A study into the discourses present in schools

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This paper will be a theoretically based study into the discourse of the education system and its accessibility by a particular demographic of pupils in the education system. The aims of this paper are to gain an understanding of the role that discourses play in schools, to recognise the links between discourse, language and identity, to highlight the social justice issues that arise when some pupils cannot access the curriculum and to propose supporting and opposing arguments for a change in linguistic codes in the school environment.

In this paper, when mentioning the term 'discourse', I will refer to the definition used by Gee (1990):

"a socially accepted association among ways of using language, of thinking, feeling, believing, valuing, and of acting that can be used to identify oneself as a member of a socially meaningful group or 'social network', or to signal (that one is playing) a socially meaningful 'role'." (p. 143)

It will become clear during this paper that discourse is not modestly the words one uses, or the phrases that are understood by particular groups. It is the very makeup of what identity is.

Classroom discourse is an important area of study because it is the medium by which information from the subjects is transferred from the curriculum, schools and teachers to the pupils. It is also of personal interest due to experiences of teaching at an inner city school, whose population consisted of an above national average of pupils from families from a low socioeconomic area of the country, with the majority of pupils entitled to free school meals. From dialogues with these pupils (both individually and collaboratively in the classroom context), I realised that there was a distinct contrast in the discourse used by both parties. Occasionally questions arose from pupils that were ultimately a recapitulation of a statement already expressed by myself. This aspect of revoicing will be scrutinised, and its importance to classroom discourse emphasised in this piece of work. Further questions arising from this experience related to the access these pupils had to the curriculum being taught to them. It was pertinent that the repetition by the pupils showed a lack of understanding of the language used rather than of the value of the content being taught. Was the discourse of the curriculum an obstacle to the learning of these pupils? Surely if the pupil cannot understand the teacher (and equally if the teacher cannot understand the pupil), learning must be impeded. It is my intention to analyse these differences and understand the links between discourse, identity and cultural capital of this particular demographic of pupil, the discourse of schools, and the importance of these differences.

At the foundation of the understanding of the discourse of a particular person or group of people, is its links to their distinguishing identity. According to Gee (1991, in Mitchell and Weiler, p. 1), discourse encompasses the attire one wears, instructions on how to act, how to speak and taking on specified recognisable roles. It is therefore more than simply the dialect one uses, it is all that is used to create an identity, an 'identity kit' as aptly put by Gee. The roles that one is given are tied to the environment in which they are present, for example - topically - the roles assigned to a teacher when they are in the school environment. A teacher will be trained to behave, talk, act, think and even dress in a specific way because that is what the environment demands, differences in these behaviours would highlight non-conformity toward the social environment, and essentially the discourse itself. Similarly, one could suggest that children, according to their social groups will use a particular discourse that relates to that particular group (Bernstein, 1962, p. 33).

Identity is intrinsically linked to language, as explained by Barker and Galasiński (2001, p. 28) as a product of culture "to which language is central". They also attempt to aid the understanding of how important the concept of identity is to the sense of kinship shared by particular groups, such as pupils. They describe identity as an idea of belonging or relating to a group of people with which one can identify emotionally (p. 28). This idea is developed by Marshall (1990, in Ball, 1990, p. 14) when explaining Foucault's philosophy of the 'subject', meaning "both being tied to someone else by control and dependence, and being tied to one's own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge."

Another important aspect that will be explicated is the importance of language as a tool to ascertain a power structure and the barriers that this causes to taking alternative approaches to educating. As highlighted by Gee (ibid., p. 2), intimately important to discourse is the way power is distributed, specifically in a hierarchical nature. This view suggests that challenging the discourse could be viewed as a challenge to the school bureaucracy.

Discourses, Compatibility and Access to Education

I have briefly outlined the two discourses that are of interest, to advance this investigation it would be relevant to analyse and explicate the relationship between the two in a school environment, and ultimately, if they are compatible. To understand if these two discourses are compatible it is important to understand some key issues such as access to particular codes of language (Bernstein, 1962), cultural capital (Rothstein, 2004, p.19) and issues of identity and willingness to adapt (Bernstein, 1958).

