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Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning


The last two decades have been a period of quite intense and dramatic change in higher education in Australia, and indeed in many other developed countries in the world. This transformation, which has seen impacts on so many of the activities of the traditional university (the nature of disciplinary knowledge, the processes by which it is taught, who participates in these processes) is often broadly characterised as a shift from a small, regulated and ultimately elite system catering mainly to local communities to a burgeoning, mass system operating in an increasingly competitive and international market. A sense of the dimensions of this change can be grasped by a snapshot of student participation rates over the last 40 years. In 1967, for example, around 100,00 students attended Australian universities; in 1987 the figure was about 350,000, and now in the mid 2000s the figure is pushing one million (Department of Education, Science and Training 2005).

This growth in the size of the student populace has also been matched by an increasing diversity in the social, cultural and linguistic backgrounds of students. These changes were first evident in the 1980s with the arrival on university campuses of students from so-called ‘non-traditional backgrounds’, a trend driven in part by various equity and diversity initiatives introduced by institutions around this time. An additional catalyst for this diversification was the opening of Australian university courses to students from overseas on a mainly fee-paying basis in the mid 1980s. This latter program in particular has had a profound impact on Australian universities, and has experienced an expansion that its designers could never have envisaged. By 2005, international student enrolments had risen to over 150,000, with the international education sector now the country’s second largest earner of export revenue. Such trends have also been evident at the secondary level, though on a smaller scale.

Along with these changes in the size and diversity of the universities have been changes in their perceived roles and purposes in contemporary society. The expansion of the sector over the last two decades has been accompanied – even motivated – by a belief on the part of policy makers that our higher education institutions need to be concerned as much with the imperatives of national development and economic prosperity, as with traditional notions of scholarship and the advancement and imparting of disciplinary knowledge. One of the consequences of this new thinking has been a greater emphasis on the vocational dimension of university education, seen both in the proliferation of new occupational disciplines and in the increasing professionalisation of many of the traditional disciplines. This shift has experienced additional impetus through greater accountability pressures exerted on institutions by a range of stakeholders – government agencies, employer organisations, and increasingly by students, who more than ever are having to bear the costs of their own education.

These changes, driven ultimately by the much larger forces of globalisation and the increasing application of neo-liberal market principles to many sectors of society, have not always been greeted with a wholehearted enthusiasm, it must be said, by many in the academic community. Among the concerns commonly expressed are a perceived loss of academic independence; perceptions of diminishing academic standards; and a general concern that educational debates are conducted increasingly within a narrow, instrumentalist frame (see for example Marginson and Considine 2000). But whilst many academics remain wary of the drivers and motives behind many of the changes that have occurred, there is a general recognition that the transformations ushered in over the last decades have, if nothing else, combined to make university campuses vastly more dynamic and complex places than they were previously. This is seen in the increasingly multicultural and multilingual backgrounds of many members of the university community (students and staff alike), and in the increasingly rich and intercultural nature of many of the social and academic interactions that take place within these communities. Clark Kerr’s old description of the modern university as a ‘multiversity’ – ‘a city of infinite variety’ as he described it – is perhaps more apt now than it ever was. One of the motivations for this book then is to explore some of the effects that these larger macro forces have had on processes of learning, teaching, and social interaction generally, in the highly complex communities that are our contemporary universities. Some of the papers explore these effects directly, while others are concerned with the micro-level social interactions situated in the new environments created by them.

The central organising concept of the book is discourses. We use the term here in its broadest sense, one now used conventionally in the language-based disciplines to denote those social processes and practices in which language plays a role. This broader definition is one that extends beyond an earlier notion that tended to equate discourses with texts. As Fairclough (1989) points out, a text is best viewed as ‘a product rather than a process’ – discourse on the other hand ‘refers to the whole process of social interaction of which a text is just a part’ (p. 24). The broad theoretical position underlying many of the papers in this volume is that participation and engagement in university study (as it is in any institutional setting) is best understood as a process of ‘discourse socialisation’, that is to say, that to learn to be an effective member of the institutional community is to become familiar with and to gain some mastery over its relevant social processes and practices, including processes of textual production, both oral and written. An additional theoretical notion is the relationship between the social and the discursive, and how one is seen to act upon the other. Thus, on one level we can see the broad social forces and structures (of the type referred to earlier) having an impact on local discursive practices. This relationship however, needs to be seen as a fundamentally bidirectional one, such that emerging discursive practices in turn act upon and transform the larger social structures.

