The idea of co-construction of knowledge jointly by the students and the teacher in the classroom has recently gained prominence in education policy. In this paper, I report the findings of a study conducted in a secondary school classroom. While the texts used in the classes were common for all students, and the discussions were also the same, individual students brought different ideas to the classroom discussion and grew in different ways. This difference in understanding shown by individual students is proof that knowledge is constructed differently. For this paper, I have selected two themes—gender and language politics. I have focused on the responses (as captured in written responses and during classroom discussions) of two students for the former theme and three students for the latter. Changes in gender relations were interpreted, by the two students selected for this study, either as an urgent need or as a result of deprivation. For the theme of language politics, the three selected students saw the politics of languages from their own situated contexts and emerged from the class with different perspectives and understandings. Hence, this paper discusses the implications of these findings for teachers as well as policymakers with regard to varied individual growth and the need for more nuanced formative assessment practices.
Keywords: co-construction of knowledge, gender, language politics, formative assessment
Formal teaching practices in classrooms are based on the philosophical beliefs and theoretical understandings of educational policymakers, school administrators and teachers in the classroom. With time, however, new theories of education emerge, and an acceptance of these leads to new classroom teaching practices. When one considers the history of education generally, these changed beliefs can be broadly divided into three phases—behaviourism, cognitivism and social constructivism.
Behaviourists believe that all learning is change in behaviour, brought into effect by stimuli and responses, by positively reinforcing “correct” or “desirable” behaviour and negatively reinforcing “incorrect” or “undesirable” behaviour. The learner’s mind is considered to be a clean slate, a “tabula rasa” and the teacher the “all-knowing”, “all-powerful” agent of change.
Cognitivists believe that the brain’s development is the crux of the learning processes. All education is geared towards making changes in learner cognition that would lead to information getting stored in the long-term memory. The human brain, like a computer, is meant to process all the information that is available and use it for predictable situations. Learners are treated as isolated individuals in the classroom using individual styles and strategies.
Social constructivists, on the other hand, believe that all learning happens through social interactions. The learner lives in an interconnected web of life and what each individual does has an impact on every other being. Learning happens through a dialogue between existing and new knowledge inside the learner’s mind. The knowledge that aids such individual learning is constructed collaboratively and creatively in the environment. A few underlying principles of social constructivism are:
- Learners construct knowledge on the basis of their previous knowledge.
- Learning is an active process as new understanding is created.
- There is learner reflection involved in this process, even though it is in collaboration with their peers.
- Learning is inquiry-based as learners ask questions and investigate a topic or theme using a variety of resources and perspectives.
- No idea is considered absolute as knowledge is considered to be evolving.
Vygotsky’s idea of the Zone of Proximal Development (1978) aptly captures this idea of learning through social interactions with peers and more capable elders and care-givers. Also useful in this context is Bruner’s concept of scaffolding (Bruner, 1985) which refers to the support given by these more-enabled individuals for learning to happen.
In terms of the education policy in India, the National Curriculum Framework (NCF, 2005) clearly mentions this understanding of the teaching-learning process and considers teachers as co-creators of knowledge. The teacher is therefore expected to use the learners’ ‘knowledges’ to enable co-construction and interpretation of such knowledges in the classrooms.
If the principles of this social constructivist paradigm are to be applied, there are several implications for the teacher in the classroom. Teachers and learners have to be perceived as collaborators in the construction of new knowledges. Teachers can no longer assume that they know it all, but need to create an opportunity in the classroom for a churning of ideas using various perspectives. They also have to encourage open and candid discussions using critical thinking to question existing knowledges and co-create/co-construct new knowledges as new perspectives are formed after considerable thought. In terms of educational practice, the ideas of critical pedagogy (Freire, 1972) hold great value for the teacher in this context. Learning is not seen as following the banking model, but as an empowering tool.
In the specific context of language teaching, language was considered to be a system of rules under the behaviourist paradigm. For cognitivists, language was viewed simply as a means of or as a tool for communication. Now, within the social constructivist paradigm, language is seen as a social construct and needs to be viewed as a social semiotic.
