Review on talking, teaching and learning

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As presented in chapter 1, this study is guided by a sociocultural perspective of learning, which places great importance on the role of discourse in constructing knowledge through social interactions. In this chapter, the literature on the mediating role of the discourse in the processes of teaching and learning is reviewed, more specifics in section 3.1. Section 3.2 discusses the concept of dialogic teaching, which not only provides educator stances to reflect on their teaching practices, but also offers education researchers criteria to evaluate the quality of teaching and learning. Section 3.3 considers the techniques used in previous studies to analyse educator talk. Finally, the literature regarding the nature of questioning in educator-pupil interaction is examined in section 3.4.

The centrality of talk in teaching and learning

In this thesis a sociocultural perspective on learning is adopted. This approach originates from Vygotsky's theoretical work on child development in which he advanced the concept that learning and development involve a passage from social contexts to individual understanding, that is, knowledge is first encountered in interactions between people and then internalised into the learner's repertoire of understanding (Kozulin, 2003; Wertsch, 1991). Under this perspective, language is characterised as being the key instrument for cultural transmission and psychological mediation. As a cultural tool, language enables social knowledge to be transmitted to future generations whilst when it serves its psychological functions, language allows the social participants to organise their thoughts, reasoning, planning, and to review their actions.

Furthermore, according to Vygotsky (1987), these dual functions of language are integrated. With respect to this, Mercer (2000) considered the integration process regarding human individuals and their societies through language as one in which "children hear people in their communities using language to describe experience and get things done, they pick up these cultural ways with words and eventually make them their own psychological tools" (p. 10). That is, through talking with other people children make sense of the world and gain the communication skills that require for becoming active members of their communities, a process succinctly summed up by Rogoff (1990) in the following statement: "interaction with other people assists children in their development by guiding their participation in relevant activities, helping them adapt their understandings to new situations, structuring their problem-solving attempts, and assisting them in assuming responsibility for managing problem solving" (p. 191). Therefore, talking with adults and peers plays a significant role in children's intellectual and social development.

The advocates of a sociocultural perspective of learning have argued that knowledge is not constructed through interaction, but rather, in interaction (Wertsch, 1991, 1998). Turning to an educational context, this stance towards interaction, as regarded under a sociocultural lens, suggests that classroom discourse is not effective unless pupils play an active part in their learning through exploratory forms of talk (Barnes, 2008). Moreover, when pupils are given greater control by being able to initiate ideas and come up with responses, they maximise the potential for developing shared understandings (Edwards & Westgate, 1994; Nystrand, 1997). In keeping with this contention, a significant body of research has established that teacher-pupil and pupil-pupil interactions during classroom activities have great potential regarding learner engagement in constructing shared knowledge, providing that such interactions are learning provoking and dialogic in nature (for example, Alexander, 2006; Mercer & Littleton, 2007; Nystrand, Wu, Gamoran, Zeiser, & Long, 2003). Further, Mercer and Littleton (2007) argued that the success of education "may be explained by the quality of educational dialogue, rather than simply by considering the capacity of individual pupils or the skill of their teachers" (p. 4). Thus, the quality of classroom interaction provided by teachers should be an important criterion in learning evaluation, especially in their formative assessment, as the feedback this involves can enhance their understanding of the subject matter (Bell & Cowie, 2001; Black & Wiliam, 2001). Atkin and Black (2003) emphasised the role of formative assessment in supporting children to move forward in their learning and noted:

What really counts in education is what happens when teachers and pupils meet. The wisdom of any decision about education is best judged on the basis of whether or not it raises the quality of these interactions" (p. xi).

The interest regarding dialogic interactions in teaching and learning has generated a new stream of educational research, the focus of which requires scholars to understand how classroom discourse develops and its essential roles in engaging pupils as well as supporting their learning.

Dialogic interaction in teaching and learning

Although nowadays pupils are usually no longer perceived as being mere passive recipients but active participants in constructing knowledge, some researchers have observed that teacher-centred, recitation-based and rote teaching are still prevalent in American and English classrooms (Nystrand, 1997; F. Smith, Hardman, Wall, & Mroz, 2004). In such studies, discourse in these classrooms was found to be predominated by a triadic pattern of interactions, consisting of an initiation by the teacher, followed by a response from a pupil, with subsequent evaluation or feedback to the pupil's response from the teacher (I-R-E or I-R-F). Some research on the triadic pattern of interactions has shown that speech-like instructions given by the teacher will limit the floor for pupils to think, explain, and generate new understandings, whereas these objectives can be achieved through dialogic teaching (Alexander, 2006), as discussed next.