The title of this volume – Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning – suggests a conventional division between the activities of students on the one hand (‘learning discourses’) and teachers on the other (‘discourses of learning’). Thus, the term ‘learning of discourses’ may be seen as denoting students’ experiences of the processes of discourse socialisation in the context of their study, and the ‘discourses of learning’ as those practices employed by teachers and institutions to facilitate this socialisation. As we hope to show, and this is perhaps the main theme to emerge from the book, a simple binary distinction between student work and teacher work fails to capture the breadth and variety of interactions that typically occur in contemporary educational institutions, as well as the diverse educational processes that arise from these interactions.

Thus, in the various chapters that comprise the book, discourse socialisation is shown to occur through a variety of social configurations. Whilst the activities of lecturers remains perhaps the primary agency, a number of chapters demonstrate the important work that is also performed nowadays in universities by academic and language support staff, especially in facilitating the learning of second language students. Perhaps even more notable is the role that students themselves have come to play in these processes. Several chapters, for example, investigate the important function and operation of peer social networks, especially among international students, as a means to negotiate the academic, cultural and linguistic challenges of their study. An additional dimension considered in a number of papers is the way different social interactions and learning opportunities are shaped and mediated through work done on specific academic tasks.

For local students learning foreign languages, the internationalisation of the student population has opened up new opportunities for interactions with target language speakers outside of the classroom, either through formally constructed academic activities, semi-formal activities such as language exchange partnerships and student-mentor relationships or purely social interactions. As in other areas of the university, the new emphases on professionally relevant and problem-based learning have led to a focus on ‘authentic’ tasks and group projects. All of these are examined in the chapters within this volume.

Many of the studies attest to the complexity and richness of academic socialisation processes. What is of interest is the fact that while some of these processes are institutionally planned and facilitated, others are shown to arise naturally out of this culturally-diverse environment, and are thus far less visible as educational processes. These latter processes suggest that in such an environment a good deal more learning may be occurring than is readily apparent to those only aware of classroom interactions.

This is not to suggest however, that the participation and engagement of students in such an environment is unproblematic. A recurring theme in many chapters is, in fact, one of gaps and disjuncts: disjuncts between academic tasks and the demands graduates face in their professional lives; between the tasks framed by teachers and those taken up by learners; and between the rhetoric of policies and practice. Thus, along with describing successes of study in this environment, a number of chapters seek to document the challenges and also the disappointments and failures that can occur.

The diversity of the academic communities described in this book can also be seen, we believe, in the backgrounds of the authors who have contributed to it. Authors include teaching academics from both English and non-English speaking backgrounds who either work in a Japanese language and studies program or in linguistics. Other authors are staff working in academic support roles within the university community. Furthermore, a number of graduate students from non-English speaking backgrounds have contributed their “insider” knowledge to the field through their studies of discourse socialisation or foreign language learning. Since the completion of their academic studies, most of these graduates have moved to other positions, especially university teaching, while others continue their research.

The volume is divided into three parts. The chapters in Part One consider broader issues of academic discourse socialisation, and the related area of the connection between academic and professional discourses. The first chapter by Patricia Duff is an overview piece introducing many of the issues and concerns that are taken up in some detail in subsequent chapters. Duff’s overarching interest is in the processes by which newcomers to the academy learn to participate in its oral and written discourses, as well as how institutionally they are inducted into these discourses. Duff notes the intensive research effort that has gone into this field over the last two decades, and suggests that while many advances have been made, there are a number of issues that require ‘greater problematisation’. She identifies five of these. The first relates to the ‘academic’ nature of academic discourse. Duff suggests that whilst we may want to see the language and literacy practices of the academy as somehow distinct and stable, they are in fact subject to the influences of other discursive formations. Notable among these in recent times have been the highly intertextual and multimodal forms typical of popular culture and also net culture. A second issue for Duff is the assumption that discourse socialisation happens principally through processes of apprenticeship and accommodation of newcomers by expert native speakers. Duff suggests that such a characterisation may in fact overestimate the nature of student-teacher relationships in contemporary mass higher education, where access to staff can be limited, and where feedback on student work is often less than comprehensive. A third issue is the assumption that the principal discursive challenge for students in the university, particularly second language students, is handling the literacy demands of academic programs. Such a view, Duff suggests, can lead one to overlook the fundamentally oral nature of much academic interaction, seen for example in the modes of communication characteristic of online methods of course delivery, and also in the increasingly complex institutional interactions that a student must negotiate to complete a degree. A fourth issue relates to the nature of academic tasks. Here Duff is critical of the tendency in academic socialisation research to see academic tasks as having predictable discursive outcomes. The situation is much more dynamic, she suggests; indeed it is the frequent gap between the task-assigned and the task-performed that, she thinks, should be the focus of our research. A final issue concerns the relationship between the discourses of the academy and those that students will encounter in their subsequent professional lives. On this issue, Duff urges literacy professionals to examine whether the ways our institutions socialise students into academic discourses will actually prepare them for the quite different discourse worlds they will enter after they have completed their studies.

