How Teachers’ Choice of the Third Move Affects Learning

For the seminar project in ENG 521, Introduction to TESL, the assignment was to collect data from three university-level ESL classrooms and devise a research project based on that raw data. For example, other research teams, using this same data, investigated elements such as the use of repetition, the use of various question types, etc.  They investigated what was in the data, but we wanted to investigate not only what was there but what was missing and what could be open to change. We wanted to find an approach to the data that could have the potential to actually transform pedagogical practice. Scrutinizing the data for weeks, we finally decided to examine the function of the third turn in the IRF (Initiation/Response/Feedback) sequence (also known as triadic dialogue). Triadic dialogue is an exchange sequence that is observed when classroom discourse is examined using the Functional Linguistic Approach, a methodology of classroom observation which was developed by Sinclair and Coulthard (based on Halliday’s theories) to extend structural linguistic descriptions beyond the sentence level (Houck). In our examination of IRF sequences in university ESL classrooms, we wanted to investigate which kinds of feedback led to continued inquiry and which shut down learning. Our original approach in this paper was essentially rhetorical—How did teachers exercise their rhetorical choices in the classroom during interactions with students?—but our theoretical foundations and methodologies were based in TESL.

Reworking this project from a rhetoric perspective would require an entire revision, so I have made only limited annotations in the paper, but instead I will outline in this introduction how I envision the paper. In the reworked literature review I would change the focus from TESL researchers to rhetorical theorists. In summary: The link between rhetoric and education and the concern for student-teacher interaction goes back to the classical period. Among the classical Greek rhetoricians, Isocrates was well-known as both a rhetor and an educator, and Socrates was celebrated for his pedagogical methodology of teaching through questions. Through dialogue he elicited responses from his students, drawing out and clarifying their beliefs. In fact, it is because of the inability to interrogate the writer that Socrates is suspicious of the written text, preferring the face-to-face dialogue. During the Roman period, Quintilian developed an extensive pedagogical program for training rhetors in his Institutes of Oratory. In his treatise he addresses dialogue (“the living voice” of the pedagogue “feeds the mind more nutritiously” than dry examples), the use of questions (“Let him reply readily to those who put questions to him, and question of his own accord those who do not”), and feedback (“Let him discourse frequently on what is honorable and good, for the oftener he admonishes, the more seldom will he have to chastise”).

Moving into modern rhetoric, a critical foundation for this paper about triadic dialogue would be Bakhtin’s understanding of all speech as dialogic. As Bakhtin states, “Word is a two-sided act.” Speech lives in a social dimension and is shaped by it: “The social situation shapes the utterance, dictating that it sound one way and not another.” As IRF demonstrates, speech is a series of responses in which “the listener becomes the speaker.” In the pedagogical context, dialogue is what spurs learning:

“…an idea does not live in one person’s isolated individual consciousness—if it remains there it degenerates and dies. An idea begins to live, i.e., to take shape, to develop, to find and renew its verbal expression, and to give birth to new ideas only when it enters into genuine dialogical relationships with other, foreign, ideas. Human thought becomes genuine thought, i.e., an idea, only under the conditions of a living contact with another foreign thought, embodied in the voice of another person, that is, in the consciousness of another person as expressed in his word.”

Triadic dialogue, being a stable, heterogeneous utterance with recognizable thematic content, style, and compositional structure, can be construed as a genre, so Bakhtin’s genre theory, including the distinction between primary and secondary speech genres, would be an important aspect of the literature review. Carol Berkenkotter and Thomas N. Huckin’s analysis of genre as dynamic contributes important insights as to the possibility of genre change, which I would also draw on within the analysis and conclusion. In their article they claim that previous scholars have overlooked Bakhtin’s understanding of genres as “changeable, flexible, and plastic” and propose instead that “genres are inherently dynamic rhetorical structures that can be manipulated according to the conditions of use” (285).

