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Winning the Epistemological Struggle: Constructing a Cultural Model of Shared Authority in an Elementary Classroom


by Teresa Crawford — 2008

Background: Constructivist epistemology offers an explanation of the nature of knowledge and how people learn that has emerged as a prominent approach endorsed by schools of teacher education. This perspective stands in direct contrast to the understanding of knowledge and learning based on behaviorist epistemology. These opposing epistemological views represent two paradigms of educational practice within which the role of authority is positioned very differently, each with its own effect on the way learning is understood. When teachers are asked to redefine the role they take in classrooms, they are essentially being asked to successfully manage a shift between paradigms. This task requires the abandonment of established ways of practice and the development of new strategies of action.

Focus of Study:This article addresses the following questions: (1) How does a teacher go about reorganizing participation patterns in ways that redefine the habits and modes of experience that are largely taken for granted in schools? (2) What are the results in terms of the distribution of authority and whose knowledge counts? (3) What are the effects on opportunities for learning when such paradigmatic shifts are accomplished? Specifically, the intent of this study is to identify the ways in which authority was a shared construct among members of a fourth/fifth-grade classroom, how members took up the role of authority, and the effect that it had on opportunities for learning.

Research Design: Three classroom episodes were theoretically sampled as key events from an ethnographic data set collected over one academic year. Using an ethnographic and critical discourse approach designed to study interaction in educational settings, each episode was analyzed to illustrate how authority and the situated processes and practices associated with it were socially constituted through the language of the classroom. Evidence was provided within each set of analyses to show that these episodes were not isolated instances, but reflected established patterns of practice among participants.

Conclusions: Overall, the findings serve as an example of how shared authority contributes to alternative ways of viewing knowledge and whose knowledge counts, and what it means to be a learner. Most important, this study demonstrates that when shared authority is a consistent classroom practice, what emerges over time is a cultural model within which students can begin to restructure their developing epistemological frames as they revise their notions of knowledge and ways of knowing.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 8, 2008, p. 1706-1736
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15154, Date Accessed: 4/29/2017 9:30:54 AM

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About the Author
  • Teresa Crawford
    California State University, Fullerton
    E-mail Author
    TERESA CRAWFORD is a professor at the California State University, Fullerton. Her research interests include science education, discourse processes and practices in educational contexts, identity construction, and teacher development. Her most recent publications are “What Counts as knowing: Constructing a Communicative Repertoire for Student Demonstration of Knowledge in Science” (2005) and “Assessing the Impact of Service Learning on Preservice Teachers in an After-School Program” (2005).
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