The last of Duff’s problematics – the uncertain nexus between academic and professional discourses – is explored in some detail in the next three chapters by Moore and Hough, Jan Pinder, and Steve Price. Moore and Hough, in a more polemical piece, note the tendency in recent years to conceive of higher education as a form of professional training of graduates, seen, for example, in the growing influence of the graduate attributes movement. The authors argue however, that this increased ‘professionalisation’ of study has not necessarily been matched by the development of appropriate and theoretically-grounded pedagogies. One manifestation, they note, is a trend towards greater ‘skills’ teaching with a corresponding de-emphasising of the teaching of disciplinary ‘content’. Drawing on notions of genre and role, the authors propose a curriculum model that they suggest may allow for some systematic development of skills, but which is firmly embedded within studies in the disciplines.

Pinder, in Chapter Three, investigates specific efforts made by academics to direct students’ writing towards these professional contexts. Specifically, she analyses a range of assignment topics from the disciplines of Business and Economics based on a prescribed real-world scenario and requiring students to take on a specific professional identity. In her analysis, Pinder notes the complexities involved in seeking to incorporate professional contexts in the classroom. These are seen to arise partly from a failure of some assignment tasks to provide sufficient detail to clearly establish the professional context, but also from the inherent disjunction thought to exist between academic and professional discourse worlds. Despite these difficulties, Pinder believes such an approach does have value as a means of developing students’ discursive abilities, and suggests ways in which it might be more effectively implemented in university programs.

At the close of her chapter, Pinder suggests the need for additional research – into both classroom activities and student writing – as a means to better understand how students negotiate the contrasting requirements of academic and professional discourses. This latter research agenda is taken up by Steve Price in Chapter Four in a close textual study of a student assignment written in the discipline of Law. Using a case study approach, Price illustrates the very difficult discursive choices students can be required to make in their writing as they negotiate competing discourse demands. Price’s discussion confirms the conclusions drawn by Pinder regarding the important, but often uninterrogated differences that exist between academic and professional discourses.

A number of the issues raised by Duff are illustrated in Chapter Five by Gilbert, who focuses on the use of argument in the written texts of students studying Humanities subjects. Gilbert proposes that although the ability to argue is integral to both oral and written academic competency, undergraduate students do not necessarily receive explicit instruction on how to use and incorporate arguments into their academic texts. Reporting here on a case study of an Australian L1 speaker and a Japanese student using English as her L2, Gilbert traces the social and cognitive processes behind the students’ construction of arguments, and finds similarities as well as differences in the two students’ production and management of argument.

Part Two introduces five case studies of the English academic discourse socialisation of overseas students at Australian universities as well as a study of overseas students at one local Australian secondary school. Within the Australian context, the government-derived category of ‘international student’ normally refers to overseas students who pay full fees; if such students become permanent residents, then they are categorised as ‘local’ students. Needless to say, these terms are not exclusive ones and the choice of terms in many of the studies to follow is rather problematic. Many, though not all of the overseas students come from non-English-speaking backgrounds and hence are studying not only in a second language but also in a different academic context/culture, which is a highly challenging experience for them. As Duff argues in the opening chapter, academic discourse socialisation is a dynamic, situated, social, and cultural process, and frequently is also multimodal and multilingual. The following chapters illustrate various aspects of this contention.

