the conception of knowledge, arguing that a review of this concept is crucial to our understanding of how to improve teaching and learning. He writes,

    If, as teachers and teacher educators, we hope to bring about significant improvements in the way in which the practice of education is enacted in school classrooms, an important first step, it seems to me, is to attempt to clarify our own understanding of what is involved in the construction and reconstruction of knowledge. (p. 53)

    In this overview, Wells brings an impressive variety of disciplinary perspectives, including philosophy and paleology, to bear on the evolution of knowledge.

    The book’s central section (ch. 4 to 8) presents data from classroom-based research that Wells conducted in collaboration with teachers who participated in the Developing Inquiring Communities in Education Project (DICEP) at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Here Wells shows teachers enacting the theory that he presents in the first section of the book. Readers who are familiar with the criticisms of the traditional tri-partite (Initiation-Response-Feedback) pattern of classroom discourse, in which the teacher initiates a topic (I), the student responds (R), and the teacher offers feedback (F), will be interested in Wells’s reevaluation of this pattern. For example, in chapter five, Wells shows that the IRF pattern of interaction does not preclude collaborative interaction between teachers and students, as much previous research had led us to believe. In chapter six, Wells expands on this idea to suggest that in such collaborative interaction students build on one another’s contributions “in a manner that advances the collective understanding of the topic under discussion” (p. 209). And in chapter seven he shows how the ways in which teachers follow up on students’ responses vary greatly, depending on the teacher’s goals for the activity and the functions of the students’ contributions. If the goal of a lesson is to give students practice in the discourse of science, he suggests, then challenging the logic of students’ contributions (as the teacher in this study does) can actually move the discussion forward. By contrast, if the teacher’s goal is to negotiate what steps the class will take in studying weather and the function of students’ contributions is to make suggestions toward this goal, then exploring the possibilities of students’ contributions is more conducive to a collaborative learning environment than challenging them. In short, teachers do not enact the IRF pattern of interaction in an inflexible, unquestioning fashion; rather, “the choice of the sort of follow-up move to make is a highly strategic one” (p. 262).

    Throughout this central section, Wells uses examples to illustrate the central theme of the book: that the development of the individual and the maintenance of the culture are “dialectically interrelated” (p. 242). Although debates about the goals of education tend to place these two purposes in opposition to each other, Wells believes that this need not be so:

    As newcomers engage in joint activities with other members of the culture, they are transformed in terms of their understanding and mastery of the community’s practices and in their ability to participate in them; and this, in turn, transforms the community into which they are being inducted. Furthermore, as newcomers become progressively more able to engage in solving the problems that the community faces, they may contribute to a transformation of the practices and artifacts that are employed, and this, in turn, transforms the community’s relationship with the larger social and material environment. (p. 242)

    The final section, “Learning and teaching in the ZPD [Zone of Proximal Development],” contains the best example of collaborative research in the book: a chapter Wells coauthored with Barbara Galbraith and Mary Ann Van Tassell, two teacher-researchers from DICEP. These teacher researchers (both grade-two teachers) invited Wells to join them in exploring a question they had conceived: “How could we arrange for the children’s questions to play a more generative role in the planning of the science curriculum?” (p. 293). In his role as a participant observer, Wells encouraged the teachers to reflect on the choices they made in leading the class activities. Wells’s encouragement led the teachers to consider how,

    while acknowledging and valuing the students’ ways of thinking about an issue or a problem, a teacher’s questions can direct the discussion to another level of understanding. It also prompted them to recognize that the questions themselves were an indication of their own increasing ability to “let go” and to listen to the children for direction. (p. 311)

    Though Wells is certainly not the first researcher to collaborate with teachers, he is perhaps the first to demonstrate with such careful analysis how Halliday’s systemic linguistics and Vygotsky’s theory lead to a better understanding of how language is fundamental to learning. The work described in this volume distinguishes itself from other examples of collaborative research by the novel theoretical orientation that frames it. Laudable for its contribution to the Vygotskian school of thought, the book would have been improved by more discussion of the teachers’ perspectives on this research. With the exception of the collaboratively authored chapter just described, little is said about whether, or how, teachers participated in the interpretations of what was happening in their classrooms. Even when Wells acknowledges the teacher’s role in identifying moments of difficulty in their lessons for his analysis and interpretation, he does not include the teacher’s reasons for identifying these moments as difficult. In all fairness, however, that topic may warrant a book in itself.

    Dialogic Inquiry: Towards a Sociocultural Practice and Theory of Education
    will appeal to researchers and teachers who are interested in applying Vygotskian theory to educational practice, as well as to literacy and science education researchers who are interested in fostering collaborative research relationships between schools and universities. Cognitive psychologists might also find it useful as a study of situated cognition, while applied linguists may appreciate Wells’s application of Halliday’s linguistic theory to classroom discourse.

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