Dialogic teaching focuses on the interactions between teacher and pupils and can provide "a structured, extended process leading to new insights and deep knowledge and understanding and, ultimately, better practice" (Abbey, 2005, p. 1), and consequently, educators should be encouraged to support their learners to engage in building a continuous rapport (Alexander, 2008). With regards to the language of dialogue, Cazden (2001) has specifically identified its function as comprising the following: a) the communication of propositional information; b) the establishment and maintenance of social relationships; and c) the expression of the speaker's identity and attitudes. Furthermore, she went on to explain that the propositional, social, and expressive functions of language align with how the cognitive and the social dimensions of being are integrated, and how an individual's identity and attitudes come to be developed. Thus, regarding school education and education in out-of-classroom contexts, educators have a significant responsibility for stimulating and supporting higher-order thinking, through engaging their pupils in appropriate educational dialogues (DeWitt & Osborne, 2007; Mercer, 2008).

Turning to the empirical evidence on dialogic practice, an investigation of the guided participation taking place in some Mexican primary classrooms, Rojas-Drummond and colleagues (Rojas-Drummond, 2000; Rojas-Drummond, Mercer, & Dabrowski, 2001) have found that the pupils' competency and independency in problem solving and reasoning were influenced by the ways in which teachers interacted with them. Compared with the teachers whose pupils achieved lower scores, those in similar schools, whose pupils got better results, tended to provide a social-constructivist approach to teaching and learning. That is, in the more efficient teachers' classrooms, questions were posed not just to elicit pupils' knowledge, but also to guide the development of reasoning for understanding. Moreover, rather than conveying the subject content directly, these teachers encouraged pupils to make explicit of their own thoughts by elaborating their process of arriving at solutions. In addition, pupils were encouraged to take a more active, vocal role in the various classroom activities through exchanging ideas with the whole class. As Rojas-Drummonds and Mercer (2003) have argued, by using the appropriate interactional strategies, teachers can allow pupils "to become more able in managing individual and joint reasoning and learning activities in the classroom" (p. 99).

Drawing on Bakhtin's (1984) epistemological distinctions between monologic and dialogic discourse, Nystrand et al. (2003) defined two concepts, dialogic spells and discussion, so as to conceptualise the pedagogical sequences of teacher-pupil interaction, dialogic spells refers to when the discourse includes "engaged pupil questions and an absence of teacher test questions"; whilst discussion refers to "the open-ended conversational exchanges of ideas largely absent of questions" (Nystrand, et al., 2003, p. 150). Subsequently, in an analysis of over one thousand instructional episodes collected from over 200 secondary English and social studies lessons they discovered that only a very small proportion of discourse contains contained dialogic spells (6.69%) and discussion (9.21%). More specifically, within classrooms where dialogic interaction occurred, the researchers noticed that the teachers were:

(a) asking authentic questions, which value and elicit pupil ideas and not just mastery of information, (b) practicing uptake, in which teachers ask pupils follow-up questions to pursue points and lines of enquiry introduced by pupils, and (c) using high-level evaluation to valorise pupils' responses, allowing their ideas and responses to influence the direction of discussion. (Nystrand, et al., 2003, p. 172)

To sum up, there is significant evidence to suggest that through posing authentic questions, using pupils' talk uptake and offering high-level evaluative feedback the teachers can set up a dialogic classroom that engages their pupils with higher-order learning.

Allowing pupils to take a proactive role in classroom discourse plays a significant role in promoting dialogic interactions in the processes of teaching and learning. In this regard, in a relatively recent study which investigated the discourse during question and answer sessions in secondary English classrooms, Kelly (2007) found that in the classrooms where teachers utilised dialogic instruction by posing authentic questions, using uptakes, and focusing on generating ideas from pupils rather than quizzing them, levels of pupil engagement were more evenly distributed. This finding affirms what has discovered in the previous research that pupil engagement can be enhanced if the teacher can relinquish authority to pupils, take pupils' contribution seriously, and reduce the risks of negative evaluation (Hardman, 2008; Mortimer & Scott, 2003; Wells & Arauz, 2006).

