Discourse Analysis in Education

As I prepare my literature review for my masters project, I keep running into “discourse analysis.”  I am no expert on the subject (which seems to be a sub-field of sociolinguistics), but I find the whole thing very intriguing.

Let us say, for instance, that you and I both view a car accident.  We will not wait until the car accident is finished and we have gone home to “make meaning” from the event.  The conversation might start like:

“Did you see what that black car just did to that white car?”

While such a phrase might seem like just a restatement asking if you saw the accident, asking such a question already shows a representation of the event and I have begun a discourse on the subject.  Most probably, I have seen an accident in the past and am comparing the event to past experiences in real life, from movies, and from accounts they I heard from friends of family.  Similarly, the other person might respond by saying:

“Yeah. The white car hit their brakes so suddenly.”

Again, this may seem like the person has just restated what they saw, but the person is already taking a perspective and, perhaps, supplying blame to the white car.  The events that we talk about almost always emphasize certain facts and leave out others in an attempt for us to create a clear picture of what we have seen.

The police might come and ask the two witnesses what they saw, but the police are bringing in their relatively vast experience with car accidents to bear on the situation.  They are, right from the start, using some sort of preconceived reliability test that they have created for situations just like this.  They look at the types of clothes people at the scene are wearing, the type of language they use, and so many other sociocultural factors.  They also hold in their pocket the signs of authority in our culture, so the way we tell a story to a policewoman might be different than the way we would tell it to a friend (just as your conception of the story changed when I called her a ‘policewoman’).

Why does all of this matter?  All of these conversations are part of a discourse.  If an historian was interested in the situation, he could record all the witnesses as they spoke, read the accounts from the drivers and policeman, read about the history of the city in which it took place, look at the different people involved in the crash and their backstory, but what would the historian come out saying?  The historian may not have been there at the time of the accident, but just like the eye witness, the historian will have inevitably seen car crashes in life or on TV and has many of the same biases.

The historian or discourse analyst might add their two cents to what happened based on the evidence they read.  He may even be close to what actually “happened” somewhere “out there” in “actuality,” but his explanations will be couched in American English and be inevitably limited in his diction, syntax, and grammar by standard English rules.  His cultural construct, if he is western, will be inevitably constructed on western philosophy, linguistics, and sociology.  Even if he has studied a different “type” of philosophy like Eastern philosophy, he will inevitably understand that philosophy through western eyes.  He or she can never fully distance themselves from it.

What has this to do with education?  Pretty much everything.  When teaching students in any content area, we should remind them that they are part of this discourse.  They should read who has come before them, understand the limitations of the field, and try their best to join in the conversation.  It is freeing, in my view, that students are not so constricted by the rules of right and wrong, but of recognition that many have come before them and that they are one of many who have tried to make sense of this world.

I am not arguing for an educational field free from “facts,” but am arguing for a study of history, math, science, art, or social studies from the perspective that those who came before us were each products of their society.  Seeing ourselves as cultural products of those who came before us give us a sense of place in a culture of western individuality.  I am arguing for a classroom that looks at a textbook and says, “Now these authors probably wrote this text for a reason?  What do you think that reason might be? Let’s spend this year trying to figure it out by analyzing the facts they put in and the facts they leave out.”

One might think that this could only work in the “softer” sciences, but there are ways to incorporate such a way of thinking in any classroom if teachers will take the time to think about how influenced they are by people who came before them and how those people influenced the way they think in their discipline.  We must consider the cultural constructs within which scientific and mathematical discoveries are made and for what political reasons they are made.  All of these things could take place in a discourse driven classroom.

This would require, however, teachers to give up their infallibility (including those in the church) and try to have a discussion about the biases and limitations of their discipline and why their field has formed to be the way it is.  It will require teachers to scaffold discipline-specific knowledge so that students can access it.  Teachers would have to listen and guide students towards valuable resources and steer students away from others, all the while giving them their best reason as to what constitutes “value.”  It would be, in my opinion, a central shift in education for the better.

As much as you can, aim to know your neighbours, and consult with the wise.  Let your conversation be with intelligent people, and let all your discussions be about the law most high. Let the righteous be your dinner companions, and let your glory be the fear of the Lord. -Ecclesiasticus 9: 14-16


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