Qualitative Classroom Research

What in the world happens in classrooms?

Notes for an International Seminar

 Mexico City 2002
Sponsored by the Spencer Foundation



Jay L. Lemke
City University of New York
Ph.D. Program in Urban Education


1. How close are we to understanding the links between teaching, on the one hand, and learning or development, on the other?

I would like to offer a few perspectives on this important question that may take us towards the present limits of our understanding.

 First, I take learning to be an integral part of development, and development to be a dynamic process of interaction between organism and environment which tends toward an overall recapitulation of the emergence of species-specific forms and processes along a highly individuated trajectory from biological conception to chemical disintegration. I take development as a whole to be integrated into a multi-scale hierarchy from fast molecular-scale processes, through slower whole-organism processes, to still slower eco-social processes, in which for each level, what can happen is afforded by interactions at the next lower level and what does happen is emergent subject to productive constraints defined at the next higher level. Semiotic processes and the use of meaningful material artifacts and meaningful uses of ecological entities, including the human body itself, also create linkages across radically different time-scale processes under special circumstances. I assume that the data of development show only partial equifinality and that all similar later states are achieved by unique individual pathways of development that also result in differences among individuals and system components on all scales. I assume that the concept of development applies to units of analysis at all scales from the cellular (at least) to the eco-social system or network. 

I think that it is useful to restrict the term “learning”, for humans at least, to those developmental changes which are culturally specific in the sense that interactions between the organism and its social-natural environment change in ways that depend on cultural meaning-making practices, i.e. on ways in which environments are interpreted as signs and not just interacted with as material bodies. Like all development, I take learning to be cumulative in the specific sense that earlier forms of sense-making persist and are overlayed with later forms which presuppose them, rather than being replaced by the later forms. All forms are deployed differentially in different circumstances with greater or lesser average frequencies which change with development and with context.

 I take all learning to be social in the sense that changes in meaning-making practices and in behaviors that depend on meaning originate in interactions with other humans and with elements of the material environment which are themselves the products of meaning-dependent behaviors or which are interacted with at least partially in terms of construals of their meanings (including ‘natural’ elements of the environment, read culturally). 

This said, the principal mysteries of the first conference question turn for me around the place of “teaching” in a social-developmental model of learning. I would like to propose for purposes of discussion that we need to challenge our own usual cultural models about teaching, specifically its importance in guiding or controlling learning and its positive valuation. I do not think we can understand the role of teaching, or curriculum, or instructional texts and technologies, in developmental learning, unless we first question the twin modernist myths that (1) teaching is the primary causative agency in learning and (2) that teaching is inherently good for the learner and for the community.

 I term these modernist myths because they fit a typical pattern of modern (i.e. post-Renaissance) European and European-derived official or dominant-hegemonic cultures, namely that rational control of social processes is both possible and desirable. I would contrast this with (1) the new post-modernist “emergentist” paradigms regarding complex multi-scale systems (“cells-in-organisms-in-ecosocial systems”), which note that the dynamics of such systems lead to unpredictable, qualitatively new behaviors that cannot be controlled by any agency on scales at, below, or above that of the emergent phenomena, and (2) the still rather modernist, but at least now critical and reflexive paradigm which sees in most teaching not just the reproduction of cultural traditions, but the closing off of human possibilities that might threaten the power and privileges of traditional elites.

 I believe that the two modernist biases I have just identified lead researchers and theorists to (1) overestimate the importance of teaching for learning, and (2) neglect the ways in which teaching can be destructive for the individual, repressing developmental potentialities, and counter-adaptive for the community, limiting diversity and minimizing the rate of social-cultural change, at the same time that it empowers individuals to succeed in a relatively socially and culturally static community.

 Studies of the importance of teaching tend to focus on the early years of learning and neglect the later years. They emphasize the positive scaffolding by which the young are shaped to fit an existing social and cultural order: its language forms, its norms of behavior, its structures for the imaginable. If we focus instead on the adolescent years and after, I think we would be more likely to say that the most important lessons of life, those which produce the greatest and longest-lasting changes in our basic ways of viewing the world (other people, events, policies, ourselves) are not the result of being taught, but of unpredictable emergent developments arising from the convergence of myriad factors, and similar from individual to individual mainly to the extent that there are common social and cultural experiences and milieux (cf. Bourdieu on the formation of habitus). But is this not also true at earlier ages? Are we not somewhat blinded by the scaffolding role of signficant others, and the cultural importance attached to school learning, to the fact that far more important and long-lasting learning is taking place accidentally (even within scaffolding interactions) and through general life experience outside the schooled curriculum?

 Few people today would argue that teaching causes learning. The dominant paradigm is that teachers provide cultural input to developmental processes, guiding and shaping a natural tendency to learn. But each significant learning, i.e. each learning that significantly changes how we look at the world of people, things, and events and that persists over long timescales in our lives and is renewed again and again, whether a teacher and curriculum is involved or not, depends just as much on a myriad of other factors in our present and past life, which are trivialized by being lumped together under the headings of such residual factors as ‘motivation’ ‘background knowledge’ and ‘learning readiness’. I would like us to consider that it is teaching which is more often the marginal factor, sometimes a critical catalyst for learning, but most often merely one among many inputs and usually not the most significant one for the most important learning experiences and persistent changes in our lives.