Beginning with a language planning perspective, in Chapter Six Marriott examines the institutional policies and practices that have been devised to support the socialisation of students, especially overseas or international students, in two Health Science faculties. In particular, the study focuses upon the role that specialist language advisors play in assisting students to participate in their new communities of practice in higher education, while, at the same time, preparing for their future professional roles as doctors or pharmacists.

Language policy is also a central theme in Willoughby’s case study of a secondary school with a multilingual student population in Chapter Seven. Here, the author traces how various school policies and practices, in addition to participation in friendship networks, shape the Chinese students’ language use of Mandarin and English. Finding that some school policies resulted in language use different from that expected, Willoughby also identifies a positive role that L1 can play in international students’ education.

In Chapter Eight Yoshimitsu provides an in-depth longitudinal study of a Japanese student, tracing her entry to university in Australia, her struggles and successes during her first year or so. The student’s voice is portrayed through her journal entries and in-depth interviews which vividly describe her participatory experiences. Nemoto, on the other hand, in Chapter Nine provides unusual insight into how two Japanese students on an exchange program from their home university fail to complete their one-year program in Australia and return home mid-way through their stay. His study probes a range of factors to account for these students’ incomplete participation. In doing so, he brings to the fore the complexity of academic communities of practice and shows how difficult it is for newcomers, at times, to overcome the many obstacles found in them.

The important role played by peers in facilitating international students’ socialisation in a new academic community is illustrated in Chapter Ten in Wakimoto’s study of peer networks of international medical students. This case study of three Malaysian and one Singaporean student reveals the ways in which either co-national or multi-national networks not only supported students’ social needs, but also provided sources of study support. While also confirming other studies which have found limited host national networks among international students enrolled in Australian universities, Wakimoto explores such situational factors as students’ interaction history, their place of residence and future goals to reveal students’ satisfaction with their network formation.

This section concludes in Chapter Eleven with an investigation by Imafuku of a problem-based learning (PBL) tutorial in a Medical course and in particular, with Australian and overseas students’ participation in it. Although instigated in order to foster students’ self-directed learning and team-work skills, Imafuku found that the institutional guidelines for tutor and student roles in one PBL tutorial did not correspond, with an analysis of the classroom discourse clearly revealing a tutor-dominated classroom and with overall less oral participation on the part of the overseas-born students. Even so, students were not dissatisfied with this pattern of participation, perceiving that an active tutor was helpful for their clinical learning.

In Part Three the focus changes from academic socialisation in general to the social mediation of language learning itself. Unlike the previous two sections, this section is concerned with foreign language learners, although in contrast to the majority of studies of foreign language learning, which focus on classroom learning, a number of the chapters focus on learners’ engagement with native speakers outside of the classroom. The chapters cover a broad spectrum, with two chapters focusing on tasks in a coursework context, three on out-of-class interaction, and two on systemic issues.

The first five chapters address the nature of learner activity and the ecology of particular language learning situations. All take as their subjects learners of Japanese in Australia (where Japanese is the most popular language taught at tertiary level), and four involve interaction with target language speakers. However, the themes they are concerned with are by no means language-specific, and are relevant not only to other foreign language learning situations, but to the situations of second language learners examined in other parts of this volume. These chapters also share methodological similarities, as all are case studies of actual learning situations, drawing on a combination of natural discourse data, and retrospective interviews. Spence-Brown and Shima address the issue highlighted by Duff in her fourth theme – the diverse ways in which similar tasks prescribed by teachers are instantiated by different individuals, and the implications this has for teaching and learning, while Kobayashi, Kurata and Masuda examine language learning activities outside of formal learning contexts.

In Chapter Twelve Spence-Brown examines an extended task which aimed to engage learners in authentic communication with native speakers outside of the classroom, and to integrate assessment into a pedagogically meaningful sequence of tasks. Drawing on activity theory, she focuses on the twin themes of motivation and engagement, showing how the motivations inherent in completing assessment can be a key determinant of learner engagement, fundamentally changing the nature of the activity from that envisaged by the task designers, and resulting in both positive and negative washback on learning.

