It is often assumed that ICTs will transform pedagogical practice, and lead to more student-centred learning, or greater emphasis on critical thinking. I don’t really have an issue with this statement, as long as it is understood that there is nothing automatic in this. The mere presence of technology in a classroom will not transform anything. I think it is also important to recognise that teaching and learning is more complex an issue than this simplified formulation suggests. While clearly it is a good idea for students to be active learners, more critical, and more independent learners, this does not invalidate a healthy dose of teacher instruction, or even the odd lecture. Listening to a good lecture is a far from passive event, while so-called active-learning, if the task is rather mindless, can be extremely passive.
So the question I would rather ask is how ICTs can be used in the classroom to support the pedagogical aims of any teacher whether they are working within a Constructivist or an Instructivist paradigm. Do they add value? Do they make for a better lesson, for better learning? This statement is a rather watered-down version of the view that ICTs represent a magic bullet for all educational ills. But I believe that the new digital technologies do offer many crucial affordances, which allow us to talk about key benefits in terms of promoting more active, independent, critical learning.
How do we theorize this though? How do we assess the role of ICTs in knowledge-building practices? One powerful conceptual tool is that derived from Legitimation Code Theory – the Semantic Wave.
Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) represents a social realist theory of knowledge derived from the work of Basil Bernstein and Pierre Bourdieu. How is knowledge legitimated? What constitutes valid knowledge in Science or History, for example? As high school teachers our core concern is teaching our students how to make valid knowledge claims in our particular subject discipline. To graduate, our students are assessed, essentially, on how closely their responses to our examination questions corresponds to model responses in our academic disciplines. We spend much of our time preparing them for this examination, teaching them how to sound like a Mathematician or Historian, giving them the academic language and knowledge they need to do this. But how is this done?
One aspect of the theoretical framework developed, principally by Karl Maton, to answer this question is the notion of Semantic Gravity, and Semantic Density. In essence Semantic Gravity refers to how contextually dependent an idea is. Semantic Gravity is described as being weaker (SG-) or stronger (SG+). Weak Semantic Gravity refers to ideas which are relatively free of particular context, while strong Semantic Gravity represents ideas which are closely tied to the particular. The French Revolution, for example, has greater Semantic Gravity than the idea of Revolution in general because it represents an instance of a more general idea.
Semantic Density is also viewed along a continuum from weak (SD-) to strong (SD+), and refers to the extent to which meanings are condensed within a practice. The weaker the Semantic Density, the less meanings are condensed. The example used by Maton is that of gold. When you mean the shiny metal on the ring on your finger, the Semantic density is low (SD-). When you are referring to the element, it’s atomic number, it’s place in the periodic table of elements and so on, you are situating gold within a structure of knowledge that condenses a great deal of knowledge in the symbol Au (SD+).
Maton (2014) argues that you can analyse classroom discourse in terms of the movement of Semantic Gravity and Semantic Density over time. In a major study called the DISKS (Disciplinarity, Knowledge and Schooling) Project, he observed these movements (SG↑↓, SD↑↓) in lessons and student essays to describe how pedagogic practices enabled or constrained Knowledge building.
A common practice was the way in which the teacher helped students unpack texts which were rather more abstract, of low Semantic Gravity and high Semantic Density (SG-SD+), and by giving examples, using metaphors and explaining terms, made the information more accessible and concrete for students (SG+SD-). What he found, though, was that it was less common for teachers to help students take more concrete knowledge and build it up into more abstract understandings – to help students write essays employing accurate and precise academic language, for example (SG-SD+).
The semantic profile of the recurring unpacking of ideas he referred to as “down escalators”, indicating a recurring strengthening of Semantic Gravity. Essentially in this profile, teachers are helping students understand abstractions. This is a perfectly valid and essential pedagogical practice. Imagine trying to understand quantum physics without the odd metaphor to help concretize the ideas! A large amount of any classroom interaction needs to be spent on this, clearly.
