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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School
of structure in a fixed context…or on deliberate transfer of a structure from one context to another” (Bell, 1985:72; see Chapter 7).
Learner-centered instruction also includes a sensitivity to the cultural practices of students and the effect of those practices on classroom learning. In a study of the Kamehameha School in Hawaii, teachers were deliberate in learning about students’ home and community cultural practices and language use and incorporated them in classroom literacy instruction (Au and Jordan, 1981). After using the native Hawaiian “talk-story” (jointly produced student narratives), shifting the focus of instruction from decoding to comprehending, and including students’ home experiences as a part of the discussion of reading materials, students demonstrated significant improvement in standardized test performance in reading.
Learner-centered teachers also respect the language practices of their students because they provide a basis for further learning. In science, one standard way of talking in both school and professional science is impersonal and expository, without any reference to personal or social intentions or experiences (Lemke, 1990; Wertsch, 1991). This way, which predominates in schools, privileges middle-class, mainstream ways of knowing and constitutes a barrier for students from other backgrounds who do not come to school already practiced in “school talk” (Heath, 1983). Everyday and scientific discourses need to be coordinated to assist students’ scientific understanding.
In science discourse as it develops in most classrooms, students’ talk frequently expresses multiple intentions or voices (see Ballenger, 1997; Bakhtin, 1984; Warren and Rosebery, 1996; Wertsch, 1991). In their narratives and arguments, students express both scientific and social intentions: scientific in that the students present evidence in support of a scientific argument; social in that they also talk about themselves as certain types of people (e.g., virtuous, honest, trustworthy). If the responses of other students and the teacher to these multivoiced narratives are always keyed to the scientific point, it helps to shape the meaning that is taken from them and relates them back to the context of the unfolding scientific argument (Ballenger, 1997). In standard science lessons, the scientific point in the talk of many students, particularly those whose discourse is not mainstream, is often missed, and the social intention is often devalued (Lemke, 1990; Michaels and Bruce, 1989; Wertsch, 1991; see Chapter 7).
In another example of connecting everyday talk and school talk, African American high school students were shown that many of their forms of everyday speech were examples of a very high form of literacy that was taught in school, but never before connected with their everyday experience (Lee, 1991, 1992). Like Proust who discovered he had been speaking prose all of his life, the students discovered that they were fluent in a set of competencies that were considered academically advanced.