Making meaning through history : scaffolding students' conceptual understanding through dialogue

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This study aims to articulate a theory of teaching that accounts for both the cognitive development of the learner and the social context in which learning occurs. It contributes to discussions about a socially constructed theory of pedagogy that can inform classroom practice. It explores firstly the role of the teacher in supporting students' conceptual understanding and secondly the importance of dialogue as a means of apprenticing students into the discourse of a subject discipline. The sociocultural notion of 'scaffolding' and the way in which various 'scaffolding' strategies support students' learning are examined through the classroom data. This thesis also explores the classroom as a site of activity in which educational practice is enacted. The significance of language as a 'tool' for learning is central to this study, as is the notion of learning as a social process. Language is a mediating tool that enables a dialogic engagement that supports the development of thinking that is consistent with the goals of the teacher. Also investigated is the use of various semiotic modalities, in addition to language, to support the active co-construction of knowledge. The research is conducted in a Year 7 History class (the first year of high school) in an independent, secondary boys' high school using a case study approach. It uses observation in naturalistic settings, interviews and written documentation. A significant outcome of this research has been the identification of discourse strategies and other semiotic systems such as visual, gestural and actional cues, and examination of the ways in which they function in the discourse to support student learning in the local and immediate context. The importance of all aspects that constitute the context in which the students are learning is also affirmed in this study. Context is not merely a 'backdrop' or background to language, it is integral to the creation of meaning and field knowledge. Another major conclusion that can be drawn from this research is the distinction between scaffolding at a macro level, consisting of a planned, 'designed-in' approach to a unit of work in a subject discipline and the lessons that constitute it, and contingent scaffolding that operates at a micro level or 'at the point of need'. By applying a variety of linguistic tools drawing on Systemic Functional Linguistic theory, it has been possible to articulate the kinds of discourse and multimodal strategies that constitute the nature of scaffolding. A further finding in this research is the value of using detailed analysis of the data with different analytical tools to identify emerging patterns in the discourse and also to 'view' the same data through different 'lenses'. An additional finding is the significance of an Induction genre that provides foundational understandings about the study of History for apprentice historians. This is supported by two post-foundational lessons that form a Macrogenre. This macrogenre reinforces the application of focus questions that are fundamental to historical study and an approach to answering these questions that is consistent with the methodology of the subject. Another finding relates to the role the teacher adopts in the classroom. The classroom in this research is strongly teacher guided in terms of the development of content and ways of controlling the development of discourse. This research shows that this does not preclude the classroom from being dialogic. Even though there is a knowledge and status differential between the teacher as expert and the student as novice, the teacher provides opportunities for discussion and development of ideas about the topic. Finally, this study confirms the value of drawing on a broad range of theories to inform the research. These multiple perspectives draw from sociocultural approaches to a socially oriented theory of learning; Activity Theory, and the notion of language as a social semiotic. This range of perspectives allows for 'rich' descriptions from which to draw conclusions about effective teaching and learning practices.
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