Margery D. Osborne*, Tan Aik Ling **, Dennis Kwek Beng Kiat**
*Nanyang Technological University, and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
**Nanyang Technological University
Class 1-8, Jelutong Primary School, May 4 2005
Miss Chang: Ok, hold on, hold on, hold on, shh, let's do this again, ok? Remember, our class rules, you need to listen to one another, you need to take turns, or else I think there's a big hullabaloo coming up. And it, it looks like a, maybe sounds and looks like an earthquake or a tsunami…
Miss Chang: …so shhh! Ok the zoo. So I really need you all to take turns, or else nobody can hear anybody. Alright. Ah, Eleanor, you need to move. Come. Ching Han, move up. Ahhh, let's do this, ok, all of you do this--close your eyes. Close your eyes, and when I say open them, you're ready, ok? Close your eyes. Open. Very good. Ok, no you look at the picture now. Tell me what is happening? Daniel. Yes Daniel?
Daniel: Uh, the crab has lost its shell.
Miss Chang: Very good, he says that the crab has lost its shell. Ah, Hamid?
Hamid: He wants to find a new shell.
Miss Chang: Very good, he wants to find a new shell. Jerald?
Jerald: But not actually, actually not a crab what, you see another side, ah, is the same thing ah, but, carrying the shell. The … green side...
Miss Chang: Can you come and point it out to us? Can you come and show it to us? What's up? Ok, yes. Can you come and show it to us?
Jerald: [Comes up to the screen where the book is being projected and points to the hermit crab and the empty shell sitting next to it.] Looks like a lobster.
Miss Chang: Ok, yes. Ahh, Lawrence, Lawrence, Lawrence, what did you say?
Lawrence: It's a lobster.
Miss Chang: It's a lobster! Let's…Kah Lay?
Kah Lay: He wants to
Miss Chang: He wants to get back his own shell? Now anybody else? Ayeeshah, what do you think?
Kah Lay: The crab like a… looks like a prawn.
Miss Chang: Ahh, the crab looks like a prawn, yeah, Crystal Tan?
Crystal Tan: He looks worried.
Miss Chang: He looks worried. I like that. Why do you think he looks worried?
Jerald: Because he cannot find his shell.
Miss Chang: Cannot find his shell. Why do you think, why do you think he can't find his shell? Zach, Why do you think he cannot find his shell? Or, Wee Teng…?
In this conversation about the book “The Little Hermit Crab” Miss Chang, the teacher, is orchestrating a lesson aimed at achieving multiple learning objectives. She is working an anticipatory discussion leading to the theme of the book—the hermit crab’s search for a home. This connects to the current instructional theme on homes. She is weaving in science—note how different children are working out an understanding of what a hermit crab is based on a combination of observation, experiences and interactive theorizing with each other. They are also receiving English language instruction with embedded discussion of (in this case) possessive adjectives and how descriptive adjectives are used in English. Miss Chang begins with directives concerning behavior and task descriptions, then moves on to classic direct instruction techniques such as question and answer, answer checking and initiation-response-evaluation (IRE) patterns. And then, at Miss Chang’s invitation, children start saying things. These things might be based on the task at hand, refer (obliquely) to experiences they have at home, arise from folk knowledge or media wisdom. Sometimes the comments are in good standard English, sometimes they are the gropings of a child learning English, often they are a mixture of English, Mandarin or Malay and/or the local patois, Singlish.
The children in this class are typical of the Singapore population as a whole—approximately 70% ethnic Chinese, 23% Malay and 7% Indian. These children may or may not speak English at home, however, English is the language of instruction and the majority of the early primary instructional hours are spent developing English literacy. A major change in this Primary 1 curriculum as realized at Miss Chang’s school is that instruction is embedded in themes designed to invite the intellectual and emotional participation of the children. This reflects instructional initiatives and reforms called for by the Ministry of Education which ask teachers to take a more constructivist stance in the Primary 1 and 2 (P1, P2) grade levels. This initiative, Strategies for Effective Engagement and Development (SEED) asks teachers to engage children in active learning through thematic and integrated instruction. Miss Chang, as a senior teacher, is a leader in developing and implementing this new curriculum and pedagogical style. The teaching we witnessed at Jelutong Primary and in Miss Chang’s classroom, in particular, were fascinating examples of thematic and integrated instruction and were in marked contrast to much of the teaching we witnessed elsewhere in Singapore schools.
