At Saffron Walden County High School, research, in order to develop teaching and learning, is at the heart of our practice. Christina Turner, a previous Deputy Headteacher at SWCHS with responsibility for teaching and learning in the school, is currently a Masters student at Essex University studying Psychology. As part of the research for her dissertation, Christina conducted a project at the school looking at how teachers and pupils establish ‘Common ground’ when communicating in the classroom. This is a summary of her findings:
PROBLEMS can occur when we refer to an object in conversation, as this can be misunderstood. For example, asking a friend to get “the canvas bag” is open to misinterpretation. One person may use “the canvas bag” to indicate the shopping bag used for food, whilst another person may use it to describe their favourite bag used for personal belongings. Therefore, it is important for dialogue partners to establish references which both interpret as meaning the same object. This foundation of mutual knowledge is known as common ground.
Some research has demonstrated that speech production is generally egocentric, and stems from the needs of the speaker, rather than the needs of their audience. However, other research disagrees and shows that speakers will adapt accordingly to help their audience understand their meaning. Teachers have a lot of experience in adapting to meet the needs of their students and therefore, should be quick to modify their speech. We decided to test this theory by using a collaborative activity, where teachers and students interacted to converge on a reference for an abstract figure known as a tangram. Examples of these are shown below:
In each pair, one person (the teacher) was the Director. They had a grid containing the 12 abstract figures. The second person was the Matcher and this was either a Year 7 student, a Year 12 student or another teacher. The Matcher had the same 12 abstract figures as the Director, but these were on separate cards. The job of the Matcher was to listen to the instructions of the Director so that they could place the card in the right place on the grid (matching the grid of the Director). Of course, the Director and Matcher sat facing away from each other so neither could see what the other was doing.
The results were very interesting. Firstly, the pairs comprising of two teachers were quickest on average to complete the activity, with pairs containing a Year 7 student being the slowest. Pairs containing a Year 12 student, as expected, were in the middle. Why did this occur? Teachers were very quick to adapt to the needs of the Year 7 students. They produced far more speech with Year 7 students than Year 12 students or other teachers. This included lengthier descriptions and regular checking of understanding. Interestingly, some teachers also encouraged the Year 7 students to come up with their own names for the abstract figures. Whilst this slowed the process down, it was an excellent strategy in involving the students in the learning process, as by generating names for the figures, they were more likely to remember them. In other teacher-Year 7 pairs, common ground was established very quickly by agreeing a unique reference early on and this proved efficient in task completion.
Importantly, we also found that when the status in the pairs was the same (so when teachers worked with other teachers), the Matcher (teacher) was much more likely to offer ideas and ask questions to help with settling on a name for the figure. The students produced much less speech in this role than the staff. This indicates that status imbalance can impede student feedback which can weaken common ground acquisition. This highlights the importance of encouraging students to provide feedback to overcome problems caused by status. Supplementary to this, Year 7 students were much more likely to accept a description, even if they were still unsure. They seemed to avoid opportunities to ask questions through fear of revealing their own inadequacies or those of the teacher description. It seems that the relatively high status of the teacher magnified Year 7 student sensitivity to politeness needs and pressure to accept a reference, and so they tended to tolerate a greater amount of uncertainty than Year 12 students and teachers. Of course, the teachers addressed this is later exchanges but it still serves to emphasise the value of encouraging students to question regularly, no matter their age, to surmount status barriers in establishing common ground. This is especially important in Year 7 where the transition from primary to secondary school poses significant challenges, including anxiety around meeting new teachers.
In summary, teachers adapt to the needs of younger students by providing lengthier descriptions and by inviting them to generate their own descriptions. Evidence for teacher-adaptation is strong with marked modifications for Year 7 students compared to other teachers, whilst differences were less distinct for Year 12 students indicating their intermediate status. These results support the idea that teachers are experts in adapting to meet the needs of their students, knowing that Year 7 students have different needs to those in Year 12, and use mental models of students based on age to inform this.