The use of language is focussed on social interactions, emulated within the classroom. A conscientious and empathetic teacher is capable of creating an environment for open discussions on themes that have rich possibilities for debate and diverse perspectives. Such discussions of different perspectives form a fertile ground for the co-construction of new knowledges. The teacher is strategically placed in the education chain (from policymakers, planners, syllabus designers, textbook writers, school administrators, and teacher-educators to the classroom teacher) as the person most capable of perceiving the myriad ways in which learners co-create new knowledges in the classroom, as she/he is the involved observer in the scheme of things and is most able to sense even tiny changes in learner understanding. However, conventional evaluation techniques that involve end-of-term, one-shot, paper-pen testing can fall dismally short as tools to capture such “small-gains” (Tharu, 1981) in knowledge creation.
Each individual student contributes to the co-creation of new knowledge on the basis of her/his own unique experiences. Each student’s experience of comprehending the texts and contributing to classroom discussions held around their content depends on their sense of themselves, their life experiences and the identity groups they consider themselves part of. In this study, the texts and themes have been selected by the teacher so that enriching and informed discussions can be held in the classroom. As explained later, two representative themes are focussed on, in this paper.
As part of my Ph.D. research, I taught English at a secondary school (class VIII) in a Kendriya Vidyalaya (Central School) for a period of four months. The school used Hindi and English as the curricular media of instruction, and Tamizh was generally used outside the “gaze” of the authorities (in corridors and playgrounds, for example). Being a centrally governed school, the curricular details were carried out as per the instructions of the KV Sangathan head office in Delhi or the regional office in Chennai from time to time. The sense of being rooted in the here and now, amongst the Principal and the teachers of this school, was limited as they were inw jobs where they could be transferred. Additionally, since the school largely catered to children of defence personnel (it is situated inside the Airforce station campus at Tambaram in Chennai), a national outlook overpowered any regional identities. Students largely belonged to families with at least one parent as a serving member of the Indian Airforce and most of them had attended at least two other schools (KVs) before being transferred to this school. Of the 43 students in the class, boys and girls were roughly equal in number. Between them, they had 11 mother tongues. There were 17 Tamizh speakers and 5 mother-tongue speakers each of Hindi (one Haryanvi, Marwari and Bihari speaker each identified themselves as such, not as Hindi mother-tongue speakers) and Telugu. A large majority of these students voiced their inability to write in their mother tongues, and were mostly capable of writing only in English and Hindi. This was a clear sign of the prevalence of subtractive bilingualism. A few could write in German as it was their third language (most students had taken Sanskrit as the third language).
Around ten broad themes (stereotyping, naming, advertising, reporting, gender, language politics, etc.) were taken up in class as they were considered age-appropriate and had great potential for diverse perspectives, and therefore for engaging the students in discussions. Authentic texts such as newspaper articles, which gave diverse opinions and tilts, were used as texts. Open discussions were held around these themes and texts, often with me as the teacher-researcher leading the learners with open-ended questions and asking them for their opinions. Free and frank discussions were held and nobody was allowed to make fun of anybody in the class. This allowed the students to freely express their opinions without the fear of being judged. What the students felt and how they changed through these classes was documented in the form of audio recordings, written responses to questions in tasks and summative individual interviews at the end of the teaching-intervention period.
For the purpose of this paper, as mentioned earlier, I will focus on two of the themes taken up in the class—gender and language politics. Three periods of 35 minutes each were spent on discussing issues of gender and language use, and five periods were spent on issues relating to language politics in India.
The themes used in the “teaching experiment” had a different impact on different students, which was indicative of their divergent paces and paths of growth. Their sense of identities in terms of their gender and language, and the way these clashed with the realities of language use and the covert tussles for power in the real world, represented in the classroom, in a small way, made it clear to them that language was a site of conflict and the assignment of gender roles are complicated by societal attitudes.
There was a lively discussion on gender-related issues, where different sides of the argument were taken up. However, broadly speaking, boys were mostly chauvinistic in their views and most girls had feminist-leaning views. For example, several boys gloated over the fact that “we are allowed to go anywhere, girls are not” and JYO, a girl said “we don’t fight like boys” to indicate that boys have violent physical fights (Extracts from classroom discussion held on 15 October). In contrast, a few girls believed that women are somewhat inferior to men, and accepted the idea of female subservience to the male.