During the last two years the Centre for Research in Pedagogy and Practice (CRPP) (Luke, Cazden, Lin, & Freebody; 2004) has been conducting a large scale study of teaching practices in Singapore. In general, teaching in Singapore was found to be dominated by direct teacher centred methods—an extremely efficient method of curriculum delivery. The researchers involved in that study found very little classroom discussion or critique at the upper levels or constructivist, emergent teaching in the early grades. In particular, they found teacher practices were highly routinised and scripted, with little evidence that teachers were able to move flexibly from one instructional strategy to another. Nor was there much evidence that teachers shifted between levels or kinds of knowledge in their teaching (“weaving”).
This is in marked contrast to what we see in Miss Chang’s teaching. Weaving, as defined by the CRPP study, is highly apparent in this class. Here and in Miss Chang’s other classes we see weaving between levels of knowledge in the disciplines as well as English Language, between everyday and more discipline-specific ways of looking at things, between individual experience and more generalizable knowledge.
Since the roll out of SEED we have been following teachers at a number of schools observing how their pedagogical practices and roles evolve in response to the ideals described by the new initiative. In this paper we wish to report a year long study of one P1 teacher, Miss Chang, describing how she delivers the thematic curriculum, weaving both learning objectives, curricular goals, reading and English Language instruction into her teaching and how this changes across the year as the students develop. We address the questions:
How do teachers and students participate in and structure weaving?
What funds of knowledge are accessed during weaving? How successful is weaving in engaging students affectively and effectively?
What types, forms, methods and recurrent patterns of weaving occur and how are they used?
To do this we focus our analysis on the mechanics of weaving using the tools of discourse analysis on transcripts and descriptions of audio and videotapes of her classes to tease out and analyze the way she constructs this teaching and how it changes over time.
Miss Chang, the teacher in our vignette, is a 40 year veteran primary teacher. Her role in this school and especially this grade is “Senior Teacher” and in that role she is the curricular “expert” and pedagogical resource for other teachers at her school. She is the person to go to for day-to-day help with practical teaching problems. The Senior Teacher role is a new creation by the Ministry of Education and it is considered a high honor. The specific duties include mentorship and coaching of junior teachers and particularly novice teachers and acting as curricular expert. In all the teaching instances we observed Miss Chang, displayed a expert command of the English language curricular goals and pedagogy. Lynn Paine (1990) described the expert teacher in China as a virtuoso:
The focus in teaching was on performance, the goal to produce a virtuoso performance. With little input into the selection, content, or use of curriculum materials, […] what is important is how the teacher presents the material, how she or he adds a particular interpretation to the rendering of accepted knowledge.
The central aim of teaching is to provide knowledge for students. It is an act of transmission, its movement unilateral. The teacher plays the leading role.
Knowledge, at the core of all teaching, is the most important requirement for a teacher. A good teacher, an excellent one, is distinguished by possessing an exceptional amount of knowledge.
Students are expected to receive the teacher’s knowledge as it is presented. Construction or transformation of that knowledge is not an essential part of learning or teaching. (p. 50-51)
The fascinating thing to us was how Miss Chang both embodied this generalization and transcended it--experimenting with infusing her English language teaching with content and opening her teaching up to a great deal of uncertainty by enabling topical discussion in her class. It is this expertise that underlies the weaving in the class but also causes us to claim that discourse norms are renegotiated in an emergent manner as the year unfolds.
Discourse analysis of classroom instructional talk
Utilizing transcription and detailed descriptions of classroom interactions we coded a sequence of 15 classes spaced from the start of the school year in January to the end of the third semester (August 31). The fourth semester in Singapore schools is largely devoted to test preparation and administration and the majority of the syllabus will have been completed by the end of semester three. We only returned to the class after September 1 as a visitor.