The curriculum and schools in general have a particular code of language. Wittgenstein (2001, p. 6) metaphorically describes words as tools in a toolbox, explaining that just as a hammer or glue may have different functions, so too words may have various uses depending upon the context. Hymes and Gumperz (1971 in Bernstein, 1971, p. 145) conceptualise code as "the principle which regulates the selection and organization of speech events." Auer (1998, p. 38) explains the code of language as "a mechanism of transduction between intentions ... and utterances, and then between utterances and interpretations." This is further developed by Littlejohn explaining language code as "a set of organizing principles behind the language employed by members of a social group" (2002, p. 178).

Two types of linguistic code are identified: elaborated and restricted (Bernstein, 1962, p. 32). Fundamentally the difference between the two is based on the difficulty of prediction (Hymes and Gumperz, 1971, in Bernstein, 1971, p. 145) and the range of alternatives available in the vocabulary (Bernstein, 1962, p. 32), where they are inversely proportional.

Elaborated code is defined as having an extensive range of alternatives and therefore the predictability of the lexicon is low. "An elaborated code facilitates the construction and exchange of individuated symbols. The verbal planning function associated with this code promotes a higher level of structural organisation and lexicon selection [with respect to a restricted code]. The preparation and delivery of relatively explicit meaning is the major purpose of the code" (p. 33)

Conversely restricted code although differing according to the social setting, its lexicon will be drawn from a sparse range. The conditions for development of this code varies but in general is based on a "common set of closely shared identifications, self-consciously held by the members, where immediacy of the relationship is stressed." (p. 32)

Peer groups of children and adolescents are prime examples of the demographic that use this organised structure and specific lexicon selection. It could be argued that these groups prefer the use of this code because of the social aspect of their relationships. Bernstein notes the possibility that "restricted code facilitates the construction and exchange of social symbols." (1962, p. 33)

Of particular interest are pupils from the lower classes, due to the way in which they are raised and live their lives, it is thought that they have less access to the discourse of education. According to Rothstein (2004) those from the lower classes are read to in early childhood less often than those who have educated parents, and those who are read to, are not as challenged with the creative questions. This results in a lower familiarity with words, impacting upon early learning upon school entry, regardless of the natural ability of the child to learn (p. 19). Children and adolescents from lower socio-economic backgrounds are prime examples of users of restricted code, however as elaborated code is more explicit in meaning, it is a better method of communication when attempting to provide explanations when there is no previous knowledge, so more comprehensive explanations can be delivered (p.34), a situation which reflects favourably to a school environment where pupils are receiving the majority of information for the first time. As education is arguably more suitably delivered in elaborated code, the result is the emergence of the discourse problem. To support this Bernstein (1962) explains that elaborative code is universalistic with reference to its meaning with respect to its model, i.e. "it summarises general social means and ends." (p. 33) and therefore "only some people have access to the code and to the potential universalistic character of its meanings." (p. 34). Contrarily, restricted code is particularistic with reference to its meaning with respect to its model, i.e. "it summarises local social means and ends." (p. 33) thus "all people have access to the code and to its local condensed meanings" (p. 34).

As not all people have access to elaborative code, pupils when at school can have different experiences in terms of the development of their cultural capital (Hymes and Gumperz, 1971, in Berstein, 1971, p. 143-144) a view supported by Rothstein's explanation of the attainment gap (Rothstein, 2004, p. 20). Hymes and Gumperz explain that according to how receptive a child is to the discourse of education, they will experience a proportional amount of symbolic and social development (ibid.). Both of these statements are supported by Gould (1965), who adds that a restricted code should not be devalued, as it has the power to unite the user to fellow social group members and the community - a point also stressed by Bernstein (1962, p. 36) - furthermore a change of code alters the fundamental elements of what constructs their social identity and reality. "This argument means that educational institutions in a fluid society carry within themselves alienating tendencies." (cited in Bernstein, 1971, p. 136-137).

