A Tale of Two Classrooms

To introduce the flavour of the differences between each approach that we want to capture in the four chapters of Part B of Literacies, we will tell the true story of two classrooms, juxtaposed for the contrast we ourselves felt so keenly one week when, as a part of our research, we found ourselves in both places. Our main interest in this chapter is didactic pedagogy, but the four paradigms only make sense by way of contrast. They are choices amongst alternatives. We want you to see how these choices play out for teachers and learners as they engage in learning. So, to start our discussion, we will contrast a classroom cast more in the mould of authentic pedagogy (which we will go on to analyse in detail in Chapter 4 of Literacies) with the didactic pedagogy of another classroom (analysed later in this chapter).

  • Classroom One. A Year 7 geography and commerce class at Public High, a school in an old, traditionally working class neighbourhood in a big city.

Since the mid nineteenth century, this has been a first-stop suburb for wave after wave of immigrants—originally Irish, Scottish and English, then, after the Second World War, Greeks, followed by Lebanese; then, after the end of the Vietnam War, Vietnamese, Chinese, Cambodians and Laotians; and most recently, Central and South Americans, Pacific Islanders and people from the Indian subcontinent. Ninety three per cent of the students in the school come from families where English is not the main language of the household. The school is officially designated ‘disadvantaged’. This is why a junior secondary geography/commerce teacher had availed herself of an opportunity to take a three week in-service training course called ‘Multiculturalism in the Classroom’.

  • Classroom Two. An English class at Ethnic High, seemingly a world away from Public High.

Ethnic High is a private school for students of a single religious denomination and a single language background, an immigrant language. But in other respects the social and even the literal distance from Public High is not so great. A new and growing school of several hundred students, its constituency is one of the largest ethnic groups represented at Public High. Its locality and its students’ families are no more affluent than those at Public High. Some of the students at Ethnic High might have gone to Public High had their parents not taken an extra job, working overtime in factories or family shops to pay the fees levied by the school. At times, this seems the only difference in the social background of the students attending the two schools. Inside, however, the schools themselves could hardly be more different.

Literacy Learning at Public High

Classroom One: The Year 7 geography/commerce teacher at Public High tells us that one of the most obvious difficulties for a teacher in the so-called multicultural classroom, particularly for someone not trained as a teacher of subject English or in the teaching of English as a second language, is dealing with the different levels of language proficiency inevitably to be found amongst the students at her school. With such diversity, the English language is a practical priority, unlike the seemingly vague, idealistic pronouncements about difference and tolerance that are most immediately associated with multiculturalism. The extra training course she took proved to be worthwhile, she said, because she had picked up several language learning strategies. One was to divide the class into small work groups. She now does this seventy-five per cent of the time. This is part of an ‘activities-based approach’, she said. Another strategy she had learnt was to allow students to use whichever language they liked, English or their first language, to complete their geography and commerce work. If the students’ English was not adequate to the task, she encourages them to write in their first language. She said she didn’t know much about the theory behind it but ‘if you can get a kid to write something that they feel comfortable with and they write it well and they know they can do it in their own language, it gives them such a boost of confidence and self-esteem that they’re prepared better to have a go when it comes to writing in English’. At first her students thought they would get a lower mark if they wrote in a language other than English, she said, but they soon discovered this was not the case. She spoke to them about the contents of their work once it was completed and gave them their marks after an oral presentation in English about its contents.

‘Barter and Money’ is the topic of a sequence of lessons that lasts for three hours. After some general introductory comments about the key terms of the commerce topic, a word of encouragement to use the library to find out more information and passing out some handouts, she has the students rearrange the classroom. The furniture is arranged in rows and not suitable for group work, so the students energetically set about rearranging the desks. They are then allotted by the teacher to groups of four or five and told which of three alternative tasks each group is to undertake: to write a play on barter; to prepare a poster suitable for a display at the airport explaining the local currency to international visitors; or to prepare a newspaper’s classified advertisement section, showing items for sale.