I will give the examples of two students to bring out the diversity in the way the learners responded to the discussions in class. Both students responded to the theme based on their life experiences, situated context and ideological understanding. They had different reasons for this varied responses.
The two students are DIA and HIM. DIA is a Manipuri girl who has a twin brother and faces a daily battle at home because of the special privileges that her brother enjoys, as a male child. To give an example, her brother is allowed to stay out late and she is not. In the discussions in the class and the personal interview at the end of the four-month period, DIA was vociferous with regard to the rights of women. Referring to the specific incident of sexual violence in Bengaluru, which was in the news at the time, she said that the women were not to blame for having gone to the store late at night. The society must ensure women are safe even at midnight, instead of restricting their movement by imposing a curfew in the evening. In her summative interview, DIA said:
…girls are not allowed to do things that boys are allowed to like riding a bike, going to friends’ houses. My brother can go at any time. They think that girls shouldn’t go outside when it is dark. It is not the women’s fault that they do not feel secure. It is not right to say it is the women’s fault. We should change society to make women feel secure.
DIA complained about her parents not letting her leave the house after sunset even though her twin brother faced no such restriction. In her response to the written task on gender, she used questions to express her anguish “…Women are always busy with household chores whereas men sit like a king in the house. Can’t men do a bit of work? Are only women having hands and legs to work [sic]? And not men?”(excerpt from DIA’s response to task 14). In another task, she explained that society treated boys and girls differently and had different expectations from them. She pointed out that this was unfair. She expressed this sarcastically through a simile. “…because that’s what society wants us to do.... The difference between men and women (is) equal to the difference between heaven and earth” (excerpt from DIA’s response to task 11).
For the same theme and discussion, another student, HIM, a boy, had a different response from that of every other male student. HIM had a brother and a sister. However, unlike DIA’s twin brother who enjoyed special privileges by virtue of being a male child and was probably unaware of it, HIM came across as being extremely aware of the privileges he enjoyed as a male child.
HIM had the courage to speak out despite the divided class that he felt there was nothing inherently different between boys and girls and that the differences we saw were the result of the disparity in the upbringing of boys and girls. He added that society had different expectations from boys and girls—the fact that boys are given guns and cars to play with, and girls Barbie dolls—which made them grow up believing the different roles assigned to them as reality. Boys think they have to be tough and girls think they should be sensitive, he said. To say this in a class full of vociferous boys who would not tolerate any opinion that came across as feminist, is no mean feat. In his response to task 11, HIM wrote, “…Men are treated in such a way that they grow up to become tough and strong and women are treated in such a way that they become sensitive...” (HIM’s response to task 11). In the summative interview, when asked to clarify what he had said in the class about the way boys and girls are brought up, he said,
Why boys and girls behave differently is because we are associated with such tasks—for boys they give us transformers and such toys and for girls, they give Barbie dolls, etc., and so they are made to be sensitive, and boys are made fun of if they are sensitive....(HIM’s response to a question in the summative interview).
This is a clear case of knowledge being constructed differently by different students in the class. Both DIA and HIM agreed that the society favoured the male and discriminated against the female. However, the contours of their learning took different shapes. The texts and the discussions were the same for all of them in class. However, the ways in which different students responded differed on the basis of their sense of identity as well as their experiences in life. The varied knowledges they went away with from the class were also different, even though we may have seen DIA and HIM sharing similar opinions after the classes. However, many boys may simply have become sensitive to the fact that women face discrimination and may not understand the issue with the clarity that HIM showed.
The second theme used in this “teaching experiment” was that of language politics. The students were given handouts on the politics of language, which included aspects of the VIII Schedule of the Indian Constitution (with the inclusion and exclusion of languages in the list). The handouts also had information from the Census of India on how the varying definitions of the concepts of language and dialect, and the census enumerator’s personal judgment on what a language is could lead to gross misrepresentations. Further, it gave aggregations of several valid languages as dialects under a major language in the census, etc. Finally, it included information on language movements, linguistic reorganization of states, suicides based on linguistic identity, etc. The handouts led to discussions around language politics in which many students voiced their points of view which were shaped by their linguistic identity and unique life experiences.
