Tharp & Gallimore: Instructional Conversations

With a neo-Vygotskian theoretical framework, Roland Tharp and Ronald Gallimore present a theory of teaching in their book Rousing Minds to Life.  First, they define teaching in this way: “Teaching must be redefined as assisted performance.  Teaching consists in assisting performance.  Teaching is occurring when performance is achieved with assistance” (p. 21, italics in original).  And “Teaching consists in assisting performance through the ZPD [zone of proximal development].  Teaching can be said to occur when assistance is offered at points in the ZPD at which performance requires assistance” (p. 31, italics in original).  They outline four stages of ZPD:  Stage 1, where performance is assisted by others; Stage 2, where performance is assisted by the self; Stage 3, where performance becomes automized, ‘fossilized’; and Stage 4, “where de-automization of performance leads to recursion back through the ZPD” (p. 38).  Furthermore, the authors delineate six means of assistance: “modeling, contingency management, feeding back, instructing, questioning, and cognitive structuring (p. 47, italics in original).  I wondered whether “conversation” be a usual metaphor for “assistance” in most of these varieties.

It is in the 5th chapter that they introduce a concept connected to my study of theories of conversation.  The authors write of “instructional conversation,” which they explain is the generic name for “[d]iscourse, in which teacher and students weave together spoken and written language with previous understanding…” (p. 111). This weaving is how they explain comprehension: “the weaving of new information into existing mental structures” (p. 108).  Thus “instructional conversation” is the discourse through which comprehension is constructed.  Broadening the term even more (too much?), they write that “instructional conversation is the medium, the occasion, the instrument of rousing minds to life” (p. 109).  Instructional conversations are the raison d’etre for schooling: “The task of schooling can be seen as one of creating and supporting instructional conversations, among students, teachers, administrators,” etc. (p. 111).  They admit that many may find “instruction” and “conversation” paradoxical,  “the one implying authority and planning, the other equality and responsiveness. [However, t]he task of teaching is to resolve this paradox.  To most truly teach, one must converse; to truly converse is to teach” (p. 111).

Conversation itself is never defined, but we are told that “[f]rom kindergarten to graduate seminars, the small discussion group in which text and personal understandings can be compared, discussed, and related is the prime opportunity for this unique social interaction” (p. 110), namely “literate discourse” (p. 110).  Yet they believe that literate discourse is almost completely lacking from our schools at this time.  I do wish the terms of “discourse” and “conversation” were defined at a basic level by the authors, so as to give me the clearest sense of terminology.

Having thought a lot in my last blog about the level of personal engagement a teacher may have in an “instructional conversation” (to mix terms from two separate texts), I liked that Tharp & Gallimore included this quotation from Sarason (1972): “’Schools are not created to foster the intellectual and professional growth of teachers.  The assumption that teachers can create and maintain those conditions which make school learning and school living stimulating for children, without those same conditions existing for teachers, has no warrant in the history of man…’ (Sarason, 1972, pp. 123-124)” (p. 22).  Is it too idealistic to hope that teachers can always (big word) be intellectually stimulated by the “instructional conversations” which they engage their students in?


Tharp, R. & Gallimore, R.  (1988).  Rousing Minds to Life. Cambridge University Press…


· “’Instruction’ and ‘conversation’ appear contrary, the one implying authority and planning, the other equality and responsiveness.  The task of teaching is to resolve this paradox.  To most truly teach, one must converse; to truly converse is to teach.” (111)


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