In order to promote the pedagogy of dialogic teaching, Alexander (2006, p. 37) has proposed that teachers should "harness the power of talk to engage children, stimulate and extend their thinking, and advance their learning and understanding" during the process of instruction. Consequently, the discourse in a dialogic classroom setting should exhibit specific features, namely it needs to be: collective (teachers and pupils address learning tasks together), reciprocal (teachers and pupils share ideas and consider alternative viewpoints), supportive (children articulate their ideas freely, without fear of embarrassment over 'wrong' answers and help each other to reach common understandings), cumulative (teachers and pupils build on their own and each others' ideas and chain them into coherent lines of thinking and enquiry), and finally, purposeful (teachers plan and facilitate dialogic teaching with particular educational goals). In sum, the above proposed features of a dialogic class can not only provide teachers stances to reflect on their teaching practices, but also provide education researchers criteria to evaluate the quality of teaching and learning.

Identifying educator talk

Although research regarding classroom communication, started in the 1960s, few scholars have succeeded in drawing out the connections between classroom discourse and the processes of teaching and learning. One pioneering study, carried out by Sinclair and Coulthard (1975), was influential in the field because it provided a ground breaking systematic exploration of interactions between teachers and pupils that permitted rigorous linguistic analysis of the pattern of teacher-pupil interaction. They developed an analytical scheme which categorised classroom talk under a hierarchical scheme, with the headings of "lesson", "transaction", "exchange", "move", and "act". According to these authors, an analytical scheme such as theirs can be relied upon to capture all the talk occurring in lessons for the purposes of further research and analysis (Sinclair & Coulthard, 1975). However, although this particular analytical framework offers a means to analyse classroom discourse, its main limitation is that it only focuses on the linguistic functions of teacher-pupil interactions and hence fails to incorporate the pedagogic dimensions of the interactions. A systematic classroom observation schedule that offered opportunities for a richer analysis was advanced by Eggleston et al. (1976). Their schedule explores the intellectual transactions taking place during the processes of teaching and learning and was developed by these researchers in the context of observing science lessons (see table 3-1).

Table 3‑1: Science-teaching observation schedule used by Eggleston et al. (1976)

Type of teacher talk

Characteristics of teacher talk

Teacher questioning for

recalling facts or principles

applying facts and principles to problem solving

making hypotheses or speculation

designing experiments

direct observation

interpretation of observed or recorded data

making inferences from observations or data

Teacher statement about

fact and principle


hypothesis or speculation

experimental procedure

Teacher response to pupils for

acquiring or confirming facts or principles

identifying or solving problems

making inferences, formulation or testing hypotheses

seeking guidance on experimental procedure

In their seminal book Common Knowledge, Edwards and Mercer (1987) linked classroom discourse to its educational functions and discovered that teachers use different approaches to fulfill their educational purposes. These approaches include paraphrasing pupils' contributions, offering reconstructive recaps, and direct lecturing. Moreover, Mercer (1995) from his studies of teacher's talk in the community of classroom discourse suggested that there are three specific techniques available to teachers for guiding children's learning: eliciting knowledge from pupils; responding to what pupils say; and describing shared classroom experience. The first includes two approaches: direct and cued, both of which comprise a process through which the pupils actively participate in the creation of shared knowledge, rather than merely sit and listen to the teacher. That is, the purpose of elicitation is to assist pupils move towards to their "zone of proximal development" (Vygotsky, 1978) with the help of the teachers' prompts, cues, and questions. The second approach responding to what pupils say, refers to the teacher not only giving feedback to what pupils say, but the teacher incorporating pupils' contributions into the flow of classroom discourse to construct more generalised meanings. More specifically, teachers can use a range of strategies to respond including "confirmation", "rejection", "repetition", "elaboration", and "reformulation" (Mercer, 1995, p. 34). By repeating what the pupils say, the teacher can draw the whole class's attention to an answer and/or emphasise the educational significance of that remark whereas by paraphrasing or reformulating pupils' utterances the class can be given modified, clarified and accurate version of remarks. Elaboration is another way through which the teacher can expand or explain a statement from a single pupil to the whole class. The third approach, describing the shared classroom experience, allows the teacher to base the future talk, activity and learning on that shared experience. To achieve this, Mercer (1995) advised the use of "we" statements which he contended effectively developed pupils' awareness of having common past experiences as they gained shared knowledge and collective understanding. In sum, these techniques provide teachers with a linguistic tool kit to frame classroom discourse, thereby promoting shared understanding of the thematic content of the lessons. That is, As Mercer (1995) argued, such techniques enable the teacher

to help learners appreciate the relevance of their existing knowledge, to help them realize what they know, to help them see continuities in their experiences, and to introduce them to new knowledge in ways that allow them to make sense of it in terms of what they already know (p. 38).

