I have been spending some time this week on work for my Masters. I now have a transcript of a short focus group discussion with some of the students involved in the research about their experience of Literature Circles. In addition, as part of my professional reading I am tackling an article by Gordon Wells called “Dialogic Inquiry in Education: Building on the Work of Vygotsky”. So many interesting points are raised: I am making notations in the margins in almost every paragraph.
I really like his statement, referring to Vygotsky 1978 chapter 8, that curriculum needs to be reconceptualized in terms of “a negotiated selection of activities that challenge students to go beyond themselves towards goals that have personal significance for them.” This seems to articulate so much of what my vision is in the classroom.
Wells argues that the curriculum should be arranged around what he calls real questions – those that “correspond to or awaken a wondering on the part of the student”. Here I am reminded of the students who were reading and discussing John Marsden’s Tomorrow when the War Began in their Literature Circles group. They said themselves that a key component of their discussion was the conjecture of what it would be like to like through a terrorist attack. It seemed that they discussed this often and in their group oral at the end focussed on this as well. It is not surprising really in the social context of terrorism that pervades media representations of the world today. It could be see as a real question and one member of this group participated in the focus group. It will be interesting to read the transcript.
Another question for me is Wells’ insistence that “the goal of inquiry is making not learning”, and thus the construction of an artifact is necessary. The artifact can be “a material object” (some of my students made collages in their presentations to the class) “an explanatory demonstration” (some students gave PowerPoint presentations to the class) or a “theoretical formulation”. The problem with discussion on its own is that “it leaves no record of what has been jointly constructed”. This is interesting because the discussions can be taped, but would the process of taping the discussion change the very nature of the dialogue?
In another section he writes about inquiry not being a method rather it is an “approach” in which “tentative answers are taken seriously” and the teacher should be involved as a co-inquirer. As well, the importance of dialogue in coming to understanding is stressed. Wells writes on what he calls “progressive discourse… the process by which the sharing, questioning and revising of opinions leads to a new understanding that everyone involved agrees is superior to their own previous understanding,” and it would seem that taping a discussion would be important to show this happening in Literature Circles despite the reservations.
In the implementation of Literature Circles, if we want to conceive the activity in this way, we see knowledge as being (re)created in the school setting, which is the group of students pursuing their common goal. And what is the goal in Literature Circles? What would the students say it is? To come to an understanding of the meaning of the literature they are reading? I think it might be important to work out what this is. The data from the focus group may be able to help here.
The learning from Literature Circles in Wells’ view seems to be that it is the basis on which students can go on and create further texts in response. But surely there is more value in reading and discussing literature than solely its ability to create texts?
Wells discusses writing as a tool for thinking: I saw a poster on the wall of Yvonne Hutchinson’s classroom with the old quote, “how do I know what I think till I see what I say,” variously attributed to Faulkner, W.H. Auden and E. M. Foster (turns out that it’s from Forster in Aspects of the Novel). Wells sees that “few students seem to have discovered that writing can function as a ‘thinking device’. I admit that my first thought when reading this paper was to go to my computer and type up my thoughts and reflections as I was reading here on my blog. Wells sees this as “knowledge transformation” where the writer tries to anticipate the likely response of the envisaged audience (teachers and other interested in education, I guess) and “carries on a dialogue with the text being composed.” I will be seeing my supervisor later today and continuing this dialogue and my thinking some more.