Dynamic Structuralism

Improving practice

The work of instituting intellectually serious and developmentally appropriate educational opportunities and expectations equitably across all socioeconomic contexts and academic performance levels requires ecumenical analyses capable of establishing the kinds of reliable and recognizable structural distinctions that can support meaningful comparative classroom research.  Such grounding can serve to deepen professional conversation within schools and provides the field with means to move beyond standardized test scores in its efforts to evaluate comprehensively and to improve significantly the quality of educational opportunity available to all.

Yet in all learning research, particularly in research meant to inform classroom practice, one must always complicate the stories that replicable structural findings and general theories can tell.  General understandings about the systems that organize human experience can only be formed in relation to specific circumstances, methods, and aims. Narrative portrayals or representations that demonstrate the value of general analyses and theories in making sense of particular classrooms allow educators to interpret the potential significance of those analyses and theories for their own contexts in ways than no set of categorical findings, however sensitive, possibly can.

I have therefore proposed a principled methodological pairing of structural and narrative-based research methods, which I term ‘dynamic structuralism’ after conceptually related work in developmental psychology (Rose & Fischer, 2009). With this term, I hope to evoke both the reliable and the variable dimensions of the social and psychological structures the approach is intended to locate and study.

As a broad methodological orientation, dynamic structuralism strives to identify and portray systematic dimensions of human experience and to study the ways in which these dimensions can (and cannot) be seen to organize experience within and in relation to an array of diverse array of social contexts. Rather than abandoning attempts to articulate the character and conditions of more and less effective– and democratic–learning environments in reliable and broadly recognizable terms, dynamic structuralism locates structural analyses in relation to the myriad human variables that distinguish one social context from another, providing the necessary mix of resources for comparing and contrasting complex social worlds.

Comparing classrooms

In my recent book, I offer my own research on the distribution of ‘interpretive authority’ within six pedagogically diverse, language arts classrooms as one example of the practical value of considering classroom experience at both the structural and contextual levels (Mayer, 2012). I recorded and transcribed two full-period interpretive discussions of literature from each of the six secondary classrooms and then coded for teacher and student participation across what I have theorized to be a three-stage knowledge construction process: Framing issues, Developing potential responses, Evaluating those responses (FDE).

This coding structure can be seen to recast the well-known Initiation/Response/Feedback (IRE) discourse move sequence (Cazden, 2001; Sinclair & Coulthard, 1975), wherein students are asked to provide answers that teachers evaluate to questions teachers have asked, as interpenetrating stages of collaborative knowledge construction that can be enacted in any number of teacher/student move patterns. The FDE analysis can now be employed to study a central feature of student agency in any collaborative construction of knowledge.

My study located three structurally distinctive teacher/student balances of interpretive authority among the six classrooms. While all three forms of learning experience can be pedagogically valuable, I argue that all students must be granted generous opportunities to experience their own interpretive authority as part of a fully realized democratic pedagogy. Regrettably, classroom research has demonstrated that students are more likely to be granted such opportunities if they attend school in economically privileged neighborhoods or if they have been placed in advanced academic tracks within tracked schools (for example, Mehan, 1979).

I then conducted a narrative-based participant framework analysis of representative transcripts excerpts. In contrast to the spare descriptive capacity and broad conceptual applicability of structural analyses, narrative forms of research can portray more diverse and diffuse influences as these unfold within a specific classroom setting. The participant framework analysis served to reveal other significant features of classroom practices as well as something of the interpersonal dynamics of the classrooms, which could also be seen to be organizing students’ interpretive work.

Any number of these pedagogical features, including the use of the text and aspects of the teacher’s style of engagement also proved significant in the construction of student understandings in the six classrooms. Consideration of these dynamics suggests that an interpretive experience within classrooms can feel more or less intellectually engaging and collaborative across all three forms of learning experience as a function of these and other features of the teacher’s pedagogical approach, meaningfully mediating the import of my findings regarding the distribution of ‘interpretive authority.’

Although the manner in which a teacher organizes any significant aspect of classroom practice is likely to affect student learning, no single dimension of practice determines the overall character or quality of a learning environment. Any teaching approach, any curriculum, any type of classroom organization can be enacted more or less effectively and within more or less appropriate circumstances; in not attending in some manner to the situated activity of classrooms, comparative researchers risk undermining the validity and significance of their claims.

It is only in locating analyses of systematic influences within a recognizable social context, as well as within a democratic social frame, that democratic social scientists can today provide sufficient grounds for advancing normative pedagogical claims.  Such conceptualizations can then be placed into relationship with similar or different types of research on structurally or contextually similar learning cultures in order to enrich and complicate those  claims. Such consideration of potential complementary relationships between different forms of structural and narrative research can thereby support and promote the thoughtful mixing of the field’s many useful research methodologies and the practical use of their various theoretical resources.

Read more:

Cazden, C., (2001). Classroom Discourse: The Language of Teaching and Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Mayer, S. J., (2012). Classroom Discourse and Democracy: Making Meanings Together. New York: Peter Lang.

Mayer, S. J., (2009). Reinventing Structuralism for the Postmodern Sensibility. Zeitschrift für pädagogische Historiographie. 15(1), 13-21.

Mehan, H., (1979). Learning Lessons: Social organization in the Classroom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

O’Connor, M.C. & Michaels, S., (1996).  Shifting Participant Frameworks: Orchestrating Thinking Practices in Group Discussion, in D. Hicks, ed., Discourse, Learning, and Schooling, 63-103. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Rose, L. T. & Fischer, K., (2009). Dynamic Development: A Neo-Piagetian Approach, in U. Müller, J. Carpendale & L. Smith, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Piaget. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sinclair, J. M., & Coulthard, R. M., (1975). Towards an Analysis of Discourse. London: Oxford University Press.