Interpretive Authority

Interpretive authority explained

I employ the notion of ‘interpretive authority’ in order to draw attention to the parts teachers and students play in framing questions for consideration, developing tentative thoughts and theories, and evaluating those ideas in classroom discussions. Although  teachers have traditionally framed discussion questions and evaluated their students’ thinking themselves, learning research has shown that having students generate their own questions and weigh each others’ ideas against some available proving ground can promote deep and lasting forms of learning.

Democratic educators require clear and principled grounds for designing and instituting classroom practices to advance foundational democratic values and capacities. My interpretive authority heuristic offers a practical, mixed-method tool capable of supporting individual classroom teachers, schools, and school systems in investigating and theorizing the kinds of learning opportunities that are being made available to students within different classrooms and within different academic areas at every stage of their school careers.

In revealing the social and intellectual demands made by various forms of classroom interaction, research on interpretive authority distributions can help to inform educators’ decisions about where, when, and in what ways to open up content areas to student inquiry and discussion. This kind of grounded investigation of classroom practices promises not only to deepen professional conversations within schools, but also to support the broader field in thinking beyond standardized test scores in its struggle to evaluate comprehensively and to improve significantly the quality of educational opportunity available to all.

The case for focusing on middle schools

Just as early childhood educators seek to establish constructive patterns as children begin their primary schooling, preadolescence offers educators the opportunity to intervene as a child moves into abstract thought and the new kinds of learning it generates. Like the early childhood years, the middle school or ‘early adulthood’ years, require pedagogical interventions that have been tailored to the demands and possibilities of this particulat developmental period.

Psychological and sociological research has shown that preadolescence presents distinctive challenges and opportunities, particularly for students whose own identities are under-represented within mainstream culture. Children are intellectually vulnerable and socially uncertain at this time of their lives; internal motivators begin to shift, and external motivators cease to exert sufficient pull for many. Yet the foundation for a successful secondary career needs to be established during these years.

Nurturing students’ personal sense of interpretive authority in relation to their immediate worlds can draw preadolescents into an engagement with academic thought during a period marked by their intense self-absorption and growing preoccupation with peer relationships. In inspiring probing discussions about conceptually central matters, and by demonstrating the ways in which disciplinary lenses can provide traction for advancing one’s personal observations and reflections, educators provide compelling justification for the demands they make on students’ lives.

Teacher training workshops

Workshops and on-site residencies in the exploration and investigation of interpretive authority within K-12 classrooms are available. Contact Susan Jean Mayer at smayer@criticalexplorers.org

Read more:

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

Mayer, S. J., (2009). Conceptualizing Interpretive Authority in Practical Terms. Language and Education, 23(3), 199-216.