The classroom is a macrocosm which, for all its universal magisterial conventions, reflects in fundamental social terms the world that lies outside the window.
Learning a language is essentially an individual achievement, an exploitation of the capacities of the mind to make sense of the environment. But typically this private process takes place in the public context of the classroom, the individual is one of a group, a member of the class, and the activities which are to set the process in train are determined by the teacher.
The classroom is the context in which the process of learning takes place, but it can also be regarded as a social context in which complex relationships develop and influence the participants: the relationships between teacher and students and relationships between students.
The students form a group and as member of this group they have to follow the inner rules and norms and also to play a role, different from the one assumed during classes, and different from the role played in every day life, in order to be accepted. They life in a micro society and they establish and maintain relationships, hierarchy being known to them as well.
In the process of learning the teacher assumes a dominant and directive role in classroom interaction. Although in the past this process was focused more on the role of the teacher, the student now has more and more contribution to the classroom activities co-operating with the teacher.
”Now, in the communicative classroom, students are allowed to express themselves, and the degree to which students initiate utterances is one of the measures of lesson success.”
Although the students are free to express themselves, they must do so within the framework of complex activities which are designed by the teacher in such a way that the form of student behaviour is carefully monitored.
Leaving in a micro social context students are being prepared to face the wider social context, the every day life. The teacher prepares students to be integrated in the social life, process which is called socialisation.
Both teacher and students are influenced by a reference group which for students would include other students and other parties such as family members who provide role models, and for teachers, the colleagues and the wider institutions such as universities.
Roles of teachers and students:
The process of learning is influenced by several factors according to which the conditions within the classroom change. This changes occur because the group activity is dynamic.
The activities developed in the classroom context are influenced by:
- Social and psychological factors: which include views about status and position, attitudes and values held by individuals and their personality.
- Task-related factors: teachers’ and learners’ expectations about the nature of the learning tasks and the way in which individuals and groups deal with learning tasks (tasks, goals and topics).
Perceptions of status and position consistently influence how an individual behaves, both verbally and non-verbally. Status depends on what is regarded as having positive worth and as normal behaviour for a social group. Position can be an equivalent of a role, of a job, as for example `teacher`. Status and position influence social role because and included in our background knowledge contribute to our expectations of people’s behaviour and influence our own behaviour when we encounter these people. Having a position in society includes having rights, duties and obligations which infleunce the role-behaviour of an individual.
Teachers and students have beliefs and attitudes about each other which affect their expectations about classroom behaviour. In his book, Roles of Teachers and Students, Tony Wright gives the stages of personal and cognitive development which shows how beliefs affect behaviour:
Stage 1: `Black and white`: at this stage of development students see the world in terms of good or bad, black and white. The teacher has the authority who is assumed to know the answers.
Behaviour: at this stage students may only be confident enough in their ability to memorize facts about language which could be judged right or wrong.
Stage 2: `Everything is relative`: the student now accepts the potential diversity of belief and concept, and can perceive at that everything is relative. At this stage, it is easier for the student to see another person’s point of view.
Stage 3: ` Commitment`: the student can now commit himself to an idea or a concept.
Behaviour: at stage 2 and 3 students are more likely to think independently and to prefer problem-solving as means of learning.
Teacher’s and students’ personality influence classroom interaction. The teaching style is considered a matter of personality. The teacher who is predisposed towards communicating with others and sees students as people are more likely to succeed in the classroom than the one who regards teaching as transmission of knowledge. The students’ personality can be observed by taking in account their behaviour in class. Tony Wright gives four main types of learner which are distinguished in classroom interaction:
Individual Student group
(Apud Tony Wright, Roles of Teachers and Learners, Oxford University Press, 1987, p.117)
1. The enthusiast – this type tends towards the teacher as a point of reference but at the same time is concerned with the goals of the learning group
2. The oracular – again centers on the teacher but this time is much mor4e oriented towards the satisfaction of personal goals.
