In Norway, as well as in many other countries, there has been a growing focus on measurement of learning outcomes (author 2010, 2015). A general demand for evidence in decision-making and a subsequent continuous need for assessment and data are other factors driving the development of the knowledge society (Lundahl & Waldow, 2009; Ozga, Dahler-Larsen, Segerholm, & Simola, 2011). There have been substantial discussions in policy, research and practice concerning the logic of learning outcomes and their roles in education and curricula as well as their implications for teaching, learning and in assessment. As Stoller (2015) highlights, ‘Over the last 20 years, the use of definable and measurable learning outcomes has increasingly become a requirement for justifying curriculum and pedagogical practices’. Learning outcomes are considered as a key concept in a changing education policy landscape (Aasen et al., 2012; Fuller, 2009; Hargreaves & Moore, 2000; Hopmann, 2008; Lassnigg, 2012; Lawn, 2011; Ozga, 2009; Shepard, 2000, 2007). Researchers argue that developments focusing on outcomes have brought about a change in perceptions of quality in education (Adam, 2004; Kellaghan & Greaney, 2001) as well as switching the focus from input indicators to outcome indicators (Fuller, 2009). These developments have also led to changes in how education is governed and practised, and notably, this makes it necessary to form critical concepts for understanding how curricula are formed and functioned today (Lundgren, 2006).
In this paper we zoom in on and explore a new policy emphasised and supported initiative called “subject talk” of structured 30 minutes dialogues where teachers and students engage in talks about subject specific topics as an alternative approach to measuring students’ learning outcomes. In contrast to studies that seek to isolate the impact of policy in overall education development, we employ a sociocultural perspective on the ways policy is brought into educational practices and enacted as cultural tools that can be traced within and across educational policy documents, interpreted and enacted by actors in education in various school and classroom settings.
We analyse the phenomenon of subject talk as it is defined, presented and introduced in central educational policy documents and further how it is enacted and interpreted by teachers in classroom practices. While reviewing empirical classroom research on talk, Arnot and Reay (2007) identified four types of pupil talk; classroom talk, subject talk, identity talk and code talk. Subject talk is defined as “making explicit the recognition and realisation rules of specialised communicative competence in particular subjects e.g. science talk” (Arnot & Reay, 2007, p. 319). Subject talk was originally found by Morais, Fontinhas, and Neves (1993) when they assessed the impact of three experimentally controlled pedagogic practices on pupils’ understanding of what was required in problem-solving activities in science lessons. In this study, we focus on the practices of students and teachers in science and Norwegian language. We analyse data from (N=76) audio-recorded subject talks collected in two lower secondary schools in Norway during the school year of 2017-2018 . By investigating these instances of subject talks, we have identified patterns and variations in the organising, structure and enactment of subject talk practices, and varying practices of how teachers and students engage in subject talks in different school subjects.
From a sociocultural perspective, learning and assessing learning activities in school practices are interactional endeavours. When teachers intend to frame and constitute subject talks by drawing on students engagement and knowledge from chosen subject specific topics into more academic assessment activities, tensions and challenges arise regarding accountable ways of engaging in these new practices. Thus, accountable practices can be studied as “elements of situated knowing-in-practice i.e. as elements of knowing how to behave” (Mäkitalo, 2003, p. 496). This implies that when students’ experiences and knowledge from presenting subject specific topics are invited into new assessment practices, the discrepancies in the views of learning (i.e. what is considered relevant or accountable) and the goals of measurement (group collaboration, disciplinary themes or other subject specific achievements, implicitly leads to tensions and practical challenges. Thus, the teachers’ framing of accountable ways of engaging within the subject talks seems to have a strong guiding influence on what students see as meaningful assessment and learning practices (Michaels & O’Connor, 2015; Wiig, Wittek & Erstad, 2019).
In this study, the notion of “accountable talk” serves as the conceptual tool for categorizing how teachers and students negotiate and co-construct accountable ways of engaging in subject talks as a new form of policy initiated way of measuring students’ achievement. We chose to categorize the educational policy intentions and the enacted assessment practices using three dimensions of accountability; to classroom community, rigorous reasoning and accurate knowledge in the discipline, first explicated by Resnick, (1995) and further developed by Michaels et al., (2008), and Wiig et al. (2019). These dimensions will be applied as analytical tools to trace educational policy intentions into categorizing the various subject talk as enacted practices in classroom interactions. The following research question guide our analysis: What characterises the kind of subject talk-practices that are under development in Norwegian classroom interactions?
The aim of the study is tracing educational policy intentions into enacted assessment practices in two lower secondary schools, and categorize what kind of subject talk-practices is under development in Norwegian classroom interactions. Further, the study also aims to explore how newer and alternative ways of assessment emphasising relational aspects for working with and measuring learning outcomes potentially influence the ways learning outcomes are conceptualised and perceived in policy and in practice.
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