Playing the game

The unit of analysis on which this book is centred is an 8th-grade Geschichte und Sozialkunde (an analogue of social sciences including history, political science and civics) class in an Austrian Realschulgymnasium [1]. The data we are provided with are a video recording and a transcription of the class, which lasts approximately 50 minutes. We are therefore asked to discuss school teaching in particular.

The teacher is addressing National Socialism in a more general series of lessons devoted to '-isms.' To do so, she has presented the students with a mainstream fiction movie – Swing Kids (Gordon, Manulis & Carter, 1993) – focusing on three young friends on the background of early Nazi Germany. She has made, in fact, a very specific choice of cognitive artefacts (Norman, 1993) as tools of semiotic mediation (Vygotsky, 1934/1962) in the form of a cinematic text. Together with the movie, the cognitive artefacts the teacher deploys also include an analytical schema presumably aimed at a classification of the '-isms' in terms of characteristics such as related ideology, political system, inner and foreign policies and so on.

The use the teacher makes of the movie is also significant for our analysis. The movie is not presented to the students in its entirety but in bits of ca. 10 minutes, the reproduction of which is moreover interrupted by the teacher whenever she considers that the students' attention needs to be focused on sections of particular significance.

As to what can be deduced from the single lesson at our disposal, the cognitive artefact film is given ex machina, its cognitive function in relation to the subject of National Socialism kept alien to the classroom discourse. The decision on the validity of the didactic choice is made by the teacher alone, and no need for discussion within the teacher-students group is acknowledged. The students have no say upon the matter of what 'validity' means in this instance and what arguments exist to sustain it. The position of the teacher in this regard remains itself implicit. The same can be said about the analytical schema which is supposed to help the students organize their unfolding 'scientific' (l. 85) understanding of National Socialism and about a further cognitive lens proposed by the teacher to make sense of the film: a classification of the events in terms of the two categories of the development of National Socialism on one side and of the protagonists' friendship on the other (see l. 138-139 and 165-168). As pointed out by my colleagues in the previous essays, these didactic choices are indeed disputable when not manifestly

ineffective (see, e.g., l. 534-541).

A disposition of the teacher as to what the students are supposed to learn and how they are supposed to learn it is emerging clearly from these first considerations and will be detailed as we proceed in analyzing the data.

The teacher announces that she will provide support in order to “make the preparation of the reports easier” (l. 130-131). This support consists of ready-made worksheets that will tell the students how to select the focal points of their reports. As the group prepares for the viewing we learn that a first section of the film has been shown in an earlier lesson. This calls for a summary of the previous events in the story through which the teacher has the opportunity of assessing students' understanding (learning, one could say) at the actual standpoint. It is indicative to see how the group deals with this task [2].

187 Tom: There they were (..) there they were (.) standing next to a bridge.

188 T: Who are they indeed?

189 Tom: Ehm (...) one was Thomas,

190 T: Yes.

191 Tom: Peter, > {softer:} and ... < j

192 T: The third was? j

Arvid. Yes?

193 tall (..)

194 T: > {louder at Tom:} And who is it? <

195 (...)

196 Tom: Yes ...

197 T: The three?

198 (..)

199 S?: Swing Kids.



201 S?: Swing Boys.

202 Tom: Swing Boys.

203 T: Swing Boys. Swing Kids.


314 T: Bela, what has happened until now, j

to these three friends?

315 Bela: Well (.) in the beginning tEdi they were dancing.

316 T: Hmhm.

317 Bela: Then (.), as they got out, (...) [...]

321 Bela: a man (.) started to run and (.) then he -

322 T: Where were they anyway? 323 (..)

324 Bela: Well, on the street.

325 T: On a st| railway bridge, weren't they?

326 Bela: Yes.

327 T: And on the street, yes.

328 Bela: And then at last the man jumped down from the bridge and the -

329 T: Why? (.) Not for j

fun, but ...

330 Bela: for fear of the (..) ehm ...

331 T: pursuers, t

332 Bela: Yes.

333 T: let's now say neutrally, pursuers for the moment, ok? [1 And?

334 Bela: [1 And then the pursuers shot into the water.

335 T: And why? j [ What has become apparent? j

Bert 2

336 Bela: [2 In order to (.) kill him (..) simply.

337 T: Yes, but why did they follow him? j


Edi Sven

338 (.)

