Social Context and Using/Learning Academic Language

Posted to Guardian Teacher Network, May 7, 2013

Recently, working with a group of thirteen year olds with ‘special needs’ we planned how we might rescue hostages in Libya. As we imagined we were in 1804 in the days of the Barbary pirates, one boy asked, ‘What would we tell President Jefferson if we failed?’. We were thinking, talking, reading texts extracts, and acting, like historians. The boy was aware that history was his-story.

The learning in Lee Donaghy’s classroom is so powerful not just because one group is convincing the other. Significantly, the context of their talk – and of their writing – is more than ‘the classroom’. People (young and old) are engaged in the sorts of tasks that engage real historians. And that includes paying attention to the vocabulary they use to make meaning within an historical framework. This is not superficial ‘role play’. As in my example, students are becoming more aware of the language they are using – and learning – to explain and critique historical events.

At the heart of Michael Halliday’s theory is the idea that people use words, and learn how to use language, in order to create meaning in context. Social context is key. Why do teachers talk differently at home, in the staffroom, or at a professional conference? Because the social context – and thus the language expected to be used to make meaning – is different. The problem with most of the language used in classrooms is that the context is ‘schooling’ and the dominant genre for language use is as old as that used by The Bash Street Kids! When teachers are the ones asking questions that the pupils are supposed to answer ‘correctly’ then the relationship between teacher and young people tends to close down meaning-making. Using Halliday’s term, the ‘tenor’ of exchanges is hierarchical. When the meaning has been predetermined by a teacher – or by a test – then pupils don’t have to learn how to use language. Worse, they don’t have to learn – or think.

Behavior Management or Ethical Leadership?

Posted on Guardian Teacher Network May 5, 2013

Though the term is used widely I find the words ‘behaviour mangagement’ highly problematic. What youngsters need is our leadership rather than just being managed and our concern for everyone’s intended actions rather than just a focus on the behaviour of particular children.

Leaders do more than manage. Leaders provide people with direction – moral as well as academic. As leaders we model how to act but even harder, we can show others how they might react (and not react) in difficult times. Alan, Tim, and gulliblemartyr, each fine classroom teachers I’m sure, show a quality of leadership that I believe children need to see more often – they’re all prepared to acknowledge when they’ve made mistakes or acted in a way they are not proud of. They know that leading doesn’t mean being right but being prepared to struggle when necessary to take people in a direction we believe in. I’m human – I’ve been angry, I’ve shouted, I’ve being intimidating but I’m not proud of those moments. And I believe my colleagues, and at the right time, children need to know that. Thanks, Alan, for leading us in that direction. I’ve also been kind, caring, and understanding in building relationships with young people. Those are the sorts of actions I want to promote in the classroom with and among children.

When we are only concerned with behaviour we can all too easily fall into the trap of believing that compliance is enough – that what looks right according to me is what’s important. But do we really want schools where all pupils behave like the ‘nice’ quiet girls? I want a classroom where everyone takes responsibility for their actions. That includes me. I want the energy of those ‘naughty’ boys directed into acts that benefit everyone in the community. I’ll never achieve that through actions that others experience as intimidation or bullying even when in the heat of the moment (or even worse in quiet reflection) I may feel that my behaviour was justified.

How do we shift the focus from behaving to intending action? We have to start talking about what sort of community we want to live in. We have to engage pupils in shared tasks that they care about and want to be a part of and then we have to reflect with them on how we can all act to do more of that. Such a conversation cannot only take place in staffrooms, in hallways with sobbing children, or even on blogs like this. It has to begin with the children. It has to begin with me knowing what I believe in and acting on those beliefs.

Transforming Teaching and Learning

Transforming Teaching and Learning with Active and Dramatic Approaches: Engaging Students Across the Curriculum. will published by Routledge in August 2013.

Tables and Figures are posted under Handouts.