The teacher starts to move from group to group. None of the students in the group who are to work on the play has written one before. The teacher suggests that the plot needs to be complicated—not just ‘I’ll swap you this for that, OK?’ She also tells them they have to ‘create’ and ‘perform’ their play.

The classroom steps up to a loud hum. There is a lot of pupil-to-pupil interaction. Almost all student interactions with the teacher are managerial in nature—that is, the instructions are about what the students should or should not be doing to get organised. One of the groups is given a model or example of the kind of text that was anticipated, the group that was to create the classified advertisements. The teacher gave them a page of advertisements from a newspaper. This group gets stuck on what an ‘amphibian’ is, a word mentioned somewhere on the page. Another group wonders why there would be a poster about money at the airport. They had never seen one. What might it look like?

One student leaves his group to write something for somebody in another group, in Arabic. The teacher has carefully divided the groups so that the language backgrounds of the students are mixed. Meanwhile, the group writing the play dissipates. A Vietnamese girl starts to read a book that had been set as homework by the English teacher. Another student wanders off to see what the other groups are doing. The most involved student in the play writing group writes out a script on her own.

Of the students in the money poster group, one laboriously colours a blue border. The others go off to the library to find information, only to return empty handed half an hour later. So the teacher tells them that they will have to ‘make it up’. A girl writes ‘School Sux’ on a piece of paper, puts it in someone else’s bag, then changes her mind, takes it out and screws it up. A boy plays with a ball, and two others get started on a game that involves slapping hands loudly. The atmosphere is relaxed, the students seem to get on reasonably well with each other and there is no negative pressure placed upon students which might, for example, mean that their activity could be marked as unsuccessful or inadequate.

Public High

Literacy Learning Ecology:

  • Goal: Year 7 writing in commerce
  • Issues: dealing with the different levels of language proficiency to be found amongst the students
  • Instruction: ‘activities-based approach’ + allow students to use whichever language they like + group work
  • Intended outcome: boost of confidence and self-esteem so that students are more interested and engaged writers of English

Literacy Learning at Ethnic High

Classroom Two: The aims of the Ethnic High, said the principal, were to promote academic rigour, the value of work, the significance of achievement, the importance of the moral values of The Faith, and a sense of belonging to a community. ‘If we get them to work hard, believe in work, that’s the ethic they will leave with.’ One student, he said proudly, wrote a poem entitled ‘I Want to, I Must, I Shall’. Homework is set every night, lasting a minimum of two hours, and students are given detention if it was not done. The focus of the curriculum is on ‘the basics’, such as ‘writing without grammatical mistakes’. And multiculturalism? ‘I haven’t even thought of the word in relation to the school,’ said the principal.

Because it is a small school, the principal also teaches. Two straight lines of neatly uniformed students—the boys in one line and the girls in another—stand waiting outside the classroom for his junior secondary English class. When given the order, they file in and take the same places they always do in a grid of single desks. The lesson consists of a continuous barrage of questions asked by the principal, starting with a review of the contents of the last test. Students respond one by one. Onomatopoeia? Alliteration? Metaphor? ‘Hands up!’ The class is quiet, students never speaking unless questioned. There is virtually no pupil-initiated talk and no pupil-pupil talk.

Next, ‘Do you remember we began to talk about a special type of poem in the last lesson? What was its name?’ ‘A sonnet.’ ‘And what is a sonnet?’

A girl stumbles towards a definition about rhyme and stress. Next, photocopies of a Shakespearean sonnet are handed out. There follows another cascade of questions from the principal.

Then, ‘Identify the type of poem by the rhyming and stress scheme.’ ‘Mark the stressed and unstressed syllables on your sheet.’ ‘This is iambic pentameter.’ ‘Find a couplet.’

The students are told to take notes as the principal talks and questions. After each question, he waits for most of the hands to go up. The discourse of the classroom is a kind of oral cloze, in which the students fill the gaps he pointedly leaves by pausing in his sentences. In command, relaxed, enjoying his own performance, he frequently jokes. Every now and then he targets for questioning students whose hands are not raised. Then another sheet of poetry is handed out. More of the text gets disentangled, line by line.

