[Scene: Middle school science classroom in an urban setting. Students sitting in their desks with their science notebooks open. The teacher is standing at the front of the room and has written the word WEATHER in the middle of the whiteboard.]
Mr. McNab: When we’ve been talking about weather, what are some of the different things that we can measure? I know we looked at ‘Weather Underground’ to do some observing from their website and some different pieces of the weather. What are some things that we can measure, what are things that we can measure in weather?
Mr. McNab: Precipitation, yah. What’s a way to measure precipitation?
Camryn: Um, I don’t know, um like centimetres of precipitation on the ground?
Mr. McNab: Yah? How do you think I can measure that? Vivian, do you have some ideas?
Vivian: Uh, you can, so you can put a bucket outside and check how much is in it.
Mr. McNab: You put a bucket outside and….
Vivian: …check how much is in it.
Mr. McNab: Check how much is in it. What am I gonna check for?
Vivian: Rain, hail, snow.
Mr. McNab: Rain, hail, snow. Okay.
This is an excerpt from a middle school science class that I visited last year. It’s classic example of classroom science talk. The teacher initiates a discussion topic, in this case measurements related to weather. He then asks students to respond to his guiding questions. “What are some things that we can measure?” Camryn responds, “Precipitation” and the teacher says, “Precipitation, yah” – acknowledging the student’s response and repeating it for emphasis. He probes for further detail. This time, in response to Camryn’s attempts to elaborate, the teacher says “Yah?” suggesting that isn’t quite the answer that he wanted. He moves on to another student. Vivian suggests putting a bucket outside. The teacher responds by repeating her suggestion – both confirming it and validating it for the class. His repetition says, basically, “Yes, this is what I was looking for and you should pay attention to it.”
This form of classroom talk is often called IRE (initiation, response, evaluation) or IRF (initiation, response, follow-up) and in observational studies of classrooms it is one of the most common ways that teachers interact with their classes. Teachers initiate a discussion topic (usually by posing a question), they solicit responses from students and they evaluate them, often acknowledging students’ efforts and participation and letting them know if their answer was correct or not. In science teacher education, it is sometimes introduced to beginning teachers as a way to help them begin to acknowledge students’ contributions to discussions and incorporate them usefully.
Outside initial teacher education though it is usually seen as a strategy that teachers rely on too much – a pattern that becomes a default mode of communication, keeping the teacher in control of the discussion and of what the acceptable answers are. While that might be desirable in some contexts (such as when discussions are used for informal assessment of students’ understanding), IRE also tends to stifle students’ attempts to ask questions and can discourage students from actually listening to each other’s responses. They just need to wait for the teacher to tell them which contributions are important. It is not a pattern that encourages or supports real two-way communication. Despite the two-way exchange, it is really a transmission from the teacher to the students.
Because of these limitations, I was really surprised by a case study (Davies, 2009) I read recently that illustrated IRE as the dominant pattern in a context where I wouldn’t have expected it – public engagement dialogues. In her article, Davies looks at what she calls science dialogue events – in this case, experts panel sessions hosted by a science outreach centre. These were meant to encourage engagement and two-way dialogue between experts and audience members.
One of the things she noticed was that during these dialogues the panel moderator played the teacher’s role and the event ended up taking on the characteristics of formal education. Audience members listened to the panelists and raised their hand to ask questions. The moderator responded to each of the questions asked by audience members, acknowledged their contributions and commended them on their participation. Davies noted that the moderator evaluated the audience member’s participation more than the correctness of their answers but the link to the classroom was still there. The moderator acknowledged contributions that were especially valuable and commented when audience members were being brave for speaking up. Basically, the audience members contributions were evaluated like a student’s might be.
Seeing the IRE form reproduced in this unexpected venue made me start thinking about science related blogs. Are they sometimes IRE too? Should they be?