In addition to these suggested techniques of Edwards and Mercer (1987) and Mercer (1995) for analysing teacher talk, O'Connor and Michaels (1996) carried out a study which focused on how a teacher elaborates or reformulates what pupils say in a classroom discourse activity. They used the term "re-voice" to express how a teacher re-utters a pupil's contribution through the use of repetition, expansion and rephrasing. In re-voicing a pupil's contribution, the teacher may add or delete material, use different words or phrases, in order to clarify, highlight, or reframe aspects of the pupil's utterance in relation to the current or desired academic content of knowledge. By using these strategies, the teacher is able to "place one pupil in a relation to other pupils as holders of positions" (O'Connor & Michaels, 1996, p. 77), that is, they can provide the pupil a stance with respect to the topic under discussion, whilst continuing to engage the rest of the class in a relationship consisting of a potentially extended discussion. Thus re-voicing can be considered as a strategy that promotes academic debate by showing how pupils' ideas relate to the ideas of others. Moreover, rather than promoting argumentation and debate, functions of re-voice have been identified as:

Allowing the teacher to effectively credit a pupil for his or her contribution while still clarifying or reframing the contribution in terms most useful for group consumption.

Socializing pupils into particular intellectual and speaking practices by placing them in the roles entailed by the speech activity of group discussion.

Bring pupils to see themselves and each other as legitimate participants in the activity of making, analyzing, and evaluating claims, hypotheses, and predictions. (O'Connor & Michaels, 1996, p. 78)

In re-voicing, pupils are animated as theorisers, predictors, or hypothesisers, thereby crediting them with being the major driving force of classroom discourse. However, during such circumstances it is still the teacher who controls the talk and creates the dramatic landscape where they are embedded "in the ongoing activity and in terms of the actual propositional content under discussion" (O'Connor & Michaels, 1996, p. 78).

In science education, the pattern of the teacher talk has a great influence on pupils' conceptual understanding of scientific concepts or procedures. In this regard, Lemke (1990) argued that "learning science means learning to talk science", in other words, pupils are "learning to communicate in the language of science and act as a member of the community of people who do so" (p. 1). From this it follows that the aim and purpose of science education is to help pupils learn to talk science through classroom discourse and in order for this to happen he proposed a set of strategies that teachers can adopt when in dialogue with pupils. These strategies are divided into two according to the nature of the teacher talk involved, namely dialogue and monologue strategies. Furthermore, Lemke (1990) went on to address the function of teacher questions in teaching, for which he proposed the construction a set of linked semantic relations, "organised according to particular rhetorical and genre patterns, and sometimes even realised by the same lexicogrammatical means, from one text to the next, from one occasion of discourse to another" (p. 36). To build up a network of semantic relations in the dialogue, the teacher can select and modify pupil answers for further discussion. In addition, the teacher can re-contextualise the pupils' contributions to the classroom discourse through elaboration and in so doing place them in a different thematic context. With regards to monologue strategies, these can include: logical exposition, narrative, selective summary, and foregrounding and backgrounding. More specifically, through logical exposition the teacher can make logic connections between various thematic items and semantic relations with a narrative can serve to "link the thematic processes and items of one narrative event or episode to those of the next, creating a complete exposition of the thematic pattern" (Lemke, 1990, p. 109). In addition, selective summary refers to the teacher summarising the prior discourse which can include selected thematic elements and relations. Finally, by foregrounding and backgrounding, the teacher can repeat or summarise prior discourse to emphasise the importance or unimportant of a certain theme.

It is apparent that there are some overlaps between Lemke (1990) and Mercer's (1995) perspectives regarding the nature of teacher talk, the latter's having been presented earlier in this chapter. First of all, both of them centralised the role of the teacher asking questions in pupil knowledge building and both recommended using cued elicitation. Furthermore, they were in agreement that the strategies identified in teacher talk such as selective summary and foregrounding, can contribute to the creation of shared experience.

Drawing on the analyses that focused on pedagogical interventions by Mercer and Edwards (Edwards & Mercer, 1987; Mercer, 1995) and Lemke (1990), Scott (1998) went on to identify five strands of pedagogical intervention in relation to how teacher talk supported pupils meaning making in secondary science classroom settings. Each strand of intervention could be characterised by the teaching narratives or teaching performances adopted by a teacher so as to direct and sustain pupils in their sense making regarding scientific understandings. The detailed pedagogical interventions identified in Scott's framework is summarised below in table 3-2.

Table 3‑2: A framework of the teaching narrative in science education (adopted from Scott, 1998)


Teacher performance/Teaching narrative

Developing the conceptual line

Shaping ideas: guide pupils through the steps of an explanation by means of a series of key questions; paraphrasing pupils" ideas; differentiate between ideas.

