The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget published 70 volumes between 1915 and 1990[i]. Only one of them contained the word construction in the title, The construction of reality in the child written in 1937. (La construction du réel chez l'enfant). However, it is this metaphor of construction that has been taken up.
When I was at secondary school in the 1970's I recall long double periods of science where we worked in small groups to do experiments using equipment such as Bunsen burners and test-tubes.
I recently observed a lesson where, after an initial story input and some discussion about the complex idea of being wild or tame, 6 year old children were asked to create their own understanding of the idea working around tables which were laden with pens, scissors, glue and bits of coloured paper. I listened to their talk. Like our talk years ago in my school when doing practical work, this was not about conceptual understanding but about practical procedures. 'Where is the ruler?', 'can you pass it?, 'No! That is mine! get off!' and so on. There was also some discussion about which teacher was nicest and who had the biggest house. I think that time for art work is good and mucking around together in an unstructured sort of way is helpful for learning social skills like resilience when someone steals your ruler. But I did not see much connection between the reality of how the children performed the task and the learning objective. I wondered if the metaphor of construction influenced this teacher to want to want see children drawing, cutting and gluing.
When I did a PGCE at Bristol university back in 1990 we were asked to record lessons and compare how many teacher turns at talk (ttt) there were compared to student turns at talk (stt). It was made pretty obvious from the feedback that having the least ttt and the most stt was best. The reason for this was, of course, 'constructivism' and Piaget was referred to as an authority. Constructivism, I was taught, says that children do not learn by being told stuff but that they always have to construct meaning for themselves. In fact, according to this theory, teaching ideas to children before they are ready for them can often be harmful to learning. On the whole, rigorously applying the metaphor of construction, the teacher's role becomes not to teach at all but to get out of the way in order for the children to learn for themselves.
Metaphor 2 transmission
Some years ago I observed a science class in a primary school in a middle-eastern country where there was little or no teacher education. In the class the students, aged 6 or 7, sat at individual desks chatting together. When the teacher, a young man, walked in, they all stood up and greeted him formally. The lesson consisted of him talking them through examples in a text book and writing things on a blackboard that they then wrote into their exercise books. The children were silent throughout unless called upon by the teacher when they answered questions and sometimes recited responses together in unison.
Why did this teacher think that this was the best way to educate children? I wondered if it was simply that the dominant metaphor for education is transmission. If you ask anyone, anywhere, I mean anyone who has not done teacher training in a UK university obviously, then they will probably say that education is about the transmission of knowledge across generations. Perhaps, when he got the job as a teacher, he stood in front of a class and he asked himself ‘what am I supposed to do now?’ then he thought ‘I know, teaching is the transmission of knowledge, I will transmit what I know’.
This kind of teaching as transmission also happened to me in most of my lessons at state schools in the 1970's. While science was taught with a lot of hands-on discovery learning other subjects were taught through transmission. In geography, for example, I recall that the teacher would get us to open our text books, he would explain something like the formation of ox-bow lakes, then he would write key text on the board for us to copy in our exercise books.
Although I was often bored in geography, I did learn some things. I found the story that the teacher told to explain ox bow lakes quite fascinating. Looking back now I think that it made sense to me through a sort of inner dialogue where the teacher’s words were met with my own inner answering words, asking questions and making sense of what he said by relating it to other areas of my experience. Playing around with water and mud in the backyard certainly helped my understanding of how rivers impact on landscapes but the story also had resonances for me with the many more general patterns one finds in life. I could relate to the young stream gurgling along fast and happy cutting through the rock and then becoming slower and sluggish as it got older, forming great loops, even apparently flowing backwards away from the ocean at times until it cut new more direct paths towards the ocean leaving stagnant pools of water (ox-bow lakes) behind in its wake. I mean life is a bit like that isn’t it? Certainly lots of institutions like Cambridge University seem to be like that. So I got this explanatory story but not everyone in the class did. The tests we had every term and again every year were not formative but summative. They seemed to mainly serve the purpose of separating the good students from the bad students without any apparent pedagogical purpose. Perhaps because of the dominance of the metaphor of transmission students in the geography class were not helped to develop their own inner dialogue through asking questions, testing out explanations and learning from each other.
