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Analysis of social constructivist discussions

August 30, 2012

‘Nobody really knows’: the structure and analysis of social constructivist whole class discussions, T. Sprod, Int. J. Sci. Ed. 19(8), 911-924 (1997).

The idea of this paper is to use a theory of open-ended discussions developed by David Perkins [1] to analyze segments of a class discussion from a high school science class.

Perkins’ Theory

Perkins described productive conversations as “building a conception under the control of a structured heap, using epistemic games.” The goal of the conversation is to build a conception – a model or set of models about a topic.  Perkins proposed the following hallmarks of conception building:

  • very broad guiding principles to help make sense of the topic
  • questions about evidence mixed with conceptual critiques
  • interlacing multiple frames of reference
  • evolution of the purpose of the inquiry
  • emerging conceptual landscape with many aspects, some addressed and some not.

These hallmarks are not particularly clear to me. Perhaps they would make more sense if I read Perkins’ original article.

The structured heap is a sort of conceptual space consisting of all statements, gestures, and diagrams that have been brought into the conversation. The heap helps to structure the conversation in the sense that there is a high probability that the next statement/gesture/etc. in the conversation will be made in reference to the previous statement/gesture/etc. that is sitting on top of the heap. However, the heap is not a single stack in which only the top element is ‘visible’ and thus there is some probability that the next statement/gesture/etc. could be in response to an element farther down in the heap. In this case, the previous heap element is brought up to the top of the heap and can bring with it other heap elements ‘lying nearby’. In this view the conversation is neither completely algorithmic (i.e. the heap is not a single stack with only the top element visible) nor does it wander aimlessly (i.e. the heap is not a horizontal spread with every element equally visible).

The epistemic game refers to the strategy or type of activity the discussants are pursuing in their conversation. Examples of epistemic games are analyzing a concept or appealing to intuition. The paper references Collins and Ferguson’s paper on epistemic forms and games which I’ve browsed but have not read in detail. The epistemic games also add structure to the conversation by imposing ‘rules’ as to what types of comments or actions are appropriate during that part of the conversation. (Sprod refers to the epistemic games as imposing structure on the heap but it feels more natural to me to think about the heap as a ‘thing’ and the epistemic game as an ‘activity’ that influences how the discussant interact with the heap.) The discussants will switch between different epistemic games as the conversation progresses, always moving towards the goal of constructing the conception.


This is where the wheels come off for me. The author picks three ‘epistemic episodes’ out of a 40-minute class discussion.  Each epistemic episode is meant to represent an epistemic game being played by the discussants (high school students and their teacher). The author provides transcripts for the three episodes but I find it difficult to interpret these without a better understanding of the full 40-minute discussion. The author starts each transcript with the utterance (from student or teacher) that initiated that epistemic game. However, for me to appreciate how these utterances resulted in changing the epistemic game, I feel like I need to see some of the preceding utterances that belong to the previous game. Such utterances are not provided in the paper.

I also find the analysis confusing because the class discussion being analyzed is about epistemology and what it means to ‘know’ something in science. I would find it easier to follow the analysis if the conception towards which the discussion was driving was a scientific concept rather than an epistemological one.

The author makes some reference to the appearance to Perkins’ hallmarks of conception building through the three segments but I wish this was done in a bit more detail. The author notes that students frequently respond to the statement immediately preceding theirs (i.e. respond to the element on the top of the structure heap) but that there are also times when “previously deposited ideas that ‘stick out’ are picked up again, stirring the heap up.” What does it mean for an idea to ‘stick out’ from the heap? Why are some previously deposited ideas easier or more likely to be picked up later than others? The author makes not attempt to address these questions.

Overall I feel like the author does a decent job of showing that Perkins’ model of conversation can be applied to the class discussion but I don’t understand what I’m supposed to gain by applying this model. That is, I’m not sure what this analysis gains me.

I like Perkins’ idea of the structure heap. I want to think about how a whiteboard can act as a physical manifestation of certain parts of the heap and also about what causes a previous idea to ‘stick out’ from the heap. The author also proposes a categorization for individual utterances with categories like ‘problem statement’, ‘implication’, ‘assumption’, etc. This is something I want to think more about and would like to explore with my LAs. I’m thinking that if my LAs and I practiced categorizing utterances along these lines then maybe we could recognize when a discussion turns unproductive due to someone miscategorizing another student’s utterance (ex. interpreting an assumption as an implication).

[1] D. Perkins, “The hidden order of open-ended thinking,” in J. Edwards (ed.) Thinking: International Interdisciplinary Perspectives (1994).

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