Sawyer on Collaborative Discourse

Dr. West recommended this article some time ago, and I kind of forgot about it.  I came across a note to myself about it, and finally got a copy of the article.  Now I’m kicking myself, since this has lots of good leads in studying conversation, which I really should have been following a long time ago.  (And ignored Gordon Pask? :))  Let me just say that I’m more and more uncertain I should have every tackled a “theory paper” for Graham’s class.  Who am I to propose some theory, after all?  And with something as big as conversation (not to mention its sister terms like “discourse” and “dialogue”), I’m hoping I can keep all the ideas straight in my head!  Like, by tomorrow! :))  Taylor entertained David (BYU basketball game, Music Explorers, etc), giving me a 12 hour work day this past Saturday; alas, I spent too much of the day working on my MESA lecture and not enough on the draft for Graham’s class.

Sawyer begins by explaining that as the “transmission and acquisition” model of teaching has fallen out of favor among educators (and learning scientists like himself), the ideal of “build[ing] knowledge together” (p. 187) has gained resonance, and thus peer collaboration has gained more attention.  “[I]nteraction as it occurs in real-world settings…is referred to as naturally occurring conversation,” which, in classrooms, “is the talk of students as they engage in their normal classroom activities” (p. 188).

As researchers study interaction between collaborating students, they perform what Sawyer terms “interaction analysis,” which refers “broadly to all methodologies used to study verbal and nonverbal interaction, including the detailed methods of conversation analysis” (p. 190). Early researchers of conversation noticed repeating sequences (interactional routines) in conversation between teachers and students.  One pattern was labeled “IRE” by Mehan (1979): Initiation, Response, Evaluation.  In this the pattern, the teacher poses a question, the student responds, and sometimes the teacher then follows-up with additional feedback.  However, “traditional discourse patterns” or

styles of teaching like the IRE routine were not the most effective for learning. For example, IRE was directly opposed to constructivism, because children were not given the opportunity to actively construct their own knowledge….  “IRE was nothing like the forms of discourse used by professionals and scientists as they engaged in inquiry and project research (Krajcik & BLumfeld, this volume). IRE was nothing like the forms of situated discourse that occur in real-world apprenticeship settings (Collins, this volume). A classroom dominated by IRE is not a community of practice; it’s a hierarchy dominated by the teacher. (p. 190)

Instead, researchers encourage teachers to promote the naturally occurring conversation of peer collaboration, and, when participating at all, to remain a facilitator only.

Sawyer then discusses why collaboration (and the attendant “naturally occurring conversation”) might benefit learning.  First, he argues, “conversation mediates between the group and individual learning (Fisher, 1993; Johnson & Johnson, 1992; Kumpulainen & Mutanen, 2000; Mercer, 1996; Webb, 1991, 1995; Webb & Paincsar, 1996)” (p. 190).  Secondly, “[c]onversation is the place where group knowledge building translates into individual cognitive enhancement” (p. 190).  He then describes three aspects of conversation which researchers have noted could contribute to learning:

First, providing and receiving explanations are both through to contribute to children’s learning (Bargh & Schul, 1980; Fuchs et al., 1997; Swing & Peterson, 1982; Vedder, 1985; Webb, 1984, 1991, 1992.  Second, researchers working within a sociocognitive framework have emphasized the mediating role played by conflict & controversy (Bearison, Magzamen, & Filardo, 1986; Doise & Mgny, 1984; Perret-Clermon, 1980; also wee Andriessen, this volume).  Third, researchers working within a Vygotskian or sociocultural framework have emphasized how participants build on each other’s ideas to jointly construct a new understanding that none of the participants had prior to the encounter” (Forman, 1992; Forman & Cazden, 1985; Palincsar, 1998). (pp. 190-191)

All three traditions, Sawyer claims, “have reached a consensus that conversational interaction is the mediating mechanism whereby collaboration contributes to learning” (p. 191).

As he ends, Sawyer makes some interesting points about the focus of past research.  Most research has either focused on the individual outcomes or on teacher-student interactions. Few studies have looked at “the discourse processes of collaborative peer groups, and few studies that have attempted to identify which features of conversation are associated with the most effective collaboration” (p. 201).  Interesting that so much about interaction is still unstudied in “interaction analysis”!


Sawyer, K.  (2006).  “Analyzing Collaborative Discourse.”  The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences.  ***.  pp. 187–204.


2 thoughts on “Sawyer on Collaborative Discourse

  1. The article defined this as “talk of students as they engage in their normal classroom activities” (p. 188). Is this non-academic activities? Or can it academic?

    In a face-to-face class you have natural conversations at the start/end of class. I think that there would be much less natural conversation in a DE course.

  2. The task may seem overwhelming – but hopefully you will gain clarity as you become more and more familiar with the ideas others have raised. Remember that in a way a theoretical framework is a synthesis of ideas out there in a way that makes sense to you. You don’t have to think of it as a final/ultimate theory. You will formulate a theoretical framework that makes sense to you and is supported by the literature. You will be bound to add and take away from that as you continue to gain knowledge and understanding of the topic.

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