Social Interaction, Social Context, and Language: Essays in Honor of Susan Ervin-Tripp

By Dan Isaac Slobin; Julie Gerhardt et al. | Go to book overview

29
MANAGING THE INTERMENTAL: CLASSROOM GROUP DISCUSSION AND THE SOCIAL CONTEXT OF LEARNING

Mary Catherine O'Connor Boston University

In recent work on classroom group discussion and its role in learning2 an idealized view of classroom discourse frequently appears. In this idealization, content-related meaning is continually negotiated and created in the moment by peers who respect each others' views. Within the participant structure of small or large group discussion, students purposefully appropriate each others' ideas and utterances to further their own thinking and that of the group. In this scenario, students have the right and responsibility to function as equal members in a "discourse community" characterized by frequent instances of dialogic discourse.

While the supposed social benefits of such participant structures are sometimes emphasized, the usual focus is on the cognitive benefits. "Whole-class discussions enable students to pool and evaluate ideas, record data, share solution strategies, summarize collected data, invent notations, hypothesize, and construct simple arguments" ( National Council of Teachers of Mathematics [NCTM] , 1989, p. 79). Small group discussions are believed to confer similar benefits. These beliefs about classroom discussions are generally buttressed by reference to Vygotskyan theory, in that collaborative or joint reasoning, the "intermental" plane of cognition, is viewed as the genesis of a child's individual "intramental" functioning.

____________________
1
A version of this paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, April 1991. Support for the data and analysis presented here was partially provided by a postdoctoral Spencer fellowship from the National Academy of Education, and by a grant to the Literacies Institute from the Mellon Foundation. The views expressed here are mine alone and are not intended to represent those of either organization. Special thanks are due to Lynne Godfrey, Sarah Michaels, Pamela Paternoster, and Amy Strage. Susan Ervin-Tripp deserves more tribute than a paper of mine can offer. Her vital, curious, and wide-ranging mind and her accepting, gentle nature have been crucial ingredients in the intellectual development of many students. She has created a research environment in which many people have been able to find their own way, due to her benign scholarly mentoring. Finally, she has made more visible to many the complex and beautiful social fabric that we are all weaving and rending with our every use of language.

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