In a Moment of Collaboration

The interpretive analysis in this essay looks closely at an excerpt of a videotape I had made several years earlier when working on the Essence (see chapter 2) system in a middle-school classroom. With the help of trained communication analysts, I conducted the kind of analysis called for in the preceding two chapters. It was here that I found clear evidence of group cognition.

In this chapter, a detailed conversation analysis of a half-minute of collaborative interaction