Jaana Taar on ensimmäinen virolainen kotitalousopettaja, joka on koskaan väitellyt kotitalousopetuksesta. Hän on myös ensimmäinen koskaan Suomessa kotitalouden alalta väitellyt ulkomaalainen kotitalousopettaja. Jaanan väitös 24.11.2017 osui Viron kotitalousopettajien juhlavuodelle, ja on jatkoa historialliselle pitkälle yhteistyölle Viron ja Suomen välillä. Kotitalous-lehti julkaisee Jaana Taarin Lection.
Madam Custos, Madam Opponent, ladies and gentlemen.
Estonians say „Kaks pead on ikka kaks pead“. A free translation of it would be “two heads are always two heads”, indicating to the benefits of thinking together when solving problems. Interaction helps to gain knowledge and skills from the environment. For example, from another person. Finding an answer to a given problem is not only about using information what individual persons have stored in their own brains. Faced with a problem, people depend on each other. They share their knowledge with others and together find out what they need to know. All this means creating new knowledge and understanding (Littleton & Mercer, 2013). They may also be able to recognize connections that were not apparent, or realise that there are more options to consider (Barnes, 2010). Why all this is important regarding schools and education? In schools too, meanings in an interactive learning process are constructed jointly. It is interesting, that communication, thinking, creativity, learning and also students’ development are all shaped by cultural and historical factors.
Interaction patterns have been in researchers’ interest for decades. Interaction has been studied in various contexts and from many aspects but not much in home economics education. Studies conducted in schools aim to see processes and dynamics of peer interaction; interactive patterns in students talk; or connections between group interaction and students’ knowledge construction. These studies are handling interaction on a social level but also from an individual’s perspective, from students’ as well as from teachers’ viewpoint. Regardless of the specific interest, an impressive number of studies demonstrate how learning in interaction helps to improve the understanding and attainment of individual student. It affects positively on children’s intellectual development and abilities (Mercer, 2002).
Nowadays also national educational documents in Estonia expect social learning. As an example, National Curriculum of Comprehensive School or The strategy of lifelong learning in Estonia state this clearly. Teaching and learning according to the guidelines of the current curriculum in Estonia is a social process. It takes place in physical, mental and social interaction. The latter reflects the need to turn into more social and student-centred learning approach, like social-constructivist or socio-cultural perspective of learning. However, the reality in classrooms is often different.
I started to wonder how the requirements of contemporary education are met in our schools. Home economics education in Estonia has often narrowed only into practical food preparation, or these lessons are replaced with craft lessons due to the limited physical learning environment. In the worst case, the various theoretical aspects of the subject are left aside. Therefore, I started to look for new ways how to reconceptualise Estonian home economics education by implementing the latest curriculum. That is, first, to increase the amount of theoretical knowledge students gain from home economics lessons, and second, to add social learning tasks so that students could learn from each other.
I see home economics education as a good platform for interaction. Practical, as well as cognitive-oriented activities, can well be organized in groups. This could lead into everyday-like problem solving where group members work jointly on the same task. As the learning content in this subject is closely related with students’ everyday life, every student has knowledge and skills what to bring with them into the collaborative tasks. There are many actions that are done differently in families and these methods cannot be evaluated simply as being right or wrong. In interaction, students share their experiences and learn from each other. Communication bridges the gap between the different understandings of students as they work out common meanings that may challenge the subjective understandings of individual students. Or even better, help them to go beyond their individual knowledge (Kumpulainen, van der Aalsvoort & Kronqvist, 2003).
In this study I designed new lessons and learning tasks together with Estonian home economics teacher. As a researcher, I was interested to see how the developed learning tasks could influence students’ interaction in home economics lessons. All together 34 students from one Estonian school participated during the three study years. I noticed the importance of language in interaction and the need to think together when solving tasks. During the research process, my interest was specified – what is the role of thinking together in cognitive and practice-oriented home economics tasks? Even though interaction in classroom has been studied a lot, not much attention is given to understanding how spoken language functions as a tool for thinking together – which I here define as interthinking in problem-solving process.
The concept “interthinking” was introduced by Neil Mercer (1995?) to link the cognitive and social functions of group talk. Essentially, interthinking means using talk to think creatively and productively together; and to engage with others’ ideas through spoken language. Stressing thinking instead of acting in collaborative activities gives group work a new meaning. Interthinking widens learning environment and it makes the participation of each individual group member more valuable.
Today, I would like to discuss about three aspects in relation to the findings of my study. First, I bring forward meaningfulness. It applies in several aspects – like meaningful learning tasks, meaningful methods and meaningful tools in learning situations. In this moment, I would like to point broadly on meaningful content of lessons. As I have already noted, practical food preparation dominates in Estonian home economics education. Students value cooking as it is enjoyable and useful. Although, throughout my work experience, I have heard many home economics teachers share their concern about students’ low motivation towards theoretical aspects of home economics. Also the teacher, who participated in this study, had experienced students little interest in theoretical topics. I dare to argue that the reason is in students’ inability to see the meaningfulness of given learning tasks. Karpov (2003) has pointed, that pure scientific knowledge and pure procedural knowledge are in danger of remaining meaningless and non-transferable for students. As long as theoretical knowledge is handled artificially in home economics lesson, for example a week before or after practical lesson, it is hard for students to see the connections as well as its value in their everyday life.