This summer I wrote a guest post for Bora at A Blog Around the Clock discussing the ethical controversy surrounding a plan at UC Berkeley to invite incoming students to contribute their genetic information as part of a lecture and seminar series. It was my first contribution to a blog and I was excited to hear what people said in the comments. Looking back though, I can see that I defaulted to an IRE position. When comments came in, I read them carefully and then responded to each one, thanking them for their interest (i.e., acknowledging and encouraging participation) and then evaluated their comments. For example, one commenter wrote:
I disagree that the ethical considerations facing educators and human subjects researchers are different. Consider a teacher who violated any of the principles of beneficence, justice, or non-maleficence, perhaps by teaching only what advanced the teacher’s own agenda, or choosing only to teach white students, or intentionally teaching falsehoods. Most people would be justifiably outraged. These are principles which seem to me like good guides for almost any relationship (though not necessarily the only ones), and especially those which involve power differentials. Human subjects research obsesses over them because of a history of abuses which violate them, not because of any special difference between research and other activities. I think that Berkeley’s use of informed consent language was an acknowledgment that this particular educational exercise would be unusual enough that our assumption that teachers are following the 3 principles I mentioned might be questioned, as well as an attempt to address those concerns. I think the problem here is the incorrect idea that research is fundamentally unlike activities we all engage in nearly every day.
Taking on the teacher role, I felt that this commenter had not quite understood what I was saying and so I responded by explaining that I agreed with his or her comment and then essentially corrected what I felt to be a misunderstanding of my point. I wrote:
Thanks for reading! If you’ll indulge me for a second, I think my response might run along the lines of ‘we agree more than you may think’. I very much agree with you that core ethical principles are no different in almost any site of interaction between people (especially those where power is involved, as is the case in both research science and science education). The examples that you give would outrage me too. My contention though, is not directed at ethical principles. Research science and science education are different activities – they have different key actors, different objectives, different rules and norms. Because these are different activities, the actions that we take or expect others to take to ensure beneficence, justice or non-maleficence can be different. Choosing to include only selected students in a research project is, in many cases, ethically appropriate. It may even serve the cause of justice for those or other students. Choosing to only teach certain students in a classroom isn’t. The ethical principles are the same, but the actions appropriate to meet those principles aren’t necessarily.
I also agree with you that the informed consent procedures that Berkeley used were appropriate given the potential sensitivity of the information. What I was trying to explore though is why this situation stills leaves some people feeling uneasy. Because there are mixed messages about which activity is really going on here (research science or science education) my hope was to explore the idea that it might feel a bit uncomfortable because we can’t fall back on our assumptions and make easy judgements about the appropriate actions that would meet our ethical principles.
Looking back I was clearly working in an IRE framework. To honest, as I read it again now I can almost hear myself saying this as part of class discussion. I know that IRE is my default as a science teacher and university instructor and I try to think carefully before I respond to students’ contributions in class. I think about whether evaluating what they’ve said is the most productive thing for me to do at that moment. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. What hadn’t crossed my mind until I read Davies case study was to ask myself the same questions about blogging.
My experience probably isn’t universal – I was a complete beginner in the medium of blogs (I still am…). I know that blogs have many different purposes and there are lots of different views on the purpose of comments. But I don’t think my IRE experience is unique. I’ve received similar responses when I’ve commented on other blogs and overall I didn’t really like it. In all cases the exchanges were very polite but I felt that in correcting me or saying that the topic was more complicated than my comment suggested made me feel like a student again who hadn’t made the right contribution to the discussion. It’s probably just because I’m not used to it any more – I’m usually the one that gets to do the evaluating these days. But beyond feeling mildly slighted, the responses (mine above and the ones I’ve received from other bloggers) tellingly never led to further discussion. The evaluation comment was always the last word. And that’s the same problem that we find in teachers’ classrooms when they overemphasize IRE patterns.
So is there a better way for blog writers to respond to comments? Science related blogs are often trying to explain ideas and concepts and therefore have a relationship to the type of communication that goes on in science classrooms, but is evaluation-centred communication still the best approach? Taking it further, is a very conventional face-to-face default pattern of communication the best way to use the interactions that happen when people comment online?
Davies, S. (2009). Doing dialogue: Genre and flexibility in public engagement with science. Science as Culture, 18, 397-416.
Lemke, J. (1990). Talking science: Language, learning, and values. Westport, CT: Ablex.
van Zee, E.H., Iwasyk, M., Kurose, A., Simpson, D., & Wild, J. (2001). Student and teacher questioning during conversations about science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 38, 159-190.