‘Is this a sonnet?’ Yes, at first glance.

‘But, scan carefully.’ No, it does not adhere strictly to the traditional rhyming and stress scheme. A piece of twentieth century American poetry. The class files out for lunch.

In the school playground, the students crowd around the principal to discuss an upcoming barbecue, initiated by them as a way to raise money to fund their new school newspaper. He tells them that, since it was their idea, it was up to them to organise it, provide entertainment and organise the parents to bring food.

Ethnic High

Literacy Learning Ecology

  • Goal: Poetry – Analysing sonnets
  • Issues: conveying the formalities of literary form as traditionally taught in the subject, ‘English’
  • Instruction: focus on ‘the basics’ and ‘writing without grammatical mistakes’
  • Intended outcomes: promote academic rigour, the value of work, the significance of achievement, the importance of the moral values, and a sense of belonging to a community

On the Varied Cultures of Schooling

We observed these two classrooms as part our research into varieties of literacy pedagogy. In the end, it was hoped that the students in the first classroom would be able to manipulate some of the written discourse of commerce. The students in the second classroom would be expected to appreciate English poetry, perhaps even write a poem. But, in a sense, the writing part of the exercise is not so important in each of these vignettes. Each classroom illustrates a fundamentally different approach to literacy pedagogy. The two classrooms represent the sharply contrasting orientations to literacy pedagogy and learning ecologies. More broadly they reflect quite different classroom cultures and frames of reference for learning.

To tackle the issue of literacy pedagogy, we need to go the heart of the matter and not restrict ourselves to literacy as an isolated area of learning. What applies to literacy pedagogy applies also the shape of all subjects: the role of the teacher and students; the status of knowledge and ‘fact’; and the way texts are used and generated in the learning process. Most importantly, perhaps, the two vignettes show just how different the cultures of schooling can be, even within the limits imposed by institutionalised education, and within a certain structural constancy in the nature of schooling as we have conventionally known it—twenty or thirty children in a room under the supervision of one adult ‘teacher’. It is remarkable that these sorts of differences should appear, even when the external conditions that come to bear upon the two schools are similar. Each of these pedagogies is a cultural product. As such, it is not immediately reducible to the school’s social setting. Each pedagogy represents a choice on the part of the school and its teachers, a choice amongst several, major, historically evolved alternatives.

As indicated at the start of this chapter, in this and the following three chapters we will examine four alternative pedagogies, roughly in the order in which they emerged as pedagogical approaches in the history of modern schooling: didactic (this chapter), authentic (Chapter 3), functional and critical (Chapter 4) approaches to literacy. Each has its supporters and its opponents. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. The classroom in Public High is an example of an ‘authentic’ approach to literacy and the classroom in Ethnic Community High an example of a ‘didactic’ approach. When we reach Part D of the book, we will suggest a ‘repertoire’ approach to the literacies pedagogy which builds upon, extends and transforms insights from each of the four approaches, and weaves these insights together into a new pedagogical synthesis. The purpose of a multi-faceted approach like this is to broaden the goals of learning and to create a learning environment that addresses the learning needs of all students.

Our aim in this sequence of chapters is to uncover, as dispassionately and analytically as possible, the origins of such variant cultures of schooling as those illustrated by our two vignettes, and in so doing to account for their form and purpose. We want to understand why these approaches emerged and how they ended up having such an influence on generations of teachers and learners.

Why are these classrooms worlds apart? To answer this question, each approach should be seen as a perfectly explicable creature of the history of education. Each is appropriate and faithful to certain kinds of historical experience, yet, at times each also seems strangely limited, and precisely because it is a product of a particular historical moment or a specific cultural context. These limitations are also the reason why each approach is sometimes less effective than it might have been. The question of ‘what works’ has been central to the so-called ‘literacy wars’, an ideological battle that has raged unabated for a century or more, and continues to rage. In our view, it is unhelpful to take sides. It is just as unhelpful to suggest some wishy-washy middle way, an unhappy compromise that leaves nobody satisfied. We’ll get to this by in Part D of this book. But for the moment, in these chapters we want to analyse the four major approaches to literacy with an historian’s detachment. We want to try to stand back from the sometimes vitriolic partisanship ‘literacy wars’, and to see each of the pedagogical alternatives for what they are, insightful in some respects and limited in others.