The transcripts and class descriptions were coded at the first level in a similar manner to the CRPP Panel 3 study (Luke, Freebody, Lau, & Gopinathan; 2005) in order to capture how lessons were organized into phases and how knowledge was framed and presented. Phases were defined as distinct “units” within the lesson structure, demarcated by a change in class activities and patterns of interaction. We, however, further coded phases into smaller units or “shifts” indicating a “turn” or verbally signaled regrouping within a phase initiated by the teacher. Six classes were coded and analyzed for discourse patterns. Of these, one data set (March 72005) was considered anomalous and not explored further for this study. Interactions were sequenced and coded by “types”: (1) monologue/choral read, (2) dialogue, (3) question and answer (Q&A), (4) listing, (5) initiation-response-evaluation (IRE), (6) ideas gathering, where children’s ideas are solicited but occur in a string (as opposed, for example, to Q&A) (7) argument—where children juxtapose ideas and defend them, (8) volunteered student ideas and comments. To calculate comparable totals of interaction types, class lengths were normalized to 60 minutes.
The typical class had three phases: a sharing/set up phase, a book read phase and an activity phase and this remained stable over the course of the year. The number of shifts within a phase decreased over the year as the lengths of interactional turns increased and the number of explicit behavioral directives decreased. Total direct instructional techniques (Q&A plus IRE) remain relatively stable over the year however dialogic interactions (dialogue, argument, volunteered ideas) increase. Overall weaving takes multiple forms in most classes. Horizontal weaving occurs across disciplines and is typically manifested as shifting between the current theme, English Language instruction, and particular Learning Objective goals (usually grammar and vocabulary), and whatever science and/or social studies emerges from the theme. Vertical weaving occurs across time and between Learning Objectives and themes as they develop over lessons, while applied weaves focus around the trade book being read or are spontaneous examples introduced by the children, typically drawn from their funds of knowledge and personal experiences.
Class length (min.)
Three classes, one from the end of term one, term two and term three, were further coded for interactional functions. This coding scheme used and built on the previous interactional categories:
1 (monologue/choral read)—behavior, task set up, read text, choral read;
Looking at the above data and analyzing both the interaction patterns and the discursive function of the individual interactions we can see how Miss Chang weaves direct instruction of learning objectives into the thematic discussions. To do this she weaves instructional techniques. For example, we coded the interactional sequence at the start of this paper, [T]1b [T D T D T]5a [H T]5g [J T J]8 [T l T k T a]6 [T c T J T]5g. In this sequence, Miss Chang sets up the book read by alternating direct instructional methods and soliciting children’s ideas and opinions. The direct instructional methods act as behavioral controls but also more subtly guide the conversation to start to shape connections to the instructional theme, homes. This pattern of instruction builds up the thematic connection as well as actively reinforcing the days lesson objectives—using possessive and descriptive adjectives.
Classroom talk here is highly orchestrated by Miss Chang and neither what is said or how it is said is random or uncontrolled. Rather it has structure and is representative of a system which Miss Chang is keeping tight control over. This system of exchanges is, in fact, the basic form of organization for both transmission of knowledge during direct instruction and more constructivist building up of understanding.
Anne Dyson, in talking about literacy teaching and learning in the early years in the United States, claims that, “children create comfortable learning places for more skillful literacy efforts through weaving together experiences in and out of school” (Dyson 1990: 211). For Dyson weaving adds a newdimension to ideas such as scaffolding by suggesting that a child’s progress in any one activity can be supported by his experiences in varied activities. Such activities can be distinguished by the learning spaces they generate through varying the intentions, materials and phases (participation structures). A weaving is comprised of varied activities that allow for different kinds of intentions, interactions and materials.
Several pertinent points can be raised from Dyson’s work:
Weaving involves drawing in the student’s funds of knowledge and personal experiences.
Weaving is not only about shifts in types of knowledge, but is about shifts between types of activities and interactions (including phases and materials). This is dependent on the teacher’s understanding of the students’ experiences and knowledge.
The weaving between activities and interactions are largely generated by students rather than teachers, although the intention is for the teacher to scaffold the weaving patterns.
Dyson’s observations suggest that weaving is a natural fallout from children’s ways of using knowledge. It is apparent though that in Miss Chang’s classroom at least, making these into instructional weaves is the primary role of the teacher. It is she who makes both explicit and implicit connections between the children’s knowledge, understandings, and experiences, and the curricular goals and learning objectives. This is done through the structure of classroom talk.