In this study, it was beneficial to combine theoretical aspects with practical tasks within the same home economics lesson, as well as design cognitive-oriented learning tasks that were close to students’ everyday life. My key-concept – interthinking – made learning meaningful for students as it supported the use of previous knowledge and skills transferred from their everyday experiences. Connections made students to see the value of the learning tasks and the usefulness of school-learned aspects in practice.
Second, students deserve the freedom in doing group work. As a teacher educator I have sensed teachers’ fear of using group work in lessons. In their opinion, it is hard to predict how much students learn in groups and if their talk is topical. Borrowing the words from Linehan and McCarthy (2001) we do not need to ask “are students participating in the group work”, but rather, “what forms of participation are possible”. Therefore, the most important question is if students, but also teachers, recognize group work as a mediator of learning.
For my surprise, the amount of students’ off-topic talk was relatively small in recorded discussions in this study. Therefore, I challenge home economics teachers, but more precisely all teachers, to give students the freedom through group work assignments for organizing their own learning and using peers for reaching higher level of understanding.
It is interesting that students can benefit from interaction even when they do not actively participate in it. Hearing concepts and ideas expressed in the language of a peer, or seeing the process of discussing and understanding what was demonstrated, can help the so called “passive learner” to internalise these tools, and make these part of his or her own mental tool kit (Scott, Meiers, 2009).
Third aspect I want to point out today is student’s learning skills. Studies of collaborative learning and peer tutoring in different instructional settings, have identified specific forms of interactions, that seem to promote learning. These forms may occur more frequently in collaborative learning than in individual conditions (Dillenborg, 1999). However, there is no guarantee that those forms occur in any interaction, meaning that group work does not always bring students to interthink and learn from each other. Organizing a group activity or using different group work methods will not ensure effective learning in the group. So what is needed? Students need skills how to use group work time effectively.
I studied groups which were not familiar with the learning methods supporting interthinking. They had fruitful discussions in the groups, but insufficient language skills hindered students’ deeper level thinking, in all participating groups. Language is most commonly used as the medium of joint management in collaborative situations (Littleton & Mercer, 2013). Therefore, students need training on how to think together in the group – including reasoning and listening skills. They have to learn first how to engage all group members into discussion, how to reach common knowledge, and how to recognize critical moments in their own thinking. Only trained students know, how to request the group members’ support, and to build their understanding of the subject with the help of peers. Skilful students know when and how to question, inform and motivate their fellow students, not by chance but by intent (Soller, 2001; Dawes, 2004).
I dare to claim that group work skills or even more precisely, the skills of thinking together in a group, are comparable with, and are as important as the general competences, noted in the curriculum. General competences accent the main learning outcomes in Estonian curriculum for comprehensive school. These were named in the curriculum already in 2002, though latest curriculum highlights these particularly (Liblik, 2015). Relying on the definition in Estonian national curriculum, group work competence could be worded as the sum of students’ knowledge, skills and attitudes that are needed for effective participation in the group.
I also want to open the question of competences from another, more modern viewpoint. Nowadays it is fashionable to talk about literacy in various contexts – like financial literacy, food literacy or more broadly home economics literacy. I invite you to think what could be interthinking literacy? I will phrase its definition relying on Neil Mercers’ (2002) ideas about thinking together. Accordingly, interthinking literacy could refer to the set of skills and knowledge, that allows an individual to use language in collective problem-solving activities, to think effectively together with group members. It involves the ability to share relevant information; to listen group members and reflect critically and constructively on their ideas; and to offer reasoning and alternatives when needed.
Competences or literacy – it is always teacher’s duty to develop student’s interthinking and to put student’s talk in the service of learning in home economics education. And this applies to all other school subjects too. However, teachers do not feel themselves comfortable in this matter. The average Estonian teachers have got their pedagogical training before the bigger changes in the curriculum and they are not educated to focus on general competences. A study among Estonian teachers (Kikas, 2016) reveals, that teachers feel their understanding of general competences average, and they have difficulties when implementing these with past practices. Therefore, teachers focus on the subject content, and hope that general competences will develop in the background by themselves.
To sum up, according to the results of my study as well as related literature, learning in interaction has not been recognized as an educational imperative (Littleton & Mercer, 2013). Many aspects, like the ones I have pointed out today, are yet to be recognized by teachers.
The findings of this study complement previous studies, with the knowledge on interaction and the role of interthinking in home economics lessons. The recorded data allows me to confirm, that practical home economics tasks are rather unique in school context. In practice-oriented tasks students move around in the study kitchen and do several actions simultaneously, like it is normal with cooking at home. Although, the latter challenges interthinking with group members. Therefore, home economics teachers need the knowledge how to develop students’ learning skills also in such complex learning situations. More in-service training is needed where teachers could have the chance to discuss these issues and get the experience of interthinking with colleagues. In addition, I see that the curriculum is implemented only when teachers see the benefits of the changes and have the support in changing process. They need more explanation as well as new learning materials.
In the beginning I referred to an old Estonian proverb “Kaks pead on ikka kaks pead” – “two heads are always two heads”. In the light of my study, it could also be said “Kaks pead on kolm pead, kui nad oskavad koos mõelda”. Meaning “two heads are three heads if they have the skills of thinking together”.
With that being said, I finish my presentation. Madam Opponent, Associate professor Karin Hjälmeskog, I now call upon you to present your critical comments on my dissertation.