When a member of society is not included in such important aspects of social life, such as schooling, especially when it is their right to be so, it raises the issue of social justice which is defined by Rawls (1971):

"the primary subject of justice is the basic structure of society, or more exactly, the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation." (p. 7)

Analysing this definition of social justice leads me to question if all schools are indeed distributing the fundamental right of education fairly, and is sufficient advantage provided to those who have inferior access to the discourse of education?

Social justice is undeniably an important public issue in the context of the United Kingdom and England. Tomlinson (2005, p. 153) evidences this noting the assurance of the Prime Minister in 1997, Tony Blair, pledging that "The New Labour government came to power affirming a commitment to social justice and to education as a means to create a socially just society." He also notes the Prime Minister drawing upon links with social development, encouraging nations to be open to difference in 1999 (ibid.).

If social justice in the classroom is to be achieved, and if it currently is not due to the notion of the curriculum being inaccessible because of the discourse used, should the idea of change of linguistic code in the classroom be entertained? Keeping in mind that language is an intrinsic part of identity, the effects of imposing a change to something as personal as an identity should be carefully examined before being implemented. Bernstein (1958) intimates that the lower somebody's social strata, the greater resistance they will show to formal education and learning, including that this is actually a function of the group. His literature also explains the method of resistance that is likely to be displayed, including, critical problems of discipline, non-acceptance of the values of the teacher, the failure to develop and feel the need for an extensive vocabulary and a preference for a descriptive rather than an analytical cognitive process (p. 160). As previously evidenced the particular demographic of pupil are united due to the discourse they use, combine with this a united negative disposition towards schooling and it can be understood that willingness to discourse shift from this demographic may be very low.

If this strategy has flaws, should the question of linguistic change to the curriculum be raised? It seems pertinent that if as mentioned all have access to a restricted linguistic code, and not all have access to an elaborated code, that a restricted code is the ideal tongue for teaching. Complications with this postulate are however immediately obvious, notably the impact on the quality of the subject knowledge being transferred to the pupil, and the power struggle that may result in using an inferior strand of language. Regarding the quality of the pedagogy, is it correct to propose for example, that in mathematics the word integer which is rich and very specific in meaning, elaborate in code, be sacrificed for the perhaps more accessible number, from a restricted code? One could foresee benefits in pupil attention, and it could be argued that a poor understanding is better than no understanding at all.

According to Foucault's principle of discontinuity (Foucault, 1982, cited in Ball, 1990, p. 2) "We must make allowance for the complex and unstable powers whereby discourse can be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling block, a point of resistance and a starting point of an opposing strategy." To develop this, parallels to Auer's explanation of power when using foreign languages in other nations can be drawn. If a restricted code is thought of as a foreign minority language and the elaborative code is thought of as the local language, a clear power structure can be established.

"it may be said that in a minority language context, the minority language is the language of submission and the majority language that of power. This macro-sociological power then infiltrates the conversational exchange such that a speaker who uses the power language (the majority language) also exerts interactional power over his or her co-participant(s)." (Auer, 1998, p. 236)

Ball (1990) describes educational institutions as places which control how discourse is distributed and the access that individuals have to the various discourses (p. 3). The idea of control clearly displays the power that schools have; one would presume that schools would hesitate to destroy the barriers that discourse present to prevent the loss of superiority over their pupils.

Hymes and Gumperz (1971) confirm that there is a discontinuity in terms of discourses that children from lower socio-economic backgrounds face (in Bernstein, 1971, p. 144). There is an argument that a child learns how to be educated by participation, thus learning to differentiate between discourses. The child learns which is appropriate for each social setting, learning how to think and act and in effect learning how to become a student (Hicks, 1996, p. 105; Gee, 1990, p. 87; Wertsch, 1991 in Miller, 1992, p. 65). This is further evidence to suggest that the postulate has faults.