Over the course of the instructional year, the pattern of exchanges in Miss Chang’s classroom changes very little. Rather what evolves appears to be the complexity and sophistication of the children’s talk. For example if we contrast the following dialogue from approximately 20 minutes further along in the May 4th lesson to dialogue occurring in February.
May 4 2005
Miss Chang: Ah… The little crab enters the shell as taught by the hermit crab. Next he raises his pair of big claws. He does not know where to place them. Why do you think he does not know where to place them?
Daniel: Maybe the shell is too small it is full of his tail.
Wan-Ling: Or maybe he is supposed to use them for protection
Miss Chang: Wait did you hear what Daniel said. Hold on before your turn, Daniel could you tell them?
Daniel: Maybe The shell is too filled with his legs
Miss Chang: The shell is too filled with his legs. He does not know where to place his big claws. Do you think that is a good idea or does anybody have another idea? Ok Wan-Ling?
Wan-Ling: Maybe those two are used for… as weapons
Miss Chang: Ok good
Student: Maybe some…
Miss Chang: Ok hold on, can I have somebody else? Does anybody else have any ideas? Belinda? Why does he not know where to put his two big claws? Hold on. Denise Peh? Zach? Don’t know. Ok Choon Lie? Don’t know. Ok do you think what Daniel said could be true? He does not know where to put his big legs, his big claws because the shell is too filled up with his other legs? Lawrence?
Lawrence: Because its too small
Miss Chang: The shell is too small for him. Ok that’s also a good idea
Daniel: Or maybe he has grown up in and he grows up in and the shell is too big and he can’t fit
Miss Chang: The claws are too big for the shell
Wan-Ling: Is he too fat
Miss Chang: Maybe he is too fat? Like some of you have grown bigger right? Could you fit into your clothes? The clothes that you had when you were in kindergarten?
Students: yeses and nos
Miss Chang: No alright Hamid? Hamid, can we have an idea from you?
Student: Funny idea…
Hamid: It is too full of his body
Miss Chang: Too full of his body. Ok lets go on and find out.
Student: The crab he looks like a giant
Miss Chang: The crab looks like a giant. Yes.
Jerald: Maybe he use his hand ah, he go and, he’s hungry, he used the big something and put in his mouth. ((made ‘scissors’ movement with his hands as he speaks))
February 29 2005
Miss Chang: Lets read the title together… Sh…
Students: When my baby sister come/came home ((Miss Chang points at the words as the students read))
Miss Chang: ((points at ‘came’)) This word, come or came?
Miss Chang: Came, why do we not say, some of you said come, why do we say came
Daniel: Because its in the past tense
Miss Chang: In the past tense. So what do we mean by past tense?
Daniel: Its over, it happened
Miss Chang: Its over, it happened yesterday, it happened some time ago. Denise Peh, Denise Peh?… We’re going to read this now. Ok? No tell me, who can tell me who the author is?
Student: The person who wrote the book… Christine Lim
Miss Chang: The person who wrote the book, Christine Lim. Ok and who is the illustrator
Student: Made picture (points). Roy XXX
Miss Chang: Now who can tell me about this picture, what do you think, what do you think the title is… “When my baby sister came home”, what do you mean by that? Who can give me a title, what this means, “When my baby sister came home”? Give me an idea. ((students raised their hands)) Can I have others beside just the same people? Ah Amir, what do you mean? When my baby sister came home??? (Amir doesn’t answer.) What is baby sister coming from? Shaw Ying? //
Student:// Because you want to play.//
Miss Chang: Shao Yang?
Shao Yang: Don’t know
Miss Chang: But where did the baby come from?
Amira: From right here (points to belly).
Miss Chang: Ah, Amira?
Student: From the dustbin.
Amira: Inside your tummy
Miss Chang: Inside the tummy! So what happened inside the tummy, so what happened?
Miss Chang: Hospital! Very good! And why was she coming home from the hospital? Who can give me the answer?
Miss Chang: Somebody else said that, from the tummy, who said that? Ah! (Points at Amira again.) Ok lets read.