Maton found, however, that all too often teachers were good at helping unpack knowledge, but not enough attention was paid to repacking it, in other words to helping students re-frame their understanding in more abstract academic language. Good students are able to do this. In a History essay they can take what they know about the French Revolution, or the Russian Revolution and begin to tease out more abstract statements about the nature of Revolution in general, for example. Weak students tend to remain grounded in the particulars, essentially retelling the narrative, while stronger students are able to come to grips with questions such as the role of class in both revolutions.
I am currently conducting research, for a Masters in Education, around how the affordances of ICTs match, or clash with the facility with which teachers may both help students unpack ideas, and help students repackage their understandings in more sophisticated academic language. I am hoping that this will help explain why some teachers find very little use for ICTs in their lessons, and others find they are extremely beneficial, and why this appears to be grounded in particular subject disciplines. Howard, Chan & Caputi (2015) have suggested, from their analysis of the introduction of a one to one laptop programme in New South Wales, that subject area makes a crucial difference in how teachers integrate ICTs in the classroom. Maths teachers were found to have identified fewer matches between the use of ICTs and their subject discipline than English teachers. All claims about knowledge have two components, a claim about something (the knowledge) made by somebody (the knower). In some areas knowledge claims are more strongly based on the content. In Mathematics, for example, knowledge is dependent not upon the person making the claim, but on the content itself. In English, knowledge is more dependent upon the “cultivated gaze” of the person making the claim than upon any “absolute proof”. One can prove what the equation of a tangent at the turning point is, but what literary works deserve to be in the canon, or what a particular image signifies is largely dependent upon the sensibilities of the reader. Maths represents then a strong Knowledge Code, while English represents a strong Knower Code.
For Howard and Maton (2011) the code matches and code clashes between ICT integration and subject area may be explained by the nature of the differences between mathematical knowledge (a strong knowledge code) and English knowledge (a strong knower code). For example, it might be easier for teachers to find uses for ICTs to cultivate self-expression in an English class, and less easy for Maths teachers to see how they can use ICTs to help students solve derivative equations. This picture needs to be tempered by an appreciation that not all aspects of what constitutes knowledge in English can be characterised as knower codes. Grammar, for example, is a highly structured knowledge system, and English teachers are as at sea as Maths teachers when trying to integrate ICTs in this area of the syllabus.
When we shift the focus from subject specialisation to the unpacking and repacking of ideas, to the making of semantic waves, however, we may find that Maths teachers and English teachers are far more alike in their adoption of ICTs. For example, the kinds of online drill and practice programs like My Maths which some Maths teachers use are very similar to some of the drill and practice programs used for grammar practice. Essentially this type of program provides multiple opportunities to rehearse routine operations such as solving equations or choosing the form of a word – all of which involve concretizing underlying rules, strengthening Semantic Gravity. When a Science teacher uses a simulation, of say an electric circuit, students are being given opportunities to test particular parameters and form hypotheses about how electric circuits work (weakening Semantic Gravity), or to test hypotheses (strengthening Semantic Gravity). Programs such as Autograph or GeoGebra can be used to visualize a mathematical function (strengthening Semantic Gravity) or to test if one’s calculations are correct (weakening Semantic Gravity).
When students are using Google docs to collaborate on researching the advantages and disadvantages of different energy sources in South Africa to justify a particular choice, they are constantly moving from unpacking and repacking ideas, as their understanding increases and as they develop an ability to grapple with what each energy source involves (SG+) towards an understanding of what energy source would suit the country best (SG-). An English teacher might use Google docs in a similar way to help students explore how the character traits of individual characters in a play (SG+) work with other characters to explore themes and concerns in the work as a whole (SG-).
I believe that not only can the concept of Semantic waves help us understand why teachers are using certain technologies and not others, but may also help teachers understand which tools might help them develop more independent, critical and active learners.
Howard, S; Maton, K,Theorising knowledge practices: a missing piece of the educational technology puzzle, Research in Learning Technology, Vol. 19, No. 3, November 2011,
Howard, S; Chan, A; Caputi, P, More than beliefs: Subject areas and teachers’ integration of laptops in secondary teaching, British Journal of Educational Technology, Vol 46 No 2, 2015.
Maton, K. A TALL order? Legitimation Code Theory for academic language and learning, Journal of Academic Language & Learning, Vol. 8, No. 3, 2014,