339 Bela: Ah, ok, ehm because he ehm (..)

340 T: Was probably what?




342 Leon: > {soft at Bela:} Nazi. < j

343 Bela: Ehm, Nazi. 344 {SS lough, also Bela} j



345 T: I don't think that National Socialists pursue a Nazi. {points to

346 Bert}

347 S?: Hello, Mrs. Professor! j

348 Bert: tBert Ah, a Jew. t


Veit, Tom, Arne How did it continue? Edi?

350 Edi: Ehm (.) yes, and then they probably just shot him down.

351 T: Yes, well, not probably, [ they did shoot him down.

352 Edi: [ Yes, they just shot him down.

353 T: And then?

354 Edi: And then (.) ehm (...)

355 T: What was the reaction shown by the three boys? 356 (..) j

357 Edi: Yes, they were scared.

358 T: They were scared, they were dismayed. They were what else?

359 Tom?: Sad.

360 T: Yes, scared. (.) And? 361 (..)

362 S?: > {very soft:} Happy. <

363 {SS laugh}

364 Edi: Ehm ...

365 T: And then, what happened then?

366 Edi: Yes, then they simply again ehm, then came the younger brother of

367 Jan: Peter.

368 T: Peter arrived tBert

369 Edi: of Peter arrived and he said that somewhere just ehm (..) the

370 Hitlerjugend was (.) apparently just ehm (..) beating a bo| a Swing boy.

371 T: Hmhm.

372 Edi: And ehm, j

then they just went over.

373 T: Hmhm.

374 Edi: And they saw it, that he was no Swing Boy, that he was just a Jew.

375 T: And how did this young man react j

to the help?

376 (..)

377 Leon: tLeon He was very, just very thankful for what they ... t

378 T: He was very kind and he was very thankful. You must also pay a little

379 attention to the language, ok? (..) {turns to the video recorder} Ok. Good. Then

380 let's have a look, [ what we recall here.

We can see from these few lines some of the classroom dynamics that are at play within the group, which norms are consolidated or upheld, what visions of knowledge and learning are portrayed.

Edi is providing his own representation of the events witnessed during the first film viewing. In doing so, he is of course using his own words. His personal, pre-existing knowledge of the issues involved in the scene (such as social relations, behavioural norms in a community, etc.) and logical skills are surfacing. Their cognitive power as applied to the current task is at stake.

It is evident indeed, what the classroom norms are in this regard. The teacher's presence in the game is massive. She continuously interrupts the student in order to adjust his reconstruction of the events according to her own perspective on what the 'correct' result is supposed to look like. If we analyze the way the teacher is enacting her teaching role in the classroom we can detect, inter alia, the following elements.

1. She is asking questions when information is supposedly missing in the student's representation: Who are they indeed? (l. 188), The third was? (l. 192), Where were they anyway? (l. 322), What was the reaction shown by the tree boys? (l. 355), They were what else? (l. 358);

2. she is giving precise leads about what should be said at specific points in the narrative: Peter and... (l. 191), The three? (l. 197), Not for fun but... (l. 329), Was probably what? (l. 340);

3. she is expressing moderate, preliminary approval to indicate that the student seems to be heading in the 'correct' direction: Hmhm (l. 316, 371, 373, etc.)6;

4. she is confirming ('reinforcing,' one would say) the student's representation when she assesses that it is 'appropriate' (consistent with the expected 'correct' representation): Yes (l. 190, 337, 351, etc.), And on the street, yes (l. 327), A Jew (l. 349), Yes, scared (l. 360),

5. and completing the student's partially 'correct' answer when she assesses that it is however 'incomplete:' Swing boys. Swing kids. (203), They were scared, they were dismayed (l. 358), Peter arrived (l. 368), He was very kind and he was very thankful (l. 378)

6. or requesting the student to complete it: And why? (l. 335), but why did they follow him? (l. 337), They were what else? (l. 358);

7. she is pointing out the 'wrong' (non 'correct') answer: I don't think that National Socialists pursue a Nazi (l. 345), not probably (l. 351),

8. and providing the 'correct' answer when she assesses that the student is not able to do so on his own: on a railway bridge (l. 325), pursuers (l. 331), they did shoot him down (l. 351).