Student: The mother was pregnant…
Miss Chang: The mother was pregnant, the mother gave birth to the baby. Ok (she turns to first page). “When my baby sister came home.” Let’s read the story (turns page). “When my baby sister came home (a couple kids are reading with her).” Why do you think it shows this expression on his face?
Jerald: He’s very worried
Miss Chang: He’s worried, why you think he wants to worry (Daniel is also calling out)
Miss Chang: (Signals hands up.) Oh oh oh (points to Crystal Tan) Crystal Tan?
Crystal Tan: (long inaudible answer)
Miss Chang: Would he loved…?
Crystal Tan: (more of long answer)
Miss Chang: He loved his mother but he was afraid that his mother would love his baby sister more. Is that so? He is afraid that his mother would love his baby sister more? Yes Jerald
Jerald: (very long answer) … Because ah, he’s worried a lot…they must carry back the other, then his mother or grandparent ah ask him ah that… tomorrow we bring back the baby girl, sometime we think about they all forget the sack…
Miss Chang: Forgot? Oh maybe they go to get the baby, they come back and maybe they forget the food back... You all have very good answers. Crystal’s answer is good, So is yours. Very good reasons but let’s move on.
Crystal Tan: Because she love the…
Miss Chang: “She cried (imitates baby crying), whaaa! My baby sister cried when mother carried her.” Why do you think the baby was crying? Why do you think the the baby cry?
Students: I know, I know…
Student: Hungry, hungry
Miss Chang: She wanted the brother. She was hungry.
Daniel: She wanted to drink milk
Miss Chang: She wanted to drink milk
Jerald: She wanted to pass urine. (He gets a big laugh and Miss Chang does a visible take on it)
Miss Chang: She wanted to…she wants to ease herself?
Student: Want to do toilet poop.
Miss Chang: Alright, lets go on.
Duncan: “There, there…”
Miss Chang: “There, there baby, don’t cry. What a fuss mother make over her!” What a fuss mother make over her!!! Why was he upset?
The coding sequence of the two May excerpts combined are 1b 5a 5g 8 6 5g …6 6 while the sequence for the February excerpt is 1b/t 5r 5r 3f (times 5) 3l 6 3f 1b 1r 6. Both sequences begin with explicit behavioral and task instruction, move on to direct instructional techniques, then interlayer these with more open ended instruction and ideas sharing. The two excerpts differ in that the initial direct instruction for February is about conventions of English grammar and the questions posed to the children are about structural components of the book and leading questions to help the children decode and understand the story line. In May the IRE patterns concern content and the specific learning objectives around grammar and vocabulary are highly contextualized and embedded within the book discussion.
In May the classroom conversation is more dialogic in nature evidenced by the frequency of interactional exchanges beginning with the word “maybe” and ending with questioning inflections. These comments are made in response to others ideas as well as to reflect personal experience and opinion. The grammatical structures of the children’s talk as well as Miss Chang’s argue for improved conversational English communicating more sophisticated ideas. For example in the February transcript, the use of ‘ah’ and partial sentence fragments, grammatical errors such as lack of agreement between subject/verb pairs is apparent. Substantively, in February, Miss Chang clearly manages the contributions of students to arrive at a satisfactory topical discussion. She used refining questions such as 'But where' to push the students to make more than statements. In May, however, to her 'why' and 'what do you think' questions students generated seven possible answers with 'maybe' markers. The discussion is much less scaffolded. This is evidence and indication of both increased levels of maturity, language usage and confidence of the students. This substantive change in discussion culminates in August.
In the last class we attended as researchers, Miss Chang is reading from the book, “The Little Red Helicopter” and she pauses to direct the children to look at a picture of the helicopter.
August 31 2005
Miss Chang: Here we are here’s the helicopter. Look at the people, the little boy, the helicopter, these things—did anybody notice these?
Students: [Kids calling out.]
Miss Chang: Ok…
Student: What called? What called?
Miss Chang: What do you think these are called? [She is pointing at the blades.]
Students: [Call out ideas.]
Student: Propeller, propeller…
Miss Chang: Ah…one voice. Anybody would like to tell us something about the propeller?
Lawrence: That’s what helps the helicopter to fly!
