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Theory Is Practice: An Elementary Classroom

Jean and Pia are student teachers in first-grade classrooms. Dr. V is their university supervisor. Dr. V was once a first-grade teacher, and her teaching is grounded in Vygotsky’s sociohistorical theory. Dr. V arranged for both student teachers to meet together throughout the semester with her so that they could learn from discussing their experiences with different mentor teachers and in different classrooms. Dr. V knew that both student teachers came from a Piagetian background and hand not yet had the opportunity to study Vygotsky. Therefore, her goal was to share a Vygotskian perspective on learning and development with them. Dr. V hoped that their learning would enhance their own development.

DR. V: Jean and Pia, you’ve both had one week of student teaching. How is it going so far?

PIA: I’m trying to discover where my students are developmentally and then go from there. They need experiences with the real world and using things they are familiar with to demonstrate the concepts of addition and subtraction.

DR. V: It also helps to talk through what you are doing. The students will use the language they hear from you to internalize the concepts. In other words, it will get them thinking. Try some predictions and problem solving.

JEAN: I thought that requiring first graders to think about two things at once is beyond their ability. They’re not yet at the stage where they can do it. It’s just going to take them more time.

DR. V: Talk with the students about what you as a group are doing. Ask questions along the way. Have the students do an activity in pairs so they can talk with each other.

JEAN: I’m doing some graphing activities, and I started with real objects.

DR. V: This is good, you are both thinking about what you can do to make your lessons meaningful. Don’t forget that speaking and thinking go together, and if you get the kids talking about what they are doing, they’ll take it in and understand it better. How is reading going?

PIA: I can’t seem to get the low readers interested in reading. During silent reading time I have to force them to read. Most of them sit and stare at their books or just talk to each other.

JEAN: Silent reading doesn’t work too well with first graders; developmentally, are they ready for it?

DR. V: What would happen if you encouraged the students to read aloud so they can hear what they are reading, and try partner reading?

PIA: Make sure the books they have to read are on their level.

JEAN: Yes, but I found some children’s magazines about animals that they like to talk about. I know these magazines are too difficult for them to read so I wasn’t going to use them for reading class. But Kwan keeps going to those magazines. Yesterday he sat next to Beto, and they both looked at those magazines together. They kept whispering about those animals, and I was wondering if I should send them to the time-out center.

DR. V: What happened when they whispered about the animals? Talking helps them to reflect on what they know and helps them think about things in new ways. Did they learn from each other through this informal conversation?

Much later in the semester, Dr. V met with Jean and Pia in order to assess their student teaching. First, she needed to listen to them.

DR. V: How is it going with your student teaching?

PIA: I’m beginning to see the importance of observing my students. I learn a lot by watching them. I try to ask myself questions: What can they do on their own? What can they do with a little help?

JEAN: I’ve also seen how important it is for students to learn by doing. It was hard at first, because I felt like I didn’t have control over anything. Eventually, I saw that if I structured classroom materials and situations so that they are in line with my objectives, learning took place and I was able to guide students in the right direction.

PIA: I also found it helpful to ask questions. This encouraged my students to grow in their learning and develop new ideas. Of course, it helped to have them interact with each other, Many students are very creative, and I sometimes find myself learning from them.

DR. V: Pia, how is the silent reading going?

PIA: It’s going really well, but it’s no longer silent. The students seem to enjoy reading more when they are reading aloud and reading to each other.

JEAN: Remember Kwan and Beto? I didn’t think they could read those harder magazines, but in science the other day, they were both going on and on about how a baby kangaroo incubates in the mama’s pouch for weeks. Did they learn by talking about those pictures?

DR. V: Could be that more was going on there than met the eye. Ok, and the math lessons?

JEAN: I’m seeing how important it is to use concrete examples-especially when I’m introducing something new. It really helps them understand. Oh, and after explaining something, I have a few students demonstrate to the whole class.

DR. V: Modeling is always important. Having some students model for the others helps them feel that they are an important part of the group.

PIA: I have a few students who always seem to get things right away. I’ve grouped them with the students who need a little more help. They enjoy being the ‘teachers.’ Makes me wonder if the students sometimes learn more from each other than from me.

JEAN: And it takes a lot of time and planning to figure out how to connect concrete experiences to symbolic thinking. Children think differently from adults. What makes perfect sense to me might be totally foreign to my students.

PIA: I’m amazed at what they learn from each other. Learning really is a social experience and I think using language in this way expands their thinking.

DR. V: Hmm, seems like learning leads development. Do you see any connection between your students learning from each other and the meetings we’ve had together?

JEAN: Well, I hadn’t thought of it before now, but I guess we have been learning from each other.

PIA: We’ve taken ideas from these discussions and used them in our own classrooms.

DR. V: If you think about it, you have been learning in several ways. You have applied what you learned in your courses, and you observed your mentor teachers and conferenced with them about your lessons. Then you talked with me and with each other here in our debriefing sessions. Throughout your student teaching, I have been giving specific directions so you could scaffold your learning. Soon you will be able to teach without my help.

PIA: Having people to talk with has been helpful.

DR. V: Learning for teachers never ends. I agree that talking with others enhances our learning. Our meetings have encouraged me to try new things in my graduate classes. I’ll bet you didn’t know that I was incorporating some of your ideas into my Classroom Assessment course for teachers, did you?

JEAN: You mean that you learned from us?

DR. V: Of course! We all learned from each other through our collaboration around real-life problems you were having in the classroom. Remember, novices contribute to mentors in their own ways. Good job, both of you!

The above conversation illustrates the difference in the starting points of these two theorists. Both Jean and Pia began their student teaching from a Piagetian perspective. They originally understood development from the point of view of preparation for learning. As they interacted with each other and their supervisor, they came to recognize how learning leads development in a Vygotskian sense. Their supervisor asked questions, responded to their reflections from the starting point of learning leading development, and helped them connect their classroom experiences to learning theory through their discussions. “Thus, for Vygotsky, learning is the driving force of intellectual development, whereas for Piaget, development is the driving force” (Wadsworth, 1996, p. 10).

Wink, J., & Putney, L. (2002). A Vision of Vygotsky. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, pp. 25 – 28. This is a story of two student teachers, who understand Piaget, but not Vygotsky. Their university supervisor has read and understands both theorists. This story is a reflection of how theory turns to practice, when teachers actively reflect and learn from the context. Chris Kerfoot was instrumental in creating this vignette, when she was doing her masters.