 We are also mislead by our narrow view of outputs. If we test only for schooled knowledge, we will see an exaggerated influence for teaching and curriculum. If we assesss instead students’ significant belief systems, social attitudes, values, general problem-solving strategies, ways of making meaning in non-school contexts, etc., I think we will find much less correlation with schooling in general. The exception to this, as is well known, is the influence of the charismatic teacher, who may exceed on some timescale the influence of parents, siblings, or close friends and peers. This influence however is usually quite separate from deliberate teaching or from the school curriculum. It is based on a personal relationship or the student’s reading of the interaction as a personally significant one. And what determines when and how this happens? Clearly many factors well beyond the interaction itself or any qualities of the teacher. What draws a student to a particular teacher? What is the basis of the emotional bond?

 It is in these circumstances that we begin to get worried about the nature of the teacher’s influence. At the individual scale of analysis, we know that parents, siblings, and close peers can do developmental damage through the same kinds of interactions by which they can inspire and support developmental progress. So likewise with teachers, particularly those with whom there is a special emotional bond, but to some degree with all teachers. I admit here to a partial contradiction in my arguments – insofar as the influence of teachers in learning and development is only one small part of a much larger developmental environment and history, they are not entirely responsible for the damage they do. But the fact remains that just as such relationships can be catalytic for developmental progress, they can also do both short-term and long-term harm. The same kinds of interactions that produce a positive feedback loop of trust and support can produce the effects of the “double bind”, driving the vulnerable developing individual toward maladaptive and persistent regimes. 

At the community level, the arguments for the undesirable effects of teaching and curriculum are well-known. Most teaching prepares students for docile acceptance either of facts and norms of behavior, or of dominant belief systems, or of dominant assumptions about what is possible and what is desirable. Knowing the associated practices and beliefs is important for survival and success in any community, but the longer-term fate of the community always depends on its ability to change with changing circumstances and to avoid internal as well as external calamities which could rip it apart. History is filled with examples of societies that died. The best we know about how to avoid these dead-ends is to encourage diversity and the imagination of new possibilities, including the skeptical questioning of prevailing assumptions, even (if less frequently) of the most sacred ones. Teaching is certainly not in most cases balanced between empowerment for the needs of the present and encouraging radical imaginations and practices that might be needed for some possible human future. We do not know how to strike such a balance, and most of our efforts at the latter seem to me to be disguised versions of the former. The best evidence for this, I think, is that children and indeed students of every age play roles in school and with teachers that are very different from the people they are in other contexts. They learn to hide their deviance because they have learned that it is not welcomed in the halls of education, that education is not about becoming different but only about becoming the same.

 And this pretense, born of the need to evade the technologies of control which dominate schooling, further intensifies the importance for life development of non-school activities, attachments, experiences, and modes of learning.

  What might be the implications of this revisionist paradigm for schooling itself? Or for our reseach into learning in classrooms?

 First, I think we need to more or less abandon the idea that significant learning occurs in classrooms. It occurs over longer trajectories of development that wind into and out of classrooms, and if we are to understand learning we must follow students outside their classrooms as well as observe them inside them. Even if a student has a ‘breakthrough’ moment in a classroom, that moment will have been prepared by much that happened elsewhere, and whether the change that ensues will persist or not, whether it will become the basis for further change that presupposes it, depends again on events on a longer timescale that is never contained entirely within the time spent in the classroom. We need to attribute less causal agency to teachers and curriculum in schools in relation to learning and more to the wider lives of students, which include school as one element. We need to explain what happens in classrooms as much in terms of the wider lives of students and their home communities as in terms of what we more easily observe and record in schools. Ethnographic methodology can contain analysis of classroom discourse, but it will not stop there.

 Second, I think we need to re-examine what we count as the output of learning. We focus too much on trivial learnings of curriculum content, and not enough on life-altering changes or more fundamental development of identities, attitudes, values, belief systems, behavioral dispositions, typical strategies of analysis and action, etc. We concentrate too much on a paradigm of What They Know and not enough on one that centers Who They Are. We need to develop research methodologies and conceptual frameworks that can adequately track such changes and relate the long-term to the short-term.

 Third, we need to focus more on the dark side of teaching, on its destructive and limiting effects. Educators tend to an ideology of meliorism, seeing teaching as empowering for the individual and progressive for the community. This blinds us to needed research on how teachers and curricula and school policies contribute to thwarting true, and therefore dangerous, diversity in students’ interests, habits, beliefs, and values. Even apart from truly pathological interactions (which are more common than acknowledged, if we judge by the memories of students), there are more widespread professionalist expectations about the role of teachers which see them as the instruments of the state, of the community, of parents’ beliefs and values, and not as advocates for the rights of students to differ, diverge, and be dangerous. Educational research needs to acknowledge that what is perceived as dangerous to the present order of society is also potentially an element of the transition to a new order of society which may well be the only viable possibility in some near-term future, or which may be desirable from the viewpoint of those in society who oppose presently dominant interests (not just those of wealth, but also those of males, heterosexuals, Europeans, adults, etc.). Researchers need a radical perspective in this regard because otherwise we will not be able to pay attention to how the apparently normal and unremarkable in education serves covert functions in addition to their overt ones. And even the overtly functional features we see will not be explicable without reference to the simultaneously covert ones we may prefer not to see.


