Constructivism, Accountable Talk, Conversation Theory,
and Information Literacy Instruction
This paper sets forth constructivism and a constructive approach as the best solution for information literacy instruction. Many have already made that argument and made it convincingly. What is different in this paper is my attempt to make the case that using deliberative discourse, also called accountable talk (pioneered at University of Pittsburg), as an excellent way to move forward the constructivist paradigm for learning. Briefly, I will put a sharper point on the case I have made with a review of Pask’s conversation theory, and its latest disciple, David Lankes. Finally, I will use two examples not related to information literacy instruction to illustrate the potential comprehensiveness of this approach.
A Constructivist Approach
Cooperstein and Kocevar-Weidinger (2003) convincingly explain the generally agreed upon elements of constructivist learning, i.e., learners “construct” meaning by making a deliberate attempt at sense-making of incoming information; learners “build” new information on top of old information, finding connections between the two; learners share and compare ideas and learn through the resolution of conflicting ideas; and learning happens through classroom activities that imitate and emulate activities in the real world (Cooperstein & Kocevar, p. 142). The first two elements operate inside the learner and occur inside the mind. Of the second two elements, the third is more socially oriented, i.e., accomplished through interactions with others, and thus, within our power to control, and the fourth is pretty much dependent on the strength and creativity of the teacher or instructor. My focus, then, is on the third element.
Vygotsky (1966) describes how a child reaches his hand out to grasp an object that he sees but that is beyond his reach. That reaching appears to surrounding people to be a pointing, though it may not be, it may just be a hand “hanging in the air.” But the nature of the thing changes, from being an extended reach, to becoming a signal to surrounding people. Vygotsky says the “child is the last to realize his own gesture” and concludes that “we become ourselves through others” (Vygotsky, p. 39). This begins a very social way of interacting with and learning from others. Expanded, Cooperstein and Kocevar-Weidinger claim that “an important aspect of constructivism is the need for social interaction” and that “group activity increases discussion, experimentation, enthusiasm, and participation (Cooperstein and Kocevar-Weidinger, p. 144).”
Constructivism works well in information literacy instruction settings for several reasons. Grassian (2009) explains that the cognitive/constructivist model helps the learner “own” the material through active involvement, emphasizes collaborative learning, and allows for differing hypotheses that encourages development of a learning community (Grassian, p. 50-51). Information literacy skills, like conducting searches or evaluating web documents, all lend themselves to learning that depends on cognitive activity, on thinking about discrete steps in a process, on brainstorming trial answers to a series of questions, and on sharing and comparing those trial answers to discover the best outcome or the most satisfactory information solution.
Accountable Talk/Deliberative Discourse
Accountable Talk, a conversation methodology pioneered at the University of Pittsburg, focuses on establishing group norms that simultaneously support rigorous inquiry and promote equity and access (Michaels, O’Connor & Resnick, 2007). Most experiments in Accountable Talk have occurred with children, but information literacy instruction groups at high school or college age would make a good experimentation model. The authors at Pitt developed Accountable Talk from a Vygotskian theoretical framework emphasizing the importance of social interaction in developing thought processes that raise the level of discourse (Michaels, O’Connor & Resnick, p. 285). By asking for clarification, through polite challenges, and by encouraging participation by all participants, the conversation itself spurs students to think more deeply, more carefully and more critically.
The “accountable” of Accountable Talk refers to levels or areas of accountability to which students (participants) are held. While involved in conversations, students are held accountable to the learning community of which each is a part. They must listen to each other, both to show respect, and to carefully assess what is being said so they can use and build on it. Students are held accountable to accurate knowledge, i.e., they are responsible for their claims’ accuracy and truth. Finally, students are held responsible to standards of rigorous and critical thinking. These levels of accountability, along with the other group norms, would combine together to create a rich and creative environment for students in an interdisciplinary information literacy course.
Conversation Theory is in large part an extension and an amplification of Accountable Talk, although it predates Accountable Talk. At the least, both derive from similar roots in the Vygotskian approach mentioned earlier in this paper. Gordon Pask first developed it. I will present below David Lankes’ moderated interpretation.
Lankes (2011) says a conversation has four parts: conversants, either people, or political parties, or even countries; a language, a set of meanings going back and forth; agreements, shared understandings between the conversants, arrived at through the language; and an entailment mesh, a collection and relation of the agreements (Lankes, p. 221). Conversation may begin in a basic way, as a series of directions or instructions, simple exchanges. One conversant may be a lot less knowledgeable than the other, but the exchange of these basic instructional directions builds a shared framework of common understanding. Gordon Pask identified this stage as the initial stage of conversation (Lankes, p. 221). After numerous exchanges at this level, if one of the conversants makes assertions that the other must agree to, over several iterations several agreements (or agreements not to agree) will be established, which may spawn different conversations. This would be the second level (Lankes, p. 221). Both conversants are now involved in learning, about each other, about their respective tastes and preferences and interests. Third level (Lankes, p. 222). Once a collection of these agreements is established and stored in a memory file or a book, it will achieve what Pask and Lankes would call the fourth level, or entailment mesh (Lankes, p. 222). At each level, new knowledge and new information are being formed and developed, in a constructivist way.
Last year I took a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, also called ModPo. There were over 40,000 students in the course. It was hosted by University of Pennsylvania, and live webcasts were broadcasted once a week, to which all participants were invited. The professor used a team-teaching approach, and several videos each week featured close reads of poems with the professor at a table conversing with six teaching assistants. The conversation was led by various team members at various times. Each lecture was a conversation between the seven of them, piped out to over 40,000 students around the world. The course was a grand success. We learned the material, and a large percentage actually got certificates of completion. In Washington, a dozen or so of us formed a weekly study group that met on Sundays at Politics and Prose Bookstore. This year the course is being taught with the addition of some twenty community teaching assistants, embedded throughout the population of online students. Perhaps such a model of conversation- and team-led instruction might be conceivable for information literacy instruction on a smaller level.
The final example is an information interview I conducted with Max McClellan, one of the producers of the highly regarded, award-winning news program, 60 Minutes. One thing that the producer said made a very strong impression on me. He said all interviews on 60 Minutes are conversations, the kind of conversation that anyone could imagine having in his/her own living room. He said it was through conversations, going back and forth, that new information was developed, and it was through conversation that new knowledge was best imparted (M. McClellan, personal communication, August 16, 2013).
Both examples highlight the use of conversation as an instructional vehicle/mechanism. Information literacy instruction might be ripe for the inclusion of more talk in the various methodologies already in use to convey and impart knowledge.
Cooperstein, S. E., & Kocevar-Weidinger, E. (2004). Beyond active learning: A constructivist approach to learning. Reference Services Review, 32(2), 141-148.
Grassian, E. S., & Kaplowitz, J. R. (2009). Information literacy instruction. Theory and Practice, Neal-Schuman Publishers, New York.
Lankes, R. D. (2011). The atlas of new librarianship MIT Press Cambridge, MA.
Michaels, S., O’Connor, C., & Resnick, L. B. (2008). Deliberative discourse idealized and realized: Accountable talk in the classroom and in civic life. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 27(4), 283-297.
Vygotsky, L. (1991). 3 genesis of the higher mental functions. Learning to Think, 2, 32.