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Classroom interaction studies and second language pedagogy
Ania Lian
Centre for Language Teaching and Research
University of Queensland, Australia

1.0    Introduction
The context for this short article is the growing belief in current pedagogic thought that the key to education lies in the identification, analysis and appropriate manipulation of the factors which, together, constitute the general make up of one’s classroom. There seems to be an understanding that once such qualities are identified, in unequivocal terms, the approaches necessary for second language teaching will follow in an obvious way. However, while much energy is spent in analysing the conditions which might make learning meaningful, the very notion of meaningful learning continues to remain obscure. Ultimately though, it seems that the final decision regarding the quality of the conditions leading to meaningful learning still rest with the teacher. In other words, learners continue to be left out of the process of decision-making regarding questions of what to learn and why at more than the most superficial of levels. While their apparent needs are often probed through needs analysis questionnaires and invitations to negotiate course content, such approaches do not address their specific and often indefinable learning needs as individuals.

It is the aim of this paper to turn the attention of teachers to the inherent inequality that this situation introduces. This inequality is sourced in one’s claim to knowledge. Today, the decision-making power of teachers is no longer based on explicit distinctions based on social class. Rather, it is based, more often than not, on expertise which claims to have explicit knowledge of the subjects of its study i.e. the learners.

This article first reviews the premises and the goals of what has generally been identified as belonging to the field of classroom interaction studies. It is then argued that while such studies make learners their main concern, the methodology employed for obtaining pedagogically-relevant information about learners is not without problems. The critique of the objectives of this methodology is followed by a brief introduction of an alternative definition for pedagogic focus. The paper concludes with an assessment of the relevance of that redefinition for bilingual education.

2.0    What are classroom interaction studies?
Typically, classroom interaction studies take as a given that improvements in teacher-learner interactions lead to better learning conditions. These studies hope that reflection on the forms of these interactions will lead to an enhancement of the mediating quality of the teachers’ interventions. Solutions to learners’ communicative problems are therefore seen as a function of teacher-learner negotiation mechanisms. Thus, for instance, Nassaji and Wells define the goal of classroom interaction studies as attempts to "understand in what ways its [i.e. the classroom interaction’s] underlying structure is adapted to meet the varied demands of the pedagogical relationship" (Nassaji and Wells, 1999: 30).

To achieve this goal, classroom interaction studies may, for instance, look at the structure of teacher-learner interactions (cf. Nassaji and Wells, 1999), or the model of feedback applied and the respective roles assumed by learners and teachers (cf. van Lier, 1996), or the strategies of engagement applied by teachers (cf. Lin, 1999). Holliday, in spite of his awareness of the range of unpredictable and unknown factors in the task proposed (Holliday, 1994: 178), nevertheless summarises the goals of such studies in the following way:

"The teacher must attempt to unlock the text of the classroom, to discover its rules, to enable the formulation of hypotheses for action. As language students tap their natural resources of communicative competence, the teacher taps her or his natural social ability to learn new cultures." (Holliday, 1994: 178)
It is true, of course, that critical evaluation of teaching practices is a necessary part of pedagogic inquiry. However, is reflecting upon "the text of the classroom" an appropriate field of inquiry? If so, then certain questions need to be asked (and answered). Where is this text to be found? What does it look like? Is it a text for each classroom, for each student, for each moment of the class? Is there an infinity of texts? Is there a text that can be said to be truly representative of the actions of all classrooms, or of any particular classroom? Is the product of our research meant to be about a single statistically-derived, abstracted text and, if so, what are the chances that it will apply to specific learners in specific groups? Statistics deal with the probability of characteristics applying to groups but not necessarily to every individual in the group.

It is arguable that the "text of the classroom" will change from moment to moment and according to a myriad of unpredicted and unpredictable factors. Thus, the best that can be hoped for is that a statistical model of the "text of the classroom" can be inferred which, with any luck, may meet most of the needs of most of the students in a specific group for the variables actually identified but never (or very rarely) ALL of the needs of ALL of the students, especially because all of the variables have not been or cannot be identified. Thus it seems that unlocking "the text of the classroom" is fraught with great difficulty.

Now, if there is no identifiable or properly analysable classroom text, how can it be concluded that any action based on such an imaginary text is both appropriate and correct?

3.0    Toward a genuine, individualised learning model
A more interesting starting point for better teaching might lie in the recognition and acceptance that teachers can never have more than limited powers to understand learners as they go about their learning both inside and outside of the classroom and that they cannot ever grasp the (elusive) "text of the classroom".

It has been argued cogently that the formation of knowledge, because it is the product of the collision of discourses, requires a process of dialogic inquiry (cf. Freire, 1972; van Lier, 1996; Wells, 1999). It also seems that for an inquiry to be truly dialogic, the goals which drive such inquiries would have to be generated by questions arising in learners, rather than in teachers (cf. Dewey, 1900: 67 in Wells, 1999: 8), as they, the learners, grapple with the communicative difficulties which they need to resolve.