2. How close are we to being able to describe and interpret discourse and action in classroom practice?

I have argued in my contribution to the first conference question that interpreting discourse and action in classroom practice requires us to pay much more attention to what students are learning outside the classroom and how that learning shapes and supports what happens inside the classroom.

 In part this issues is also a matter of scale, particularly of time-scale. We can speak of it in terms of intertextuality, the sense in which we make sense of what is said and done here and now always also in terms of imagined connections to what has been said and done in other times and places, by ourselves and others. We can also speak of it in terms of the arbitrary and conventional nature of units of analysis of text or action. When is a conversation finished? What do we call the unit of text that includes the continuation of that conversation a day later or a week or ten years later? When is an episode of a lesson truly concluded as a unit of analysis of learning, if the learning process continues for days and weeks and years? Even if we can say at some point in a classroom lesson, that the student “has learned” something, how do we know if s/he will still know it or show it the next day or the next week? Many learnings do not persist; they come and go, they are learned again and again before they “stick” … the relevant unit of analysis is often a longitudinal trajectory on a time scale orders of magnitude longer than the minutes of talk or video that we analyze. What we conclude on the basis of those minutes may be falsified tomorrow or at least greatly modified if we saw it in the context of a longer term learning trajectory. 

How do we describe discourse and action on long timescales? How do we analyze the transcript of a student’s interactions in school over the course of a full day? Or the discourse of a class of students over a full year? Or the discourse and actions of a student over 24 hours, in school and outside?

 What are the organizational and semantic features of really long stretches of text? What kinds of meanings do we make over an hour or a day that we do not make over a minute or a few seconds? Consider the analogous question for written texts: what kinds of meaning are made in an novel that cannot be made in paragraph? Do we imagine that all the kinds of meaning relevant to learning are made in units of several minutes or less? We certainly act as if in testing students’ learning that the only kinds of meaning that matter are the ones that they can make in the time allotted for a test item – and how often is that longer than several tens of minutes? For research purposes or for assessment purposes, how do we include the kinds of meanings that can only be made in a week? Or a month? And just as importantly, what kinds of meanings are there that can be made only over these longer timescales?

 Methodologically, we know there are major difficulties raised by such questions. How do we combine the systematic categorial basis of discourse analysis with the open-minded researcher-learning of ethnography? How do we combine the ability to track the uniqueness of developmental pathways event-by-event in micro-analysis with the scope for cross-individual and cross-category comparisons of more macro-social approaches? Most importantly, perhaps, for finding better resolutions to these dilemmas, what are the most useful units of analysis and modes of representation of meaningful phenomena at intermediate scales? What is worth saying about how the discourse of a particular classroom changes over a period of months? Or how the behavioral and social climate of a school changes over a period of a few years?

 I think that the next frontier of discourse and activity analysis does not lie in finding more and more detailed descriptions of brief events. It lies in finding useful ways to talk about what happens over much longer timescales, and ways of connecting these descriptions to both more micro- and more macro- analyses. (One general paradigm for such multi-scale analysis is suggested by complex system theory, and I have given a brief description of this ‘sandwich’ model in my contribution to our discussion of conference question #1.)


 I include here some references to my own recent work that touch on these issues. They contain citations to further literature bearing on the questions I raise.

 “Opening Up Closure: Semiotics Across Scales” In J. Chandler and G. van de Vijver, Eds. Closure: Emergent Organizations and their Dynamics (Volume 901: Annals of the NYAS). New York: New York Academy of Science Press. pp. 100-111. March, 2000. 

“The long and the short of it: Comments on multiple timescale studies of human activity”  Journal of the Learning Sciences 10(1-2): 193-202. 2000.

 "Across the Scales of Time: Artifacts, Activities, and Meanings in Ecosocial Systems" Mind, Culture, and Activity 7(4): 273-290. 2000.

 “Becoming the Village: Education across Lives” To appear in G. Wells and G. Claxton, Eds. Learning for Life in the 2ist Century: Sociocultural Perspectives on The Future of Education. London: Blackwell. (in press)

 “Language development and identity: multiple timescales in the social ecology of learning.” In C. Kramsch, Ed. Language Acquisition and Language Socialization. London: Continuum. (in press)

 Discursive technologies and the social organization of meaning. Folia Linguistica. [Special issue: "Critical Discourse Analysis and Cognition", R. Wodak, issue editor] (in press)

 The Role of Texts in the Technologies of Social Organization. To appear in R. Wodak & G. Weiss, Eds., Theory and Interdisciplinarity in Critical Discourse Analysis. London: Macmillan/Palgrave. (Forthcoming).