The research question that I would address in this rhetorically-oriented paper would be “What hierarchical power structures are in evidence in these particular classrooms’ instantiations of triadic dialogue?” I would use selected concepts developed by Michel Foucault to investigate how issues of power, authority, and hierarchy play out in the ubiquitous classroom genre of triadic dialogue. This would involve doing (in a limited sense) a genealogy of the local classrooms. A genealogy would question the basic assumptions of Sinclair and Coulthard’s observations of classroom discourse that we discussed in the original introduction to this paper:

“The discourse of the classroom, despite its seeming variety and instantiations, is at its essence an interaction between teacher and learner. The dominant discourse genre of the classroom is comprised of an interplay of three components: a teacher’s initiation of the topic of inquiry and the question at hand, a student’s response to that initiation, and a reply by the teacher to the student’s response.”

Central questions about this introduction would be: Do our introductory statements about classroom discourse merely reflect the hegemony of our Western view of education? Could not education also be seen as interaction between learners? Why is the teacher regarded as the initiator in every case? Why must the third move have so few options? Other key questions about triadic dialogue that I would ask would be, who has the power to determine a correct answer? Who determines who speaks and what they may say? What are the effects of this hierarchy? In what ways does the third move have a disciplining function? How does the discursive formation determine what can be said and who can say it? Does triadic dialogue objectify learners, in other words, take away their ability to make choices? Even though Bakhtin claims that “the listener becomes the speaker,” the Foucauldian analysis might point to ways that what the listener can say is constrained and restricted. Basically this would be an investigation of the discursive formations that support the regime of truth as instantiated in these university classrooms. As Foucault explains in Power/Knowledge:

“Each society has a regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true” (Jardine 11).

My analysis would not be intended to entirely dismiss our current system of classroom discourse but rather to foreground how this system might be open to change. Our original research found that 25% of teacher feedback moves led to a shutdown of learning opportunities, which seems to be an unacceptably high percentage. It points for a need for change, but the question is how that change can come about. Is the genre of triadic dialogue permanently instantiated? Is this the way it must be, or merely the way it is? How can a new paradigm be envisioned? Educators (and perhaps these comments apply primarily to teachers in the public K-12 system) often feel dissatisfied with the given system of hierarchy (of which triadic dialogue is a part) into which they are trained through the credentialing system, but they feel powerless to change the system, or to even envision a different way. They often echo Stephen Ball’s desire to “create a space within which it is possible to begin to think differently about school” (118), but they feel thwarted by the imposition of bureaucracy and the ways students have been socialized into the system, and they wonder whether change is even possible. What would Foucault say regarding the possibility of change and how to bring about change?

The first step might be to realize that nothing is set in stone. As Gail Jardine explains, “Foucault has given us many helpful insights and analytic tools to help us remember that those things which we most take for granted in our society and educational spaces as utterly obvious, necessary, natural, normal, or inevitable are not necessarily so, but are rather the result of human decisions that could have been made otherwise” (9). Triadic dialogue is not an immutable force of nature that is as unchangeable as gravity; it was created by humans and could be changed by humans. Another avenue for change that could be employed would be to listen to what Foucault calls marginalized voices—the wisdom and experiences of those who are pushed to the margins of society and who lack power. These marginalized voices offer wisdom that we “could decide to grant the power to articulate what we would be willing to accept as knowledge”—if we only so choose (Jardine 12). In this instance this would involve listening to students and teachers, rather than administrators, politicians, and corporations, in matters regarding classroom discourse. Finally, teachers should realize that, even though the educational bureaucracy attempts to take agency away from teachers through curriculum control, onerous standardized testing, and oppressive surveillance of teachers, the best approach for change may not be by taking on the power structures but through local action. Foucault’s concept of capillary action—“the point at which acts of power and systems of knowledge that are dominant in a society impact the individual” (Jardine 22)—is one that works in both directions. Changes in power structures can be initiated at the local level through capillary action. Transformation happens when critics “aim not so much to storm the king’s castle as to poach on his game preserves—i.e., not global revolution but local effects” (Kraemer).

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