3. The participator – focuses attention both on group goals and on group solidarity.
4. The rebel – leans towards the learning group for his or her point of reference but is mainly concerned with the satisfaction of his own goals.
The teacher also assumes different role in the classroom process of learning:
• Role of a controller: the teacher is in charge of the class and the activity taking place in it (controllers tell students things, organize drills and read aloud).
• Role of an organizer: the teacher gives the students information, tells them how they are going to do the activity, puts them into pairs and groups and starts the activity – to get students involved, engaged and ready.
• Role of an assessor: the teacher gives feedback to students, corrects them and grade them as well.
• Role of a prompter: the teacher helps students during a role play by giving them words or phrases to suggest what comes next.
• Role of a participant in activities: the teacher can perform this role during discussions, role play, group decision when he joins the students in their activity.
• Role of a resource: the teacher assumes this role during writing activities when students what to find out extra information on certain topics.
• Role of a tutor: the teacher helps students in project works by giving them directions.
• Role of an observer: the teacher takes notes on students’ performance.
Communicative patterns in classroom interaction:
Classroom interaction involves three processes: action – reaction – interaction. The action is done by the teacher who makes plans to base their lessons on. Planning a lesson means not only writing down all the steps to follow in class, but also the prediction of students’ reaction to the teacher’s action. The success of a lesson can be judged in terms of the learning that results from it, in terms of the learners’ reactions to the teacher. If a teacher take for granted the reactions of students the lesson may fail because a conflict emerges. This conflict is due to the different agendas of teachers and students, that is to say, teachers come with a plan of the lesson to be taught, without taking into consideration the possible reaction of the students to their action, and they enter in conflict with the students, who come with their own expectations about the lesson.
The action of teachers and the reaction of students do not mean interaction. To speak about classroom interaction we have to speak about acting reciprocally, that is teachers and students have to act upon each other. `The teacher acts upon the class, but the class reaction subsequently modifies his next action, and so on. The class reaction becomes in itself an action, evoking a reaction in the teacher, which influences his subsequent action. This is a constant pattern of mutual influence and adjustment. `
If a lesson involves interaction besides action and reaction, than we could speak about communication in the classroom. Communication implies more than one person, that is, the sender of the message and the receiver of it.
The sender and the receiver may, in turn, be the teacher and the student/the students. When there is a good communication between the interlocutors (teacher-student/students, student-student) which means that the message was successfully transmitted by the sender and decoded by the receiver, than we can say that the process of learning can occur. To avoid problems of communication, the teacher and his students must share a common referential frame, that is, their background knowledge must intersect. The teacher who has different background must learn as much as possible about the students before communication can take place, otherwise problems can occur.
The purpose of classroom communication is a pedagogic one, learning. The foreign language teachers who have a body of knowledge and who are required to transmit it to their students undertake communication in class: to present a new structure, to provide the learners with practice in using that structure, to explain a new world, to provide the learners with a model of pronunciation, to correct an error, and so on. Communication also take place because of the need to establish and maintain relationships: the teacher has to establish a rapport with the class, and with the students as individuals, and students in their turn form relationships of different sorts with each other, and have different attitudes towards the teacher.
Communication is an essential factor in our daily life. The society has expectation of how we should behave, act and think, and that is why we are supposed to follow norms and rules and also to establish and maintain relationships. In every relationship, we are expected to play a role as well as in every society (daughter, teacher, manager, friend, etc). The roles we play are part of our social identity and through them we establish a place in the order of society. The process of communication is a complex one which involves two or more people who act as sender and receiver of messages/ information. This process can lead to misunderstandings if the interlocutors do not follow the pattern encoding – decoding – feedback.
1. Wright, Tony, „Roles of Teachers and Learners,” Oxford University Press, 1987.
2. Malamah-Thomas, Ann, „Classroom Interaction”, Oxford University Press, 1987.
3. Halliday, Adrian, „Apropriate Methodology and Social Context,” Cambridge University Press, 1994.