Selecting ideas: select a pupil idea or part of a pupil idea; retrospectively elicit a pupil idea; overlook a pupil idea.

Marking key ideas: repeat an idea; ask a pupil to repeat an idea; enact a confirmatory exchange with a pupil; validate a pupil idea; pose a rhetorical question; use a particular intonation of voice.

Developing the epistemological line

Introducing pupils to aspects of the nature of the scientific knowledge (for example, the generalisability of scientific explanations)

Promoting shared meaning

Present ideas to the whole class

Share individual pupil ideas with the whole class

Share group findings with the whole class

Jointly rehearse an idea with a pupil in front of the whole class

Provide a spoken commentary to make explicit the thinking behind a specific activity that they are engaged in

Checking pupil understanding

Ask for clarification of pupil idea

Check individual pupil understanding of particular ideas

Check consensus in the class about certain ideas

Maintaining the narrative

State aims/purposes for the next part of the narrative

Look ahead to anticipate possible outcomes

Review progress of the narrative

Refocus discussion

This framework of pedagogical intervention shows that teacher talk can serve the purposes of several different strands of teaching narrative simultaneously. For example, a teacher's action to ask a pupil to clarify an idea might fall into two categories of "checking pupil understanding" and also that of "promoting shared meaning". Hence, it can be concluded that the above identified teacher talk perspectives are not isolated, serving a single purpose, but can be used as techniques to support and promote pupils' learning.

In informal settings, such as museums, the educators' talk also plays an important role in shaping children's visiting experiences. Based on the description of teacher talk in previous research (Edwards & Mercer, 1987; Lemke, 1990; Mercer, 1995; O'Connor & Michaels, 1996; Scott, 1998; Sinclair & Coulthard, 1975) and observation of museum explainers' teaching practices, King (2009) developed a coding scheme to identify their talk. The scheme includes twelve kinds of talk, including: cue, withhold answer, select, non-select, repeat, re-voice, distinguish, align, model, create shared experience, seek to inspire, and explain. This can provide a thorough framework for analysing the role of an educator talk in informal settings, which is adapted to analyse the BGEs' talk in this thesis and the modified analytical framework is presented in chapter 4.

Educator-pupil interaction through questioning

Research regarding the nature of educator questioning

As shown in the above section questioning is one of the most widely used techniques employed by educators, regardless of their views regarding learning or lesson planning. In reality, there are many practical reasons for teachers to ask questions in a classroom setting, for example, to keep pupils active and attentive, to check knowledge or understanding, to stimulate curiosity and interest, or to diagnose problems in learning. The initial research investigating teacher questioning conducted in the 1980s, tended to consider the learning outcomes of pupils as a function of their questioning practices (J. T. Dillon, 1982; Mehan, 1979; Redfield & Rousseau, 1981) and since then, this rather process-product approach has been criticised for being too simplistic and its tendency to ignore the contexts in which the questions were posed (Edwards & Mercer, 1987). More recently, the focus of research endeavours has turned towards the investigation of the understanding contextual issues, such as the context of questions, the content of questions, all of which were overlooked and remained to be addressed by studies based on the process-product approach (Carlsen, 1991).

With regards to the usage of questions in science classroom settings, van Zee and Minstrell (1997) suggested a particular kind of question, namely, the "reflective toss" which comprises three parts of utterance: a pupil statement, teacher question, and an additional pupil statement. The metaphor of "toss" refers to the teacher using questions to catch the meaning of the pupil's prior utterance and to consequently throw the responsibility for thinking back to the pupils (van Zee & Minstrell, 1997, p. 229). That is, rather than evaluating pupil statements, the teacher asks questions to help pupils to: clarify their meanings, consider different viewpoints and to monitor their discussion and thinking. In this way, this kind of questioning approach not only seeks to elicit what pupils thought, but also furnishes the classroom discourse with a dialogic element, thus promoting the construction of "common knowledge" between the teacher and the pupils (Edwards & Mercer, 1987).

Teacher questioning not only invites pupils to participate in classroom discussion, but also promotes their conceptual thinking. In this regard, Chin (2007) identified four types of questions used by science teachers to stimulate pupils' productive thinking, namely, Socratic questioning, semantic tapestry, verbal jigsaw, and framing as set out in Table 3-3. With regards to this, Socratic questioning refers to those questions that are used to probe, extend, and elaborate pupils' thinking rather than directly offer up information. The category of semantic tapestry includes the questions that the teacher deploys to develop pupils' conceptual and relational understandings of abstract concepts whereas under the heading verbal jigsaw are those questions are posed with the purpose of guiding pupils in developing their understanding and, use of various scientific terminologies, key words or phrases. Lastly, framing refers to the questioning technique in which the teacher frames a problem, issue, or topic and thus guides the discussion that flows from it.