To the extent that history is a matter of chronology, the origins of the pedagogy of Classroom One are relatively recent and that of Classroom Two is much older. For a very long while, the fundamental epistemological (ways of thinking) and pedagogical (ways of learning) orientation of Classroom Two—didactic pedagogy—was virtually the only way in which most classrooms operated. As the founding pedagogy of mass, institutionalised schooling in the nineteenth century, its dominance lasted well into the twentieth century and remains alive today in the form of the ‘back to basics’ movement and traditional schooling. That so many classrooms worked upon so many millions of students in this way and for so long, is testimony that this pedagogy was appropriate, at the very least for some times and in some places.

Although the widespread influence of the pedagogy of the first vignette is newer, its roots are by no means new. It represents some educational ideas that have been around over a century now. However, our educational past is not simply a museum of practices that are finished and gone. History is not a neat sequence of chronological layers, clearly separated from each other like an archaeological record. The past is layered into the everyday activity of people, in as much as they live in the present moment. Beside the new, there stands living tradition. Just down the road from Classroom One, trying hard to be new, is Classroom Two, bastion of tradition.

Comparing the Approaches

What are the connections between the cultures of schooling and the to-ings and fro-ings we have described in the history of literacy pedagogy? The sequence of lessons on barter we described in the class at Public High illustrates the fundamental cultural and epistemological move that is also at the bottom of authentic and critical pedagogies—motivation, authenticity, voice, creativity, difference. In their critical pedagogy variant, they represent a philosophy of education to which some people have applied the tag ‘postmodern’. We see the teacher using strategies which attempt to cater for cultural differences, to build upon student motivation, to grant self-esteem to different languages, to relax teacher control, to involve the students as active learners, and to reposition the teacher as an orchestrator of authentic learning processes rather than as the didactic transmitter of rigid knowledge contents.

Compared to the outside world, there were positive things in the atmosphere of this classroom, to the credit of both this teacher, who was sufficiently concerned in the first place to go to the in-service training course on multicultural education, and to work in Public High as an institution. Certainly, given the stressful socioeconomic context, there was a remarkable calm in this class. It is to the teacher’s credit that she viewed learning language as integral to learning commerce. It is to her credit that the students worked with no fear or threat of negative disapproval for failing at their work. It is also to her credit that the students were actively responsible for their own learning. It was even not such a bad thing that the Vietnamese girl could freely read her novel in preparation for another lesson when she felt she was not gaining so much from the commerce lesson.

Still, it is not too rash a generalisation to say that after the sequence of lessons we described, many of the students in this class had produced barely a word of text and had learnt next to nothing of conceptual depth in the discourse of commerce—a language in which analytical distinctions are made like the one between barter and exchange using money. By the measure of the cognitive expectations implicit in teacher-student interactions, students rarely moved beyond procedural and descriptive language, towards the analytical, critical and theoretical modes that characterise not only the discourse of commerce, but many of the sociological and technical discourses that are so important and powerful if one is to navigate one’s way around modern society.

Despite the obvious intentions of this pedagogy, teacher and student talk bore little resemblance to the way that people speak, read and write texts associated with commerce, either as it happens in the outside world or the school subject. Ironically, most of the teacher talk was managerial—‘do this’, ‘now do that’. Also, encouraging the use of languages other than English meant, for example, that the use of Arabic by one student made that part of the text unintelligible to the other students. This was made more difficult by the technical language in the students’ mother tongue that was used, simply because commerce was not something the students in the class were familiar with in the first place. This meant that students ended up using an unevenly understood mixture of first and second languages. The students, moreover, gained little idea of how to write in a group through this sequence of lessons. Nor did they get much of an idea, even through exposure to model texts, of how to write a play or create a money poster for the airport.

