This article tries to define classroom interaction and how different approaches dealt with interaction to provide learning and teaching opportunities.
A shift in perspective
Gone are the days when the teacher was considered the sage on the stage whose job was to fill students’ heads with knowledge. Learners are not recipients to be filled, but humans with their own personal needs who want to initiate their own learning and develop their skills in a threat-free environment.
This shift in perspectives has its manifestation in the classroom. Classroom interaction has become of paramount importance in the teaching and learning process.
The term “interaction” is made up of two morphemes, namely inter and action. It is a mutual or reciprocal action or influence. In English language teaching, interaction is used to indicate the language (or action) used to maintain the conversation, to teach, or to interact with participants involved in the teaching and learning processes in the classroom.
Classroom interaction can be seen from different perspectives according to the approach adopted in teaching.
From a behaviorist perspective, classroom interaction is reduced to modeling, repetition, and drills. The most salient feature of classroom interaction in a behavioral model is the use of techniques that bring students’ behavior under stimulus control. This model focuses mainly on the transmission of the right behavior to students by means of stimulus, response, and reinforcement. This approach to teaching is mainly teacher-centered. Students are mere recipients whose control over interaction is reduced to the minimum. The interaction flows, most of the time, in one direction, from the teacher to the students. They rarely work collaboratively to construct their knowledge.
The cognitive model of classroom interaction is based on the learner’s processing of what’s happening in the classroom to make sense of the world. Here, the learner is actively involved in the learning by means of two processes, namely assimilation and accommodation. These are complementary processes through which awareness of the outside world is internalized by learners. The input that the learner receives is processed and adapted to learners’ prior knowledge. Learners are actively engaged in the learning by questioning and making sense of the world. The students are invited to make hypotheses, ask questions, and experiment. The aim is to auto-regulate their learning and find a state of equilibrium between the prior knowledge and the new one. The interaction flows freely between the teacher, the students, and the language taught.
Interaction is at the heart of the social constructivist theory of learning. Learners make sense of the world not only by means of internal processes (what happens in the mind) but also through the social dimension of learning. This theory contends that human development is socially situated and knowledge is constructed through interaction with others.
Types of classroom interactions
Taking the different main participants in classroom interactions, namely students and teachers, one can think of the following possible patterns:
One may argue that the more the initiative comes from students in classroom interaction, the more learning is taking place. In other words, the more students are free:
- to ask and answer questions,
- to make decisions about the learning process,
- to participate in discussions,
- to initiate conversations,
the more they contribute to the learning process.
Teacher-centered vs. student-centered classes
It is worthwhile noting that there is a huge difference between classes where the focus is on teaching and classes where the focus is on learning:
- The focus is on teaching
- They are lecture-focused
- Students’ talking time is low.
- Students have little say on what’s happening
- The students have to listen, take notes, and memorize what they are being taught
In these classes, teachers do not provide an opportunity for interactions among students. Most of the classroom interaction is teacher-student oriented.
- The focus is on learning.
- The focus is not on lectures but on tasks.
- Students work collaboratively in small groups to answer tasks.
- Tasks are designed in such a way that they have the potential for more than one answer.
- Students talking time is high.
- Students are provided with sufficient time and opportunity to listen and consider the ideas of others.
- Critical thinking is promoted.
You may also be interested in this thought-provoking article by Scott Thornbury