When I was a child, my dad was a mechanic and I remember him using the common proverb, “Use the right tool for the right job.” I know that it is nearly impossible to get a SAE (American standard) bolt tightened with a metric wrench, therefore I have to identify the job I want done and find the appropriate tool. In schools, matching the right tool to the right job is just as important, whether that tool is in curriculum, pedagogy, or materials. However, sometimes, when a new tool is developed, it tends to be applied to multiple jobs, with varying results.
In response to calls for more student-centered instruction in the late 1980s and early 1990s, one tool that has been applied indiscriminately in schools is small group literature discussion groups. Several different structures for small groups literature discussions were developed such as Daniel's (1994) Literature Circles; Peterson & Eeds' Grand Conversations; Beck, McKeown, Hamilton, & Kugan's (1997) Questioning the Author; and Raphael & McMahon's Book Clubs. Each of these models guide students to take a distinct stance toward literature, often through pre-discussion written preparation of questions, notes or role sheets. Stance, originally theorized by Rosenblatt (1978), means the purpose for reading the text and she identified a continuum of two stances – aesthetic, or the experience lived through the literature and efferent, or the information the reader can take from the text. Chinn, Anderson, & Waggoner (2001) add a third stance, that of critical/analytical in which the reader questions the text for its argument,bias, or worldview. Each stance requires a particular type of thinking and privileges a particular style of discussion.
Currently, language arts teachers are encouraged to use a generic form of small group literature discussions as this embodies many of the tenants of Best Practice as defined by Daniels & Bizar (2005) such as cooperative, student-centered, active learning with an emphasis on higher-order thinking skills. Often teachers select a defined model, like those named above, and implement it by-the-book. Yet, without interrogating the purposes and structures of the small group discussions, from the perspectives of both teachers and students, there is a good chance that fulfilling the method becomes more important than the impact on learning. In other words, both teachers and students need to identify the job that needs to be done before the right tool can be chosen rather than choosing a tool for an unspecified job. As the old adage goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT)
Originating in the social-cultural theories of Vygotsky, cultural historical activity theory attempts to understand human learning as it takes place through activity, mediated by physical and psychological tools, in contexts and with practices that have cultural, social and historical groundings. Vygotsky (1978) theorized that higher mental functions (thinking) in an individual develops from the social processes that the individual is involved in and can only be understood through the tools or signs used to mediate the process. Since humans can not directly interact with the world, the psychological tools or signs (such as language) and physical/technical tools (such as a pencil) mediate human thinking and action. These mediational tools are shaped by the cultural, social and historical context, yet they also shape the context (Wertsch, 1991). Vygotsky tended to focus on individual action and thinking, whereas Leont'ev believed that activity is a collection formation of the person(s), world and the activity itself, therefore focusing on the whole activity, with multiple participants moving toward a group outcome or motive, is more important than the individual action and that the individual action can only be understood in the context of the activity. Engestrom moved the unit of analysis to encompass the entire activity system, which would then account for tools use, distributed action among members and the evolving social, cultural, and historical results of action over time. In this model, the system is a dialectical relationship in which people influence and are influenced by the context of the activity. Engstrom identified the major component of the system as: subject (person), instruments (tools), object(ive), outcome, division of labor, community and rules (See Figure 1). The activity system is being constantly constructed and renewed by the interactions of the components, which, over time can develop contradictions within the system. These contradictions motive change to new forms of activity
Contradictions are the core of activity system analysis. By using cultural historical activity theory, an activity system can be analyzed at multiple levels. Primary level contradictions are those that occurs within the components of a system. For example, the understanding of how to use a tool differs between people, so although the same tool is used, it is used differently. Secondary contradictions occurs between components of the system. For example, then the rules of the context does not allow for the outcome to occurs – otherwise known as a Catch-22. Finally, a tertiary contradiction occurs when activity systems intersect such as the activity system of school district policy collides with the activity system of the classroom.
Small Group Literature Discussion
In the past, literature discussions in the secondary classroom were specifically teacher-led and generally focused on textual, surface level comprehension or one-sided, lecture format. This led to a pattern of interaction known as IRE – Initiation by teacher, Response by student, and Evaluation by teacher (Mehan, 1979; Sinclair & Coulthard, 1975). With this staccato rhythm, students generally did not originate or extend the conversation. This has been the model classroom for almost 100 years – teacher firmly in control of covering the curriculum, while students obediently follow. In other words, a strong focus on what Rosenblatt (1978) called an “efferent” stance to the literature, or information gathering.
However, with the development of reading response theory (Rosenblatt, 1978) and an understanding of the power of discussion based approaches, many teachers began experiment with instruction that was more responsive to student interests. Often these led to discussions that lie within the “aesthetic” stance (Rosenblatt, 1978) or an “expressive” stance (Jakobson, as cited in Soter et al, 2009) such as Eeds & Wells' (1998) Grand Conversations, in which students took a more active role in the generation of discussion. This precipitated a move toward peer-led discussions such as Daniel's (1994) Literature Circles, and Raphael & McMahon's (1994)Book Clubs. Both forms emphasize student generated response to create authentic conversations about text, not just answering questions.
Most of the models of student-led discussion use some form of pre-discussion writing based on the text. This may take the form of Role Sheets (Daniels, 1994), reader response logs, double entry journals, or sticky-notes on the page. Some of these techniques have been researched individually and separate from their use in discussions and have been shown to provide opportunities for students to actively make meaning from the text. However, there has been anecdotal evidence of mechanic, stilted conversations when using Role Sheets, or reading response logs within a student-led discussion of literature. This sometimes leads teachers to abandon student-led discussions because they feel the discussion lacks depth and meaning. However, multiple researchers have shown that discussion based approaches leads to better understanding of the text. (Applebee et al, 2003; Murphy, et al, 2009).