The lesson in the English class at Ethnic High displayed all the features of the didactic literacy pedagogy, from the way the students sat in rows facing the teacher, to student ‘discipline’, to pedagogical formalism (the use of fixed and definable concepts like ‘alliteration’ and ‘sonnet’), to the focus only on the Great Works of the Western Canon, to teacher-dominated talk and student recitation. On the positive side, the pedagogy at work here realised a powerful sense of cultural identity and mission to succeed at school in order to do well in life—just as much a reflection on the social reality for an immigrant, ethnic group as the multiculturalism of public rhetoric that motivated the teacher at Public High. The culture of this school was defined through a rejection of ‘lax’, unrigorous, undisciplined public schools, perhaps reflecting also on what this community might consider to be the unambitious, relaxed complacency of mainstream society.

Ethnicity here was something very much bound up in the migration process, a drive to succeed on the dominant society’s own terms and indeed to do more than that, to do better. This was articulated in the practices of the school which assumed that social success could be achieved by holding fast to the enduring traditional values of the ethnic community. The pedagogy at Ethnic High was just as much a product of the cultural diversity that had so profoundly influenced Public High. The two schools were made of the same cultural diversity, even though they had come to decisions about what to do in the curriculum that put them in opposite camps in the ‘literacy wars’.

At Ethnic High, the canon, the high culture of the West, was perceived to be a path to success. This is very true in a literal sense when we look at the content of the end-of-school examinations which determine university entrance. Measuring the linguistic and cognitive expectations in teacher-student talk on the same basis as we had at Public High, we traced a move from description, to analysis, to generalisation in another context, to creative application, to reflection on the point of the exercise.

However, if the name of the educational game is either to get a good job and make money or to understand critically the nature of a culturally diverse, information society, scanning sonnets is not directly relevant. There was a sense that Ethnic Community High was doing little more than parrot the cultural pretensions of expensive, private, high-bourgeois schools. It was, moreover, an artificial oasis of shared language background and cultural values. This was its strength, its profound sense of community and commonality of experience. Yet it was also its weakness. A product of cultural diversity, there was nothing ‘multicultural’ about the school. How effectively would it prepare the students for later life in which diversity was so pervasive? Nor, in a pedagogical sense, was there any attempt to allow students to generate their own knowledge or to give voice to their own experience on their own terms. The school encouraged intellectual passivity by locating knowledge in a fixed, canonical position that simply had to be learnt off by heart —so unlike the real world that needs us to be constantly understanding new things and solving problems—the kind of society into which the students would shortly move as adults.

These two case study pedagogies both epitomise our times—the first a responsive innovation, the second a reactive invocation of spirits past. Set side by side, they are evidence that our times are being shaken by profound cultural questions that find their way into our schools and our literacy pedagogies. Both are brilliant and apt reflections of our times, each ingeniously appropriate and yet inappropriate.

We found ourselves asking, were we witnessing bad versions of good literacy pedagogies or good versions of bad literacy pedagogies? This question can be answered either way, depending upon where one wants to line oneself up in the politics of education. In non-partisan spirit, we might suggest that each is appropriate insofar as it works. After all, both pedagogies have children doing things and achieving things in and with language. But in some respects the specific literacy and more general educational consequences of each are questionable given what is possible and what is required.

Can we do better? What lessons can we learn from the dialogue between the living exponents of the didactic literacy pedagogy, authentic literacy pedagogy, functional literacy pedagogy, and critical literacies pedagogy? How can we consolidate upon the foundations of these various pedagogical achievements as well as rectify their deficiencies? These are key questions for educators in times of change and uncertainty.

Adapted from: Kalantzis, Mary and Bill Cope. 1993. “Histories of Pedagogy, Cultures of Schooling.” Pp. 38-62 in The Powers of Literacy: A Genre Approach to Teaching Literacy, edited by B. Cope and M. Kalantzis. London: Falmer Press. || Amazon || WorldCat