Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The slot: establishing dialogue between teacher and learner

We were planning a new edition of some distance learning books, when it turned out that our new tagging system for page layout couldn't reproduce some of the tables quite as they'd appeared before. The tables in question were ones with blank cells, to create empty spaces for the students to fill in themselves as part of learning activities. The technical difficulty raised the question: did we really need these responses spaces in the printed books? And if so, why?

I remembered Fred Lockwood's list of recommended features of learning activities, in which a response space or grid was one - the others being a title, a rationale ("if you cannot think of a good reason why it is worth posing the activity perhaps it isn’t worth posing at all!"), an indicative time, instructions, a example, and feedback. Though a space or grid didn't seem to make much difference to whether students actually wrote a response to the activity (as distinct from just thinking about it - what Lockwood called "degradation" of the activity), research found that students did like and prefer having one. But why, if they often did not use it?

One thing which a response space provides is what discourse analysts call a "slot". This use of the term was coined by the pioneering conversation analyst Harvey Sacks, to describe the way in which one speaker can create an occasion or opportunity for another speaker to take over or make a specific kind of response. Asking a question, of course, creates a slot; a more subtle example - the one which was the starting point for Sacks' analysis - is "This is Mr Smith, may I help you", which without actually asking the telephone caller their name (which would be inappropriate on a confidential helpline) provides a cue for them to do so. A blank response space on a printed page, in the midst of the teaching text, is in visual terms almost literally a slot, providing a cue and an opportunity for the reader to make a response.

And what a slot does is open up the possibility of dialogue. Presentational text on its own can become a monologue: a single teacherly voice telling the reader how things are. A learning activity, when embedded in the text, establishes the expectation that the reader can and will respond and that that response is a valuable and important thing. Whether or not there is a response grid on the page or screen, and whether or not a student actually writes a response in it or even thinks about a response more than perfunctorily, the slot is there: a response can be made. Even though the medium itself is one-way and non-interactive, there can still be multi-vocal dialogue: what is modelled to the student, and what is encouraged to take place in their mind, is a conversation which moves back and forth between two voices, between teacher and learner.

That back-and-forth conversation enables teaching materials to deliver what Derek Rowntree called a "tutorial in print", in which students are called on to be active participants in their learning. And it is one of the many respects in which teaching materials are not about transmission of information, but about the establishing of relationship and dialogue: the socio-cognitive environment in which learning can occur.


Fred Lockwood, Activities in Self-Instructional  Texts, Open and Distance Learning Series, Kogan Page, 1992, p. 122, p. 129

Derek Rowntree, Preparing Materials for Open, Distance and Flexible Learning; An Action Guide for Teachers and Trainers, Open and Distance Learning Series, Kogan Page, 1994, p. 14

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