Friday, October 29, 2010

Cultural Historical Activity Theory as Applied to Literature Discussion Groups

"Well," said Pooh, "we keep looking for Home and not finding it, so I thought that if we looked for this Pit, we'd be sure not to find it, which would be a Good Thing, because then we might find something that we weren't looking for, which might be just what we were looking for, really." (Milne, 1928, p. 121)

What makes an effective literature discussion? What place does gender have in small group discussions? How can teachers best support student discussion of literature? What is the role of the teacher in literature discussions? Questions like these tend to be focus of research on the use of small group literature discussions. Investigators have tallied and analyzed the content of discussions, traced the changing roles of students and teacher, and created taxonomies of the type of talk that happens in literature discussions. However, by using these approaches, which are too narrow to address the scope of the entire activity as it is occurs in a cultural, historical, and social setting with complex and sometimes competing goals and purposes, we loose sight of the forest for the trees . I propose that, by using a different theoretical framework for studying small group literature discussions than has been used thus far, we can achieve a broader understanding of both student and teacher development within this context. By using Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) we can understand how the individuals within the activity setting influence and are influenced by the other individuals, contexts, and tools used to achieve a learning objective. “Because then we might find something that we weren't looking for, which might be just what we were looking for, really.”

Although book clubs have existed before, in the late 1980s adult book clubs became a hot commodity for libraries and bookstores and women across the country began publicly acknowledging the importance of book clubs in their lives. Researchers jumped on the band wagon to investigate the social and cultural meaning of book clubs and generally found positive results – in both generating personal and emotional support through the group and in encouraging adults to read more. Educators, many who were in book clubs themselves, attempted to translate that same atmosphere into their classrooms.

In the early 1990s, several models of literature discussions were published, including Daniel's (1994) Literature Circles using role sheets, Peterson & Eeds' Grand Conversations, Beck, McKeown, Hamilton, & Kugan's (1997), Questioning the Author and Raphael & McMahon's Book Clubs. Most of these models focus on student choice of text, preparing for reading through some form of note-taking, having discussions generated through student questions, and supporting collaborative meaning making from text. In a educational culture of “best practices”, language arts teachers have now encouraged to use small group literature discussions as it embodies many of the tenants of Best Practice (Daniels & Bizar) such as cooperative, student-centered, active learning with an emphasis on higher-order thinking skills.

Each model has a specific purpose and structure that guides the development of the discussion. In Literature Circles, the goal is to help students generate personal responses to the text – or an expressive stance. In Collaborative Reasoning, students are guided to take a critical or analytic stance on the text. Using Questioning the Author strategies, students search the text for for information and take an efferent stance toward text. Each of these models support a specific type of inquiry and purpose to the discussion. Without a clear articulation of one's purpose to the discussion, teachers may find themselves implementing a structure that runs counter to the vision they have for the discussion.

This is where cultural historical activity theory (CHAT) can help us understanding the complex environment of a literature group discussion. “Activity theory (Cole, 1996; Leont'ev, 1981; Tulviste, 1991; Wertsch, 1981) is predicated on the assumption that a person's frameworks for thinking are developed through problem-solving action carried out in specific settings whose social structures have been developed through historical, culturally-grounded actions. . . Activity theory also calls attention to the goals of development (telos) and the ways in which environments are structured to promote development toward these goals (prolepsis) . . . A central concern of activity theory, then, is to understand the kinds of culturally defined futures that motivate people's activity and the sorts of tools they develop in order to help mediate one another's progress toward those futures.” (Grossman, Smagorinsky, Valencia, 1999, pp.4-5 ).

Literature discussion groups are nebulous creatures to understand. There is a tangled interaction of teacher, students, texts and context, where most of the meaning-making is invisible. In this paper, I will attempt to apply the theory of CHAT to better untangle the interactions and reweave the various aspects of literature discussions in the attempt to better understand how the teacher directed use of tools, such as pre-discussion note-taking, influences the process of meaning-making from text at both the individual and group level.

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