A disciplinary discourse perspective on university science learning: Achieving fluency in a critical constellation of modes
J Res Sci Teach 46: 27–49, 2009
John Airey, Cedric Linder
In this theoretical article we use an interpretative study with physics undergraduates to exemplify a proposed characterization of student learning in university science in terms of fluency in disciplinary discourse. Drawing on ideas from a number of different sources in the literature, we characterize what we call “disciplinary discourse” as the complex of representations, tools and activities of a discipline, describing how it can be seen as being made up of various “modes”. For university science, examples of these modes are: spoken and written language, mathematics, gesture, images including pictures, graphs and diagrams, tools such as experimental apparatus and measurement equipment, and activities such as ways of working—both practice and praxis, analytical routines, actions, etc.. Using physics as an illustrative example, we discuss the relationship between the ways of knowing that constitute a discipline and the modes of disciplinary discourse used to represent this knowing. The data comes from stimulated recall interviews where physics undergraduates discuss their learning experiences during lectures. These interviews are used to anecdotally illustrate our proposed characterization of learning and its associated theoretical constructs. Students describe a repetitive practice aspect to their learning, which we suggest is necessary for achieving fluency in the various modes of disciplinary discourse. Here we found instances of discourse imitation, where students are seemingly fluent in one or more modes of disciplinary discourse without having related this to a teacherintended disciplinary way of knowing. The examples lead to the suggestion that fluency in a critical constellation of modes of disciplinary discourse may be a necessary though not always sufficient condition for gaining meaningful holistic access to disciplinary ways of knowing. One implication is that in order to be effective, science teachers need to know which modes are critical for an understanding of the material they wish to teach. © 2008 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.