Mercer & Littleton Ch. 5: “Learning to Think Together and Alone”
This chapter discusses three types of classroom talk identified by the Spoken Language and New Technology study in the early 1990s, in which researchers observed over fifty hours of English primary school class discussions.
In disputational talk, individuals arrive at their own decisions independently and argue with each other. Contradictions without reasons are common. In cumulative talk discussions, participants are uncritical and responsive but not very constructive. Finally, exploratory talk is characterized by critical thinking and constructive debate. Participants challenge each other thoughtfully and allow their thinking to change based on other participants’ opinions.
In exploratory talk, write Mercer and Littleton, “knowledge is made more publicly accountable” (59). Disputational talk lacks knowledge construction or much mutual respect. Cumulative talk is more respectful, but avoids confrontation to the point that knowledge construction falls by the wayside in favour of “constant repetition and confirmation” (Mercer & Littleton 62).
What this breakdown appears to imply for educators is that if we wish to see and support meaningful knowledge building and intellectual growth in our learning communities, we must cultivate an environment in which serious, thoughtful discourse is the expectation. We must teach children how to think critically and to respectfully challenge the beliefs and assumptions of others and of themselves. We must teach children that knowledge is not a black and white or stagnant thing, but is constantly growing and fluid. Our children need to feel safe and secure enough in themselves and their community to take risks and try out new ideas without fear of ridicule.
In pursuit of an “educationally effective” (Mercer & Littleton 69) means of communication and thought among students, the authors of this piece have collaborated with other English researchers and teachers to develop the Thinking Together approach, designed to support the fundamentals of exploratory talk. The teacher is a “guide and a model” (69) for collaborative and metacognitive learning made up of about ten lessons (75). While many of the activities are student-directed, this approach combines group work with teacher-led activities to facilitate plenary sessions among the whole class. This allows the teacher to model and set clear expectations for what meaningful and productive group talk looks like.
My whole life, I have sought out the most student-directed forms of education. As a teacher/facilitator, I work as hard to step out of the way of my students’ learning. I believe it is my responsibility to give them the resources for intellectual debate and knowledge sharing, and to give them the opportunity to explore their surroundings. Pragmatist John Dewey, one of my main educational role models, saw the classroom as a microcosm of society, where democracy and learning by experimentation should be practiced. However, Mercer & Littleton are helping me realize that as an educator, there may be a lot more incumbent upon me than merely creating the environment for active learning. There is also (or should be!) actual knowledge in my own head that it is my responsibility to somehow communicate to my students. This is an uncomfortable concept to me, because it feels teacher-centric, but I am in this Master’s program to learn new ways of doing things! What I can take right away from Mercer & Littleton is that modeling is a necessary piece of education. We can still have learning by experience as Dewey envisioned it prefaced by or interspersed with teacher-modeling of effective group talk and critical reasoning… yes?? Comments/discussion please!
Mercer, N., & Littleton, K. (2007). Dialogue and the development of children’s thinking: A sociocultural approach. London: Routledge.