In this paper I will include three students’ responses as examples of varied instances of knowledge construction/co-construction along this theme.
Even though HAR came across as a diffident student, miraculously, he opened up during the discussions on the politics of language. As a Mother Tongue speaker of Braj, which is considered to be a dialect of KhaRi (the standard variety of Hindi), he was uniquely positioned to understand this issue. During the course of the discussion, it came to light that the word Braj commonly collocates with the word bhasha, meaning language, and the word KhaRi collocates with the word boli, meaning dialect. This suggests that historically, Braj was considered to be the standard language and KhaRi was its dialect, but today the roles have been reversed due to political reasons. As the discussion progressed, HAR became more emphatic in his opinion. In the first few classes (task 3), he had identified himself as a Mother Tongue speaker of Hindi, but by the time we reached task 9, he identified himself as a Mother Tongue speaker of Braj, which he now recognized as a legitimate language and not merely as a dialect of Hindi. In the summative interview, he spoke animatedly about language death and said:
...languages die because people use a particular language less and less. In my village, no one uses Braj nowadays. They use Hindi only...that way, languages die because of other languages increasing (in use) day by day, but we can encourage them to use their own language.... (HAR’s response in the summative interview).
As a Mother Tongue speaker of Braj, HAR now perceived the “blind” promotion of Hindi as problematic.
In contrast, DIA, the Manipuri girl referred to earlier, identified herself even in the earliest classes as a Mother Tongue speaker of ThaDou Kuki, which is classified as a tribal language even in her village in Manipur. Manipur recognizes Meitei/Manipuri as its official language (included in the VIII Schedule of the Indian constitution in 1992). For her, Hindi or English were not the problems but Meitei was. Unlike HAR, who saw the promotion of Hindi as the problem, she saw the promotion of Manipuri/Meitei as unfair. She even recommended that Hindi be officially made India’s National Language.
Another student, MAY, a Mother Tongue speaker of MarwaRi, presented a totally different case. He had been a victim of discrimination in his class and school because of his fluency in Hindi and his lack of proficiency in English. In the summative interview, MAY expressed how he was dismayed by the fact that his peers made fun of him since he participated only debates, elocution, etc., that were held in Hindi and not those that were held in English. However, when I had made it clear that it was perfectly alright to use Hindi (or Tamizh) in the classroom, and that I would not insist on the exclusive use of English, he became more self-confident and began to feel at ease with the fact that his strength lay in speaking Hindi and not English. Just for perspective, I may add here that MAY continuously strived to speak in English all the time in class, and used Hindi only when he felt a dire need to do so. This was driven partly by his dogged determination to improve his English, and also by his sensitivity to the needs of his audience in being able to comprehend him. Even as a Mother Tongue speaker of MarwaRi, whose interests can be deemed to be harmed by the promotion of Hindi (as HAR perceived it), MAY supported the cause of Hindi being declared as India’s national language.
Clearly, this was an example of individual students’ partaking of ideas from animated discussions using their existing knowledge, beliefs and sense of identity. HAR did not agree with the viewpoint that Hindi should be India’s national language. DIA on the other hand, like MAY (but for different reasons), heartily expressed her preference for Hindi as the recommended national language for India even though she was not as fluent a speaker of Hindi as MAY or even HAR was. Moreover, she would probably be at a disadvantage if fluency in Hindi was considered to be a criterion for any opportunities in life.
Implications for Assessment
The fact that knowledge is not acquired in a uniform manner by individuals holds great importance for the people involved in assessment. A uniform, non-nuanced approach that tests all students through written tests and exams administered at regular intervals will fail to capture the individual paths and shapes of growth that students take as a result of their individual life journeys.
