Review of ‘Form and Function of questions across computer and face to face based lessons: A sociocultural analysis’

In her article ‘Form and Function of questions across computer and face to face based lessons: A sociocultural analysis’ Joanne Hardman discusses the results of a study conducted at four disadvantaged primary schools in the Western Cape, South Africa. The study examined the use of technology to support the teaching of mathematics and, in particular, the questions used in face-to-face as compared to computer-based lessons. As a theoretical structure, the paper uses the Vygotskian concept of a ‘general genetic law’, which states that higher cognitive functions, such as reasoning and problem-solving, are stimulated through dialogical interactions between, in this case, teacher and student, where language is a “primary tool for mediating students’ access to higher order thinking” (Hardman, 2014:26).  Hardman explains that Vygotsky states that in order for the student to acquire knowledge they must be lead from a “place of not knowing to a place of knowing” (Hardman, 2014:26) by someone more competent than they are. This is a sociocultural process where the difference between what the student knows and needs to know defined by Vygotsky as the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This approach suggests that a student will learn more through the assistance of and interaction with another person than through working in isolation. Naturally the asking of questions becomes central to this pedagogical process.

Hardman then introduces the Initiation-Response-Evaulation/Feedback (IRE) sequence, which describes a questioning structure. This structure tends to use a directive scaffold approach – where the teacher already knows the answer to the questions being asked and where the questions serve the purpose of the transmission of knowledge – as opposed to a supportive scaffold approach – which allows for a responsive engagement from the teacher and the active construction on knowledge on the part of the student. Directive scaffold questioning can generally be seen as restricting learning while supportive scaffold questioning can be seen to open and work  with the student’s ZPD. However, Hardman argues that both types of questioning can be viewed in a Vygotskian framework, dependent on context. She extends this framework, discussing how teachers can pose questions intended to “provoke cognitive conflict” (Hardman, 2014:26), where a disjuncture between what the student knows and needs to know is caused, thus further opening the student’s ZPD. In this situation the questions asked by the student become useful, as both a cognitive tool for the student and an indication for the teacher on how to direct an intervention. As Hardman writes, “questions are very useful pedagogical tools” (2014:27). 

It is with this theoretical framework that Hardman examines the results of her study into how teachers use questions in face-to-face and computer-based lessons. The study focused on four grade six mathematics teachers and their classes, at four schools in the Western Cape. The schools were classed as ‘previously disadvantaged’ but had all been equipped with a functioning computer laboratory by the government. The primary data collected consisted of video recordings of sixteen full lessons, which were transcribed. Evaluative episodes – spaces where the teacher, based on responses from the class, reiterates the content being covered – were identified in the transcripts. The data was then coded according to question forms – factual, probe or procedural – and functions – pacing, cueing question, prior understanding or developing reflections. In the episodes recorded in the computer lab, 63% of questions asked by the teachers were procedural, serving a management function, while 12% of questions were “probing questions which functioned to develop reflection (9%) and to probe prior understanding (2%)” (Hardman, 2014:29).  More questions were asked in the face-to-face lessons and, while factual in form, served a cueing function, which opened up interaction in the class and assisted in the directive scaffolding of students’ learning. This IRE discourse structure, Hardman argues, can be seen as “guided assistance within the students’ zone of proximal development” (Hardman, 2014:30).  A main difference identified by Hardman’s study between the two contexts is the amount of reflective questions asked in the face-to-face lesson (26%) as opposed to the laboratory lesson (9%). This type of supportive scaffolding, which reflective questions are an example of, allows the teacher to adapt their pedagogical approach based on students’ understanding.

The results of Hardman’s study indicates that in face-to-face lessons, as opposed to computer laboratory lessons, more questions were asked by the teacher and that these questions served a scaffolding function. What does this suggest about the impact computers have on learning in schools? Government-led initiatives to place technology in schools see computer-based lessons as a panacea to a lack of educational resources and well-trained teachers in schools. However, the introduction of computers in schools does not automatically imply that teachers in these schools have adopted a new pedagogical approach. In some cases, the computer is seen as a replacement to the teacher in the class. For example, teachers could be instructed to ensure that students complete a series of tasks and lessons on the computers. Their role is thus changed from that of leading a class and teaching a lesson to facilitating the students’ engagement with the computer. This could explain the results of Hardman’s study where a large proportion of questions were procedural in nature in the computer-based classroom – the teacher was fulfilling what they saw as their role, i.e. a management function that ensures the students completed the tasks they were required to do. This would also explain the lack of probing questions, as, in this scenario, the computer is responsible for ‘teaching’ the lesson with the teacher taking on the role of assistant.

Along with providing technology infrastructure to schools, the government should also be encouraged to train teachers on how best to incorporate computers into existing pedagogical approaches. An understanding on how best to use questions in a computer-based lesson would also allow the teacher to use the computer as tool for teaching rather than as a set of processes which needed to be completed. Computer-based lessons can allow for both a directive and supportive scaffolding approach but require an understanding from the teacher on how best to use questions to interact with the content on the computer and the student. By empowering teachers to use computers and associated teaching resources in this manner, they engage with the students ZPD. The computer after all, is simply a piece of technology, a tool, and the impact it can make on learning in schools relies on how it used.  In South Africa there has been a track record of introducing technology to schools – for example the interactive whiteboard – that fail to come with the required professional development for teachers. New technologies require new pedagogies and the success or failure of a technology in a school relies more on how the technology is used rather than in what the technology is capable of. Without additional training for teachers, technology will not solve the educational problems the South African government is hoping it will, and may have a negative impact over the longer term.

Reference:

Hardman, J. (2014). Form and Function of questions across computer and face to face based lessons: A sociocultural analysis. Standard Global Journal of Educational Research. 1(2): 25- 32 

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