In other words, the learning process would no longer revolve around teacher-learner interactions. That is, the problems that learners experience and the solutions to these problems would not lie in the teachers’ interpretations of what matters to learners, i.e. of what teachers think learners need. Rather, learners’ actions should emerge in response to the communicative demands that they actually experience while engaged in communicative activity. These demands thus have a double function. On the one hand, they signal to learners whether problems exist. On the other hand, they function as criteria against which learners assess the impact of the solutions that they bring to bear on the problems.

Learning, in this model, takes a spiral path. Every attempt, on the part of learners, to act communicatively or to understand communicative action, are opportunities for them to reevaluate their beliefs about the structure of communicative action. With every such attempt, new understandings emerge and new difficulties become apparent. In this model, the context for development of new understandings is no longer regulated by teachers’ judgements - which are probabilistic (or intuitive) and therefore subject to error. Rather, the context which regulates learning are the communicative demands and difficulties experienced by individual learners in the management of these demands.

Clearly, development of such a learning environment requires rethinking of the means which would allow learners to identify and resolve communicative problems encountered on their terms. Examples of ideas toward such a model can be found in Lian and Lian, 1997; Lian, 1996; Lian and Mestre, 1985. The learning model thus proposed reflects the belief that the development of linguistic knowledge is embedded in communicative structures and directed at the management of these structures.

In this perspective, the learning process is no longer a matter of teacher-imposed learning solutions whose appropriateness is established externally to learners and in isolation from the communicative demands that learners experience as individuals. Instead, it becomes a product of learners confronting and critically evaluating their personal beliefs and understandings against the constraining forces which regulate the comprehension and production of target language texts. The dialogue, then, is between learners and the constraining forces and not between teachers and learners, thus eliminating the perceived need for teachers to become involved in the futile task of "unlock[ing] the text of the classroom".

4.0    Conclusion
The analysis and principles outlined above are of general value and are not limited to a particular kind of pedagogic setting - not even language-learning settings. They do not make, and to be consistent, cannot make any assumptions about the shape of the learners and of their groupings at any particular moment. The bilingual classroom is no exception. It is true that in classes, with students from different linguistic backgrounds, the perception may arise that students from the same linguistic background form groups which are more rather than less homogeneous in linguistic and cultural terms. However, the bilingual classroom is at most a special case of more general classroom settings where no individual is the same and where individuals’ learning needs are not necessarily regulated just by their membership to specific language group, social background, race, or gender.

Nevertheless, it is this apparent homogeneity, and the educational system’s search for economy of time and effort (i.e. money) which constantly makes us look to group like with like. Yet that is clearly impossible - beyond a statistical model whose claim to truth is based more in our conscious and unconscious biases than the reality that it represents. The bottom line remains then. Learning is essentially an interactive process between learners and the world around them. Meaning-making, at a personal level, is the result of that interaction which involves at least confronting one’s beliefs, their contesting and reevaluation.

The problem of bilingual education therefore is not that of adapting methodology (i.e. the ‘What?’ and the ‘How?’ of teaching) to specific types of learners. Rather it is that of creating and managing ways for sympathetic understandings to develop between people from different cultures (e.g. Americans learning French or Chinese learning English). It is not a problem of learning, but a problem of social interaction. While the encounter between groups of different backgrounds can be potentially difficult to manage because of long-standing differences in status, beliefs and attitudes by all parties involved (teachers too), it also provides immense opportunities for all concerned to confront, contest and challenge their internal systems and beliefs for the benefit of all


Freire, P., 1972, The archeology of knowledge, New York: Herder and Herder

Holliday A., 1994, Appropriate methodology and social context, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Lian A., 1996, ‘Living in language: Reflections on language learning environments in present-day Australia’, Australian Language Matters, Feb/Mar: 10-11 http://comedu.canberra.edu.au/~ania/aniapub/alm.htm

Lian A-P. and Lian, A., 1997, ‘The secret of the Shao-lin monk: Contribution to an intellectual framework for language-learning’, On-CALL, 11, 2: 2-19

Lian A-P. and Mestre M-C, 1985, ‘Goal-directed communicative interaction and macrosimulation’, Revue de Phonétique Appliquée, 73-74-75: 185-210

Lin, A., 1999, ‘Doing-English-Lessons in the reproduction or transformation of social worlds’, TESOL QUARTERLY, autumn, (in press)

Nassaji, H. and Wells, G., 1999, ‘What’s the use of ‘triadic dialogue’?: An investigation of teacher-student interaction’, (under review), http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/~gwells/Followup.html

van Lier, L., 1996, Interaction in the Language Curriculum. Awareness, Autonomy and Authenticity. Longman

Wells, G., 1999, Dialogic inquiry in education: Building on Vygotsky's legacy. Invited presentation at NCTE, Detroit, November 1997. To appear in C.D. Lee and P. Smagorinsky (Eds.) Vygotskian Perspectives on Literacy Research, Cambridge University Press, http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/~gwells/NCTE.html
 Ania Lian
Centre for Language Teaching and Research
University of Queensland, Australia 


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