Miss Chang: It helps the helicopter to fly…alright, yes right, propeller, everybody say propeller
Miss Chang: Propeller
Miss Chang: Ok I’m going to read on…yes (Junsong has hand up)
Junsong: What is that thing (he points and indicates shapes with hands)
Miss Chang: What do you think the helicopter, how many of you think that the helicopter doesn’t need wheels?
Lawrence: Not all have.
Wan-Ling: The propeller’s so they can fly.
Miss Chang: Certain helicopters…do you think that all helicopters have wheels?
Lawrence : Some.
Junsong: [Is describing the [ski] landing gear on helicopters and calls them ‘planks’.]
Miss Chang: Junsong saw the planks that he saw planks that they land on
Miss Chang: I’m not too sure about that but if you have got pictures of helicopters that do not have wheels can you bring them tomorrow? This is a picture of a helicopter with wheels. Now tell me what are these wheels for then?
Student: To run…
Miss Chang: To run?
Students: [Many kids calling out ideas]
Lawrence: [Gestures with his hands] to move across the landing area.
Wan-Ling: They…[using his hands to indicate rising}
The children go on discussing the functions of the various types of landing gear and the blades of helicopters. Miss Chang repeatedly tries to return to the book read and various individuals (especially Wan-Ling, Lawrence and Jerald) pull her back to their interest in the features of the helicopter.
In this class all IRE is behavioral and the children are very much taking command of the conversation topic by insisting on talking about the functions of the parts of the helicopter. This plays into Miss Chang’s instructional agenda as she intends to do an activity on flying—a demonstration of Bernouli’s principle with origami helicopters. The children’s conversation topic comes out of their interests but fits Miss Chang’s instructional needs in a significantly more organic manner than in classes earlier in the year. In other words the substantive weaving has become more natural and more a joint project as the year progresses. By the end weaving more closely resembles the weaving Ann Dyson describes as arising from the children’s conversation naturally. Miss Chang engineers the weaving less—at first she worked the weaves so that she could hit the Learning Objectives and curricular points, but by the end she can wait for this to happen for her. Her role is to wait for these and then capitalize upon them.
We can clearly see from the progression of these classes both how the teachers and students participate in and structure weaving and how this changes over time. The funds of knowledge accessed during weaving are both substantive and syntactic for the teacher—the mechanics of weaving enable the connection and development of ideas. To do this, both the flexibility and knowledge capacities of the teacher would seem to need to be large and sophisticated. The success of weaving in engaging students both affectively and effectively is dependent upon this.
We assert that thematic, integrated instruction, at least as realized by Miss Chang, involves weaving, not just between knowledge domains but also across a rich repertoire of pedagogical techniques and practices. It also involves negotiating the varying funds of knowledge of both the teacher and the students, funds of knowledge reflecting both differing experiences and differing levels of sophistication. This realization has large ramifications for the professional development of less experienced teachers and for the ultimate success of initiatives such as SEED. In many ways this teaching is extremely difficult and in fact such teaching, which is dependent upon an individual’s expressions of knowledge and ideas and developing “voice,” within an Asian-Chinese pedagogical tradition, involves the emergence and renegotiation of discourse norms within the classroom and we can see this in Miss Chang’s lessons—as the classroom culture develops over the school year, increasingly traditional discourse patterns of unquestioning respect for authorities, elders and disembodied knowledge are challenged and renegotiated. For teachers either less knowledgeable, less experienced or less self-confident than Miss Chang, the difficulties of implementing a similar pedagogy are both large and interconnected.
Dyson, A.H. (1990). Weaving possibilities: Rethinking metaphors for early literacy development. The Reading Teacher, 44(3), pp. 202-213.
Luke, A., Cazden, C., Lin, A. & Freebody, P. (2004). The Singapore classroom coding system. Technical Report. Singapore: Centre for Research in Pedagogy and Practice.
Luke, A., Freebody, P., Lau, S., & Gopinathan, S. (2005) Towards research-based educational policy: Singapore education in transition. Asia Pacific Journal of Education 14(1), 1-22.
Paine, L.W. (1990). The Teacher as Virtuoso: A Chinese Model for Teaching. Teachers College Record Volume 92(1) p.49-81.