The two basic metaphors of transmission and construction seem like opposites but they are related. The one is the shadow of the other. The perceived failure of the transmission approach in education to teach for thinking led to the construction metaphor. Now that the construction metaphor is itself being increasingly challenged some people seem to want to return back to the simplicity and security of the old transmission metaphor or what is now referred to as 'direct teaching'. [ii]
A recent large study in UK schools found that in classrooms with more key indicators of dialogue students learnt more effectively. 'So long as students participated extensively, elaboration and querying of previous contributions were found to be positively associated with curriculum mastery'[iii].
When I first started out researching classroom talk for my PhD with Neil Mercer, dialogue in classrooms was often associated with constructivism, more specifically 'social constructivism'. Knowledge was being constructed but not just by students working on their own but by students working together in small groups, asking questions, giving reasons, developing understanding[iv]. However, I came to realise that dialogue as an approach to education offers us a metaphor that goes beyond the construction versus transmission binary.
Whereas the transmission metaphor tends to treat knowledge as if it was physical stuff, the kind of stuff that can be moved around, stored in books and poured into brains, the dialogue metaphor claims that knowledge does not exist outside of a dialogue where people are asking questions. What we know is always the answer to a question. The questions we ask move on as the dialogue develops over time. The dialogues, or shared inquiries, that construct knowledge are not just small group dialogues but collective social dialogues, dialogues between scientists united within a global community of practice for example.
The role of the teacher in the classroom is to induct children into participation in these larger dialogues. Through the role of the teacher, subjects like mathematics, science and history have a voice in the dialogue. This is not just about construction. It is also, at times, about transmission. Some long-term dialogues of culture, mathematics, science or history are good examples, have already been going on for thousands of years. If you enter a room where a dialogue about a topic has been going on for thousands of years and you immediately tell everyone what you think; well that is just a bit rude - and collectively it is pretty unproductive. It is better to spend time listening first. If newcomers are to learn how to participate in long-term cultural dialogues, they need to know something of the story of the dialogue so far. Telling the story of the dialogue so far is not the transmission of a fixed and settled body of facts but is about engaging students in an ongoing dialogue where the only certainty is that almost everything that we think is true and important now will be proved either wrong or largely irrelevant in the future. Teaching knowledge rich subjects as a dialogue means teaching ideas as fallible and equipping students with the ability to challenge them. Learning science, history or any other subject is not just learning a body of knowledge more importantly it is learning how to think in the area, how to take a position and argue for it understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the all the alternative positions.
Dialogues combine active talking with passive listening. The construction metaphor of education focuses on students actively talking to build their own ideas. The transmission metaphor of education focuses instead on the need for students to passively listen to the collective knowledge of the past that is being passed down to them by teachers. Both metaphors can grip the imaginations of teachers because they both have some truth. Each metaphor reflects a necessary but insufficient aspect of education. Alone each one is limited because it is one-sided. Education occurs only when there is a dynamic interplay between talking and listening, teaching and learning, construction and transmission. Small group dialogues where students learn to ask insightful questions, elaborate on their reasoning and build knowledge together have a valuable role to play but only as one technique within a larger repertoire that includes the importance of lectures from the front, telling good stories and the kind of live exciting student-teacher dialogues that exemplify the exploration and creation of knowledge.
Many complicated things can be written about 'dialogic education' but at root, like construction and transmission, dialogue is a simple, easy-to-grasp, metaphor. My hope is that in the future, when new teachers find themselves in front of a class and are not quite sure what to do next, they will think to themselves 'I know, this is education and education is all about dialogue' so they will begin by asking the students what they already know about a topic and what they think about it in order to engage with them and share their own knowledge in such a way that the students are drawn into participating in the global, long-term, open-ended collective inquiry that is education.
[ii] Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.
[iii] Howe, C., Hennessy, S., Mercer, N., Vrikki, M., & Wheatley, L. (2019). Teacher-Student Dialogue during Classroom Teaching: Does it Really Impact upon Student Outcomes?.
[iv] Wegerif, R., & Mercer, N. (1997). A dialogical framework for researching peer talk. Language and Education Library, 12, 49-64.
Based on the argument of: Phillipson, N., & Wegerif, R. (2016). Dialogic Education: Mastering core concepts through thinking together. Routledge.
My focus on the role of metaphors in this blog is inspired by
Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (2008). Metaphors we live by. University of Chicago press.
Sfard, A. (1998). On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one. Educational researcher, 27(2), 4-13.