Scaffolding the talk: a case of teacher-led pupil autonomy

One of the claims made for the development of exploratory talk in the classroom is that it becomes a tool for children’s reflection, promoting ‘metacognitive awareness of how they talk and reason together’ [1] [2], leading to internalisation of Exploratory Talk as a model for reasoning. [3]

This is a powerful claim and one that Katie Hasler is testing out in her classroom action research project. [4] Katie notes that the expectation is that students post 16 will know how to talk each other and themselves into understanding, although she concedes that in her case they haven’t quite got there yet. On the other hand students at earlier stages obviously need the teacher to teach them how this works.

In other words, talk needs to be structured and publicly practised, critiqued together, so that it can be internalised and become deliberate behaviour and even second nature by the post 16 stage and earlier. The teacher is needed as a ‘scaffolder’ in order for pupils to know how to reason together. [5] Thus, the teacher is a trainer-mediator and taking a role very different from that of a facilitator. The ground rules below provide an example of this where the teacher would need to lead pupils into awareness of how their interthinking was working and how it could be more productive.

Ground Rules for Exploratory Talk [6]

Everyone offers relevant information
Everyone’s ideas are treated as worthwhile
– but are critically evaluated
We ask each other questions
We ask for reasons and give them
We try to reach agreement
People trust each other and work as a team

In last week’s blog I gave examples of possible talking points and how to create these. In this way I tried to show how talking can go to the heart of the subject, music. Music can claim to be a subject and more than an participatory activity.

Katie is particularly taken by the effectiveness of a Philosophy for Children (P4C) approach which Katie sets out below offering a whole lesson scheme.

Private reflections
Sharing, and creation of a question
Airing questions
Voting for one enquiry question
Reflections on the process
Last words

Well, what might the stimulus be to set thinking off? A pupil’s composition; an image of the first recorded piece of music 14th century BC; ‘In at the Deep End’; ‘finding your voice’; what pupils think needs to be talked about…?

A whole lesson given over to talking/thinking once in a while! Would it bear fruit?

Teachers who have used the P4C scheme will know that there is often a moment in the whole class discussion when pupils stop deferring to the teacher and when full responsibility for discussion is taken on by pupils, a case of teacher-led pupil autonomy. [7]

Could this scheme work as a basis for whole class musical interthinking?

P4C offers a classroom where everybody’s thoughts are valued, where everybody has a voice. This contributes to a productive classroom climate and positive attitudes and behaviour. Of course, this needs to be learnt.

P4C is an example of ‘talking for talking sake’ and just one approach to developing thinking. In the case of music and in contrast to P4C we need examples of talk/thinking emerging inside experiences of music making.

To conclude reporting from the recent Cambridge conference I ask the following questions.

In what ways do talk related strategies foster enquiry, curiosity and the exploration of ideas?
Does infusing music making with purposeful talk improve students’ musical thinking?
Can talking points assist with learning to write about music and foster a need to read about it?
Are talking points a step towards a critical pedagogy?
Could talking become a key aspect of progression?
Do talking points lead to a mature culture of ‘musical criticism’ embracing what currently falls under ‘review, appraisal, evaluation, reflection’?

The last question takes us to the possibility of re-thinking the framework we create for our music education and in England to the dissolution of the ‘holy trinity’ of Performing, Composing, Listening. It is this that I will write about next week.


[1] See Karen Littleton and Neil Mercer (2013) ‘Interthinking’. London: Routledge.
[2} Metacognition = awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes.
[3] This idea draws upon Vygotsky’s theory of learning where social interaction forms the basis for individual thinking. The concept of modelling so much casually referred to in pedagogical speak is derived from this theory.
[4] I am encouraged that it is a music teacher who is leading a whole school research project into dialogic practice.
[5] ‘Scaffolding learning’ is another casually used pedagogical term also derived from Vygotsky’s theory. I regret that I am unable to copy Katie’s model of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. It’s a version that I haven’t seen before and seems to incorporate Czicksentmihalyi’s flow concept.
[6] Littleton, K. and Mercer, N. Ibid.
[7] ‘Pupil autonomy’ seems to be highly prized idea in current debate on informal-formal practice. Here the teacher teaches for pupil autonomy, another Vygotskian derived idea. This is a good example of the school as a place of formal instruction.


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