Revoicing is a technique used by teachers which according to O'Connor and Michaels (Hicks, 1996) is a "particular kind of reuttering (oral or written) of a student's contribution - by another participant in the discussion." (p. 71)

Combinations of both restricted and elaborated code are evidenced in example (4). Although the example is constructed, it is claimed to be a typical example of a classroom discussion. The teacher uses elaborated code to repeat and reinforce a statement made by the student, which is in restricted code. This in effect exposes the students in the classroom to both linguistic codes, thereby allowing all pupils listening access to the discussion.

(4) Student: Well, I think that Smith's work is really not relevant here because

she only looked at adults.

Teacher: So you agree with Tom then, you're suggesting that Smith is

irrelevant to the language acquisition of young children?

Student: Yeah.

(p. 71)

Further analysis of the literature reveals that uncertainties remain with this strategy however. O'Connor and Michaels make clear that there can be an issue with student-teacher understanding, resulting in a breakdown in the effectiveness of the technique in the lesson, stating that "If the teacher cannot understand what the student is suggesting in terms of the current task, it will be very difficult to incorporate that contribution effectively, with or without the revoicing strategy." (p. 97)

Another highlighted predicament is the desire for students to not feel patronised; they understand that if pupils' statements are constantly recognised but not linked to the academic content, it can be a cause for the students to become frustrated due to the patronising nature of the responses. (p. 97)


The aims of this paper are to gain an understanding of the role that discourses play in schools, to recognise the links between discourse, language and identity, to highlight the social justice issues that arise when some pupils cannot access the curriculum and to propose supporting and opposing arguments for a change in linguistic codes in the school environment.

It has been established using the literature that that there are links between discourse and identity and one of the key aspects of discourse is the way one uses language (Gee, 1990). Two types of linguistic codes are identified by Bernstein (1962), restricted and elaborated, representing a lower and higher lexicon complexity respectively. It was established that some pupils, primarily those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, do not have access to academic language which is constructed using an elaborated code, as highlighted by Gould (1965) and Hymes and Gumperz (1971), which leads to issues of social justice.

In an attempt to investigate a possible solution to the problems of discourse, an analysis of the literature by O'Connor and Michaels (Hicks, 1996) was held, suggesting a change in discourse from one of the two parties. Although there were some obvious predicaments, namely the feeling of a loss of power by schools, an understanding of the revoicing technique used by some teachers intimated that it is reasonable to suggest that access to the language of schools could be improved without the use of drastic measures.

Further questions could be raised about predicted power struggles that could erupt should the balance held with the help of the two discourses disappear, and about the effects that discourse has on pupil-teacher relations. This is an important issue as the teacher-pupil relationship has a vital impact on the behaviour of pupils in the classroom. According to Robertson (1985, p. 111) Wragg et al. produced a booklet for use on a teaching practice which listed important issues for pupils, one of which was personal relationships. One could question if attempts to break the discourse barriers would improve these relationships.

Perhaps the most important question to answer is the effect on the learning of the pupils, assumptions on this aspect are made by O'Connor and Michaels (Hicks, 1996) stating, "we assume here that each instance of student participation, fostered and scaffolded by the teacher, represents an opportunity for an increment of learning, however small." (p. 64)

It is important however that more research in this field takes place; it would be beneficial to understand truly the difficulties faced by both pupils and teachers due to the various discourses present in the classroom. A greater understanding of the classroom in terms of the linguistic codes used would benefit pedagogy and the teaching of the curriculum because as evidenced in this piece of work, without clarity in communication some pupils do not have access to the curriculum.

Tim Brighouse in a discussion with Helen Gunter had emphasised the importance of access and social justice in education. Metaphorically he explained that, every child has the right to reject education but in order to reject it they must first have full access to it, stating that "Every child has the right to reject Beethoven" (Gunter, 2010).