In embedding this analysis into a pedagogical-theoretical perspective we are led to ascribe the teaching taking place here to a transmission model (see, e.g., Farenga & Ness, 2005) in the more general framework of a behaviouristic paradigm (Watson, 1930; Hull, 1943; Skinner, 1948, 1971).

The scheme of stimulus ::: response ::: reinforcement ::: repetition is manifest inthe teacher's approach to the task of interpreting and summarizing the cinematic text. The teacher appears to have a more or less precise image of what the correct execution of the task should look like, in terms not only of content but also of form, as we see, e.g., at lines 331-334 and 378-379:

330 Bela: for fear of the (..) ehm ...

331 T: pursuers, t

332 Bela: Yes.

333 T: let's now say neutrally, pursuers for the moment, ok? [1 And?

334 Bela: [1 And then the pursuers shot into the water.

378 T: He was very kind and he was very thankful. You must also pay a little

379 attention to the language, ok?

The circumstance, in particular, that the teacher is repeating the whole phrase structure where this is manifestly pleonastic suggests that she is instructing the students about what they are supposed to report about the scene. She is, of course, suggesting a 'correct' representation form that is supposedly apt to future representations.

Indeed, the students' discourse is constantly punctuated by the teacher's interventions which are clearly aimed at correcting the route at every possible slight detour from the expected result. We are witnessing a perfect example of what Gardner (1991) calls the “correct answer compromise” (see, e.g., p. 153): a classroom norm is established between teacher and students about how 'good' learning should manifest itself, and that is by the students' providing what the teacher considers the 'correct' answer.

The students are trained to identify 'correct' statements according to the teacher's own conceptions of, in this case for example, interpretation and summarizing of a (cinematic) text with regards to a specific subject matter (e.g., social aspects of the development of National Socialism).

The students have no say about what elements in the text should be considered focal points (and therefore reported in the summary), nor are they even provided with general criteria for what constitutes a focal point (with respect to a certain analytical aim). They are therefore left with very limited cognitive strategies to be applied to similar tasks (e.g. identifying a hierarchy of information with regards to its relevance to the specific analytical aim).

The teacher goes as far as instructing the students on how to divide their paper sheets in two columns and how to label the columns in order to note down their observations in terms of the two analytical categories she has suggested (see lines 172-174 below). Let us recall here that the students are 13-15 years of age.

172 T: […] this two focal points you should pay special attention to. Perhaps you make,

173 I don't know how you organise that in your exercise book, (...) a separation,

174 so that on one side you write National Socialism Jews, on the other Friends

The norms regarding what is 'correct' or 'incorrect' (right or wrong) are dictated by the teacher with no need for participation on behalf of the students, who are left with the simple task of incorporating the norms and applying them to their classroom behaviour.

No explanation is provided of why the 'correct' answer is 'correct' or the 'incorrect' answer is 'incorrect,' no attempt is made to inquire into why the student has given the answer he has given and what his personal line of thought might lead to. This implies that the only criteria of truth (i.e., epistemology) the students are provided with are the opinion of the teacher as a representative of higher expertise (and/or social hierarchy).

While the 'correct' answer behaviour is reinforced, personal expression and creativity are discouraged in that 'incorrect' considerations are immediately corrected. No attempt is made to let the students display their full cognitive power outside the path prescribed by the teacher.

As is made evident by the students' constant raising of hands whenever the answer given by the classmate is perceived as 'incorrect' according to the established norms (as often suggested by the teacher's expression of disapproval), the norm has been effictively interiorized by the group. The portrayed model of knowledge building, moreover, is highly competitive as opposed to collaborative models.

  • [1] A secondary school that prepares for University, offers Latin but not Greek and typically emphasizes science and modern languages
  • [2] In this and following transcription excerpts, T stands for the teacher, names stand for (fictive) students' names, and S? stands for unidentifiable students; j or t followed by a name stands for that student's raising or lowering his/her hand respectively
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