Table 3‑3: Teacher questioning approaches to stimulate productive thinking (adopted from Chin, 2007)

Productive thinking stimulating questions

Questioning approach

The features of teacher questions

Socratic questioning


Encourage pupils to further articulate their thoughts and ideas through explicit request and positive feedback

Reflective toss

Pose a question in response to a previous utterance made by pupil in order to throw the responsibility of thinking back to pupils

Constructive challenge

Pose a question to challenge pupils' thinking rather than giving them direct corrective feedback

Semantic tapestry

Multi-pronged questioning

Pose questions from different aspects of a problem to stimulate pupils to think deeply

Stimulating multimodal thinking

Pose questions to articulate pupils' ideas in different forms (verbal, diagrams, visual images, symbols) which encourage pupils to think in a variety of modes

Focusing and zooming

Pose questions to guide pupils to think at both the macro and micro level; or zoom in and out alternating between a big broad question to more specific focused question

Verbal jigsaw

Association of key words and phrases

Pose questions to identify and articulate the key words or phrases associated with the topic. It helps pupils to mater the salient concepts and important scientific vocabulary

Verbal cloze

Pause in the mid-sentence to allow pupils to verbally fill-in-the-blanks to complete the sentence


Question-based prelude

Pose questions as a preface to subsequent presentation which may focus pupil thinking

Question-based outline

Present a big, broad question and subordinate or related questions which help pupils see the links between the big question and subordinate questions

Question-based summary

Give an overall summary question to consolidate the key points

Compared to the abundant research regarding teacher questioning conducted in school classrooms, little is known about how educators use questions to support pupils' learning in informal settings. Tal and Morag (2007) explored the questions that museum educators asked pupils on school trips to a natural history museum. They found that these museum educators tended to ask rhetoric questions and answered the questions themselves, without giving pupils sufficient time to respond. Most of their questions were factual and demanded knowledge recall whilst only a small proportion challenged pupils' thinking. In a comparative study of teacher-pupil talk that took place in a science classroom and on a museum trip, DeWitt and Hohenstein (2010) found that the teacher's closed-ended, task-related or procedural questions tended to predominate in both settings. However, the authors noticed that the teachers asked more "request help" and "invite participation" questions in the museum than in the classroom setting which the authors suggested a "less dominate teacher role and a more balanced and interactive relationship, in which the pupils and teacher support each other" (p. 466) in the museum environment.

Some scholars investigated the way how teachers respond to the feedback from their pupils after posing them a question and proposed that appropriate teacher feedback, which aims to encourage and extend pupil contributions, can promote higher levels of interaction and cognitive engagement (Hardman, 2008; Nassaji & Wells, 2000; Nystrand, et al., 2003). Regarding this, Chin (2006) conducted a qualitative investigation of how teacher feedback to pupils' responses can make classroom discourse more thought-provoking and can stimulate more elaborate and productive pupil responses. She developed a framework containing four teacher feedback approaches, based on the accuracy of pupils' responses to the teachers' questions (see Table 3-4).

Table 3‑4: Teacher's feedback to pupils' response (adapted from Chin, 2006)

Nature of pupils' response

Types of feedback



Affirmation-Direct Instruction

Affirm and reinforce response followed by further exposition and direct instruction.

Mixture of correct and incorrect

Focusing and Zooming

Accept response followed by a series of related questions that build on previous ones to probe or extend conceptual thinking.


Explicit Correction-Direct Instruction

Explicit correction followed by further expounding of the normative ideas.

Constructive Challenge

Evaluative or neutral comment followed by reformulation of the question or challenge via another question

Using the framework above, Chin (2006) investigated the teachers' methods for responding to their pupils' answers and found that the "affirmation-direct instruction" and "explicit correction-direct instruction" feedback approaches failed to encourage pupil input beyond the initial solicited answers, whereas the "focusing and zooming" and "constructive challenge" approaches were effective in elaborating pupil's responses to "formulate hypotheses, predict outcomes, brainstorm ideas, generate explanations, make inferences and conclusions, as well as to self-evaluate and reflect on their own thinking" (p. 1336). The scholar argued that if the teacher's feedback could be more facilitative rather than evaluative, the classroom discourse may become more thought-productive and stimulate more elaborated pupil responses.