The themes used in the “teaching experiment” impacted students differently. They grew in unique ways and followed diverse growth trajectories. The clash between their sense of identity, their lived realities of language use and the often covert tussles for power in the real world made it clear to them that language is a coveted site of conflict. The three “victims” of language based discrimination displayed a deeper understanding of how identity struggles are manifested through language. The Braj speaker learnt to value his mother tongue as a valid language unlike earlier, when he was a diffident speaker of Hindi. The shy MarwaRi speaker of Hindi whose fluency in a language was greatly de-valued in a setting that he had been transported to because of his father’s job began to see that no language is by itself more or less valuable. He understood that “value labels” are assigned as a result of the politics that play out in the linguistic landscape (Chandrasekharan, 2016). He became more comfortable with his linguistic capabilities and this was reflected in him becoming a more confident person with better abilities in English. Lastly, the ability of a male in the heavily “gendered” classroom to stand up and declare that girls are not innately meek or sensitive, or boys strong and tough, and instead that they are victims of an unfair socialization process, stood out as a courageous manifestation against the workings of power in society.
Every student uses her/his personal experiences and sense of identity to construct knowledge about the self and the world differently. Peers and enablers are equally involved in this co-construction of new knowledges. The markers of individual growth as well as their growth trajectories are therefore unique and need to be incorporated in any evaluation that happens in the educational environment. Outside of formal educational contexts, the more enabled peers and care-givers enable language learning in more democratic ways and such an evaluation is convivial (Durairajan, 2003) in nature. If the knowledges that students bring to the class have to be valued and cherished and the wide diversity that is visible in terms of individual students’ language experiences is to be celebrated, the teacher needs to make careful and empathetic observations of the students’ progress.
In this “teaching-experiment” that lasted four months, I was able to, as an insider teacher-researcher, capture a range of “small gains” (Tharu, 1981). A continuous, comprehensive and “knowledge co-construction recognizing” evaluation provides a conscientious teacher with the space to take into account the personal histories of the students and capture their growth in manifold ways. For this, the teacher can record the necessary information in a journal/diary/notebook. However, there is an even more crucial need to tap into evidence that provides insights into the varied growths and growth trajectories of students. This evidence could be gleaned from student responses, classroom transactions and interviews. For this, the teacher needs to use varied tools, and evaluation has to be sensitive to the small changes that are perceived in the learners. For example, even as a conscientious teacher, I was not able to understand certain aspects of MAY’s growth until the summative interview at the end, in which he felt the need to reveal some personal details to me. The lesson for the teacher is that system-driven testing can never capture this growth. We therefore need to search for democratic and empathetic ways to capture the growth of individual students.
Bruner, J. (1985). Vygotsky: A historical and cultural perspective. In J. Wertsch, J (Ed.), Culture, communication and cognition: Vygotskian perspectives. Cambridge: CUP.
Chandrasekharan, D. (2016). Enabling critical language awareness to enhance secondary school learners’ language capabilities in ESL contexts (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis). EFL-U, Hyderabad.
Durairajan, G. (2003). Enabling non-prescriptive evaluation: Rediscovering language as a convivial meaning making tool (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis). CIEFL, Hyderabad.
Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
National Council of Educational Research and Training. (2005). National Curriculum Framework 2005. Retrieved from:
Government of India. Constitution of India, Schedule VIII, Articles 344 (1) and 351 (Languages). Retrieved from: http://lawmin.nic.in/coi/EIGHTH-SCHEDULE.pdf
Tharu, J. (1981). Measuring small gains. Paper presented at the National Seminar on Evaluation in Language Education, CIIL, Mysore.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Deepesh C. is Assistant Professor (English) at SSN College of Engineering, Chennai. He has taught for eleven years in reputed schools in Delhi and Doha-Qatar before pursuing his Ph.D. in English Language Education at the EFL-U, Hyderabad. He has cleared the NET both in Linguistics and in English and his research interests lie primarily in the workings of language and power, and in multilingualism.
 I have preferred to use in the paper, the more authentic representation 'Tamizh' over the anglicised term 'Tamil'.
 The first three letters of the learners’ first names have been used here to lend anonymity on the one hand, and to not dehumanize them on the other.
 I have avoided the term “Native speaker” in this paper and have preferred to use the term “Mother Tongue speaker”