Shima also draws on activity and sociocultural theory in Chapter Thirteen to examine the process of learners’ participation in a group work task, exposing the social nature of learning in the classroom context. She shows that not only does each group adopt a unique approach, but also each learner within the same group engages with and experiences the task differently by reinterpreting it on the basis of their individual goals, histories and situations. The study also reveals the effects of peer influence on learners’ behaviour and highlights the multiplicity of aspects on which learners focus during their engagement with the given task.

In the following chapter, Kobayashi investigates the nature of student-mentor interactions, and their contributions to learning, in a study of students preparing for a Japanese language speech context with the aid of native speaker volunteers. The study highlights the ways in which the interactions provide a context for the social construction of language, and how this provides rich opportunities for language learning.

Kurata ventures outside formal learning situations entirely in Chapter Fifteen, in a study of the social and contextual factors influencing L1/L2 use in learners’ social network contexts. Although situated in an English-speaking context, Kurata shows how learners have opportunities to use their L2 with other L2 and L1 speakers of the language, in a social rather than an academic context. Such language use is widely advocated as a strategy for language learning, but Kurata shows that it is not always easy to establish opportunities to use the L2, as usually both participants have competence in each other’s languages. She demonstrates how various factors interact to determine patterns of language use.

A similar theme is pursued by Masuda in Chapter Sixteen, who employs a conversation analytic approach to bilingual interaction in order to explore the interactional sequences and language selection that occur in Language Exchange Partnerships (LEPs), wherein a pair of language learners who are L2 users of the L1 of their partner meet each other regularly, primarily for the purpose of improving their language skills and of increasing understanding of one another’s cultures. LEPs offer each participant the opportunity both to provide and to take advantage of L2 use opportunities, so language choice is a key issue. Although balanced usage of the two languages is regarded as ideal, asymmetrical use was observable in the actual language use of some of the partners studied, and the analysis identified various factors relevant to the language alternation by the participants.

The final two chapters examine foreign language learning in Australian secondary schools. Ryumon (Chapter Seventeen) investigates how the senior school curriculum is implemented by individual teachers, and highlights the relationship between curriculum teaching and assessment, in particular the washback of assessment on teaching (a theme which complements Chapter Twelve’s focus on washback on learning). She explores factors that affect washback, such as teacher beliefs, school policies and cultures and the perceived stakes of assessment, as well as the ways in which washback influences materials, content and teaching. Although the prescribed curriculum and assessment were designed together, the study demonstrates the ways in which gaps between assessment and curriculum prescriptions contribute to an implemented curriculum which is very different to the prescribed curriculum. In terms of the theme of this volume, the public discourse of curriculum documents is shown to be at odds with the implied values embodied in assessment, and the latter appears to be much more influential in determining what actually occurs in classrooms.

In the final chapter of the volume, Bradshaw explores another of the underlying discourses in foreign language learning, that which positions language learning as a gendered activity. Using government statistics, she examines the participation rates of boys and girls in post-compulsory language instruction, highlighting the low participation rate of boys in post-compulsory secondary (year 9 and above) language classes, and identifying interesting differences between languages, as well as evidence of a return to language study by some boys at tertiary level in certain languages. She also draws on students’ retrospective self-reports to identify some reasons why boys’ engagement in language study declines, including notions of hegemonic masculinity, the gendered language classroom and classroom activity types.

As can be seen from this brief overview, the chapters within this volume cover a wide range of concerns, in a variety of settings. Together, however, we hope they provide insights into the diverse but interconnected discourses of learning in our educational institutions. Without doubt, they also illustrate the changing nature of universities and their increasing complexity.

Helen Marriott
Tim Moore
Robyn Spence-Brown


Department of Education Science and Training. 2005. ‘Higher Education Statistics Collection’ [Internet]. Australian Government. Accessed 30 July 2007. Available from: education/publications_resources/statistics/ higher_education_statistics_ collection.htm

Fairclough, N. 1989. Language and Power. London: Longman.

Marginson, S; Considine, M. 2000. The Enterprise University: Power, Governance and Reinvention in Australia. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Cite this chapter as: Marriott, H; Moore, T; Spence-Brown, R. 2007. ‘Introduction’. In Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning, edited by Marriott, H; Moore, T; Spence-Brown, R. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 1.1–1.18.

© Copyright 2007 Helen Marriott, Tim Moore and Robyn Spence-Brown
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Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning

   by Helen Marriott, Tim Moore and Robyn Spence-Brown