Research regarding the nature of pupil questioning

Asking questions is an important part of our daily life, as "to question is to ponder, to seek answers to a puzzle or a problem, to encounter a perplexity that requires resolution, to call something into question is to express doubt about it and to challenge its authenticity" (Pedrosa de Jesus, Teixeira-Dias, & Watts, 2003, p. 1017). In educational context, King (1990) described pupils asking questions as a process through which learners:

externalize their thoughts, making their ideas explicit and accessible both to themselves and to others in their group……Continued questioning and responding could guide group members to resolve these socio-cognitive conflicts by providing them opportunities to fill in the gaps in their knowledge structures, correct understandings, discover and resolve discrepancies in information, and reconcile conflicting views. (p. 666)

In spite of the fact that pupil-generated questions play an important role in teaching and learning, research based in the context of science classrooms has shown that pupils seldom ask any forms of questions, let alone on-task, high quality questions (J. T. Dillon, 1988; Good, Slavings, Harel, & Emerson, 1987; Graesser & Person, 1994). Moreover, Cuccio-Schirripa and Steine (2000) have contended that "questioning is one of the thinking processing skills which is structurally embedded in the thinking operation of critical thinking, creative thinking, and problem solving"(p. 210).

To sum up, the questions formulated by pupils have the following functions: a) to facilitate knowledge construction and enhance understanding (Chin & Brown, 2000; Harper, Etkina, & Lin, 2003; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1992); b) to engender discussion and debate and thus foster shared understanding (Aguiar, Mortimer, & Scott, 2010; Chin, Brown, & Bruce, 2002; Osborne, 2005); c) to enhance pupils' interest and direct them to become autonomous learners (Chin & Kayalvizhi, 2005; Marbach-Ad & Sokolove, 2000; Ng-Cheong & Chin, 2009; Pedrosa de Jesus, Almeida, & Watts, 2004); d) to enable teachers to diagnose pupils' understanding (Harper, et al., 2003; Maskill & Pedrosa de Jesus, 1997; Watts, Gould, & Alsop, 1997); and e) to assess their higher-order thinking (Dori & Herscovitz, 1999). Therefore, the educators have the responsibility to encourage pupils to generate meaningful and productive questions, in order to achieve these outcomes.

The questions that are asked by pupils have been analysed and subsequently classified by various scholars, according to their perspectives on learning. For instance, pupil questions have been grouped according to the level of cognitive process required for answering them. The most famous and broadly acknowledged classification of human cognitive processes is Bloom's taxonomy (1956), which although designed for teaching, has been suggested as a cognitive hierarchy model that could be used for the categorisation of pupil-generated questions (Chin & Osborne, 2008; A. King, 1990). In his taxonomy, learning objectives were distinguished in an ordered hierarchy of level of thought, moving upwards from: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, to evaluation. Following this and nearly a half century later, Anderson and Krathwohl (2001) modified this taxonomy of the cognitive domains of learning and formulated an ordered hierarchy comprising the dimensions of, from the bottom: remembering, understanding, applying, analysing, evaluating and creating.

Watts et al. (1997) classified three types of pupil-generated questions according to the particular periods, in which they occurred during the process of conceptual change undertaken by pupils. They termed the questions produced during the period when pupils are attempting to confirm explanations and consolidate understanding of their ideas as consolidation questions, whilst when pupils have reached a sense of conviction in their understanding, exploration questions are generated that help them to expand knowledge and test constructs. Moreover, elaboration questions are asked by pupils when they attempt to reconcile different understandings, force issues and track in and around ideas and their consequences. This account regarding pupil questions implies that teachers should be aware of the nature pupil-generated questions, as these may indicate the progression of pupils' conceptual understandings. Further, encouraging pupils to ask exploration and elaboration questions is a challenging task, because as Watts et al. (1997) noted there is often a considerable barrier for pupils to ask questions aloud in class for fear of being considered as "stupid" or a "boffin" by their peers. Since posing questions in class can generate feelings of exposure and vulnerability, teachers need to cultivate a learning environment, where pupils can feel comfortable to ask questions.

Whether a child asks confirmation or transformation questions, has been identified as bi-polar construct depending on "the nature of the situation" on one hand and their "preferred style of working and the requirements of the task in hand" on the other (Pedrosa de Jesus, et al., 2003, p. 1028). Using this bi-polar construct, a typology of confirmation and transformation questions was developed with the former referring to questions that seek to clarify information, ask for exemplification or definition; whereas the latter involve re-structuring or reorganization of pupils' understanding through processes such as exploring argumentative steps, identifying omissions, examining structures in thinking, and challenging accepted reasoning. Pedrosa de Jesus et al. (2003) concluded that confirmation and transformation questions complement each other and combined usage of the two forms indicated that a pupil was proficient in high quality questioning.

The source of pupils' questions usually originates in there being a gap or discrepancy in their knowledge or alternatively because the questioner has the desire to extend his/her knowledge in some precise direction. More specifically, drawing on the potential for there being different underlying sources, Scardamalia & Bereiter (1992) distinguished two types questions that pupils asked during science lessons. The first type of question that they identified is text-based questions, where pupils are instructed to generate questions in response to certain cues as part of their study of a text whilst the other type knowledge-based questions occur spontaneously and are generated from the deeper interest of pupils from their efforts to make sense of the world.

Building on Scardamalia & Bereiter's (1992) study, Chin et al. (2002) divided pupil-formulated questions during learning about science into two types, basic information and wonderment. The former are further separated into factual and procedural questions with factual questions being those that are usually closed in nature and used to recall information whereas procedural ones are produced when pupils seek clarification about the procedures that are required in order to complete a given task. Turing to wonderment questions, as Chin et al. (2002) explained that these "were pitched at a conceptually higher level, required an application or extension of taught ideas, and focused on predictions, explanations, and causes instead of facts, or on resolving discrepancies and gaps in knowledge" (p. 531). Furthermore, they come to pupils' minds when learners attempt to "relate new and existing knowledge, or build internal associations among different aspects of the new knowledge in their efforts to understand" (Chin, et al., 2002, p. 531). Set out in the table blow is Chin et al.'s typology of pupil-generated question.

Table 3‑5: Types of pupil-generated questions in learning science (after Chin, et al., 2002)




Basic information question

Factual question

Closed questions, to recall information

Procedural question

To seek clarification of how to complete a task

Wonderment question

Comprehension questions

To seek an explanation of something that is not understood

Prediction question

To predict a phenomenon according to the observations, involving some speculation or hypothesis-verification

Anomaly detection question

To address scepticism or some discrepant information which causes cognitive conflict

Application question

To find out what use is the information that pupil himself/herself is dealing with

Planning/ strategy question

To wonder how best to proceed next when no prior procedure has been given

Moreover, from their observations of pupils who were engaged in hands-on laboratory activities in small groups, Chin et al. (2002) found that basic information questions, especially procedural questions predominated their conversations. In spite of there being only a small proportion of wonderment questions, their data demonstrated that such questions did in fact stimulate pupils so as to generate explanations and solutions to problems. More specifically, the researchers observed that through asking wonderment questions the pupils were able to "initiate a process of hypothesizing, predicting, thought experimenting, and explaining, thereby leading to a cascade of generative activity" (Chin, et al., 2002, p. 540). That is, wonderment questions asked by the pupils revealed a deeper approach to learning science which can trigger pupils' engagement in productive discussions and conceptual understandings of science.

Allowing children to have sufficient time to develop their thoughts promotes learner questioning. In this regard, their investigation of science museum educators' guided school visits, Cox-Peterson et al. (2003) reported that pupil-generated questions were rarely observed and the reason for this was that the museum educators did not allow sufficient time for pupils to formulate their own questions. Apparently, in this study approximately 20% of the schoolteachers reported that they would have liked the tours to have give more time for pupil questions and enquiries, which underlines the point that when organising learning-oriented school trips to informal settings, as Griffin and Symington (1997) have contended, staff need to "use a learner-centred approach in which the pupils are finding questions to their own answers, rather than their teachers or the museum's questions" (p. 777).

Regardless the teaching approaches adopted by educators, informal settings allow children to have more freedom to seek information from adults by asking questions. Tunnicliffe et al. (1997) investigated the conversations of children and adults in botanic gardens, zoos and museums and found that the pupils within school groups asked more questions and made more statements regarding knowledge than did children in family parties. They credited such finding to the fact that the format of conversations in informal settings is "midway between the dominant teacher-led dialogue of the classroom, where the teacher asks most of the questions, and the situation in homes where the child initiates most dialogue with information-seeking questions" (p. 1053).

Chapter summary

In this chapter, it has been noted that language structures thinking and shapes the higher mental processes needed for learning. More specifically, through dialogic teaching, the educators can create interactive opportunities for pupils to negotiate meanings and scaffold their understandings. The relevant literature regarding research pertaining to the classroom context has been reviewed, so as to identify the different functions of educators' talk in supporting pupils' learning and the themes emerged is that effective interactions between educators and children, especially through questioning have an impact on the level of learning. The detailed framework that is used to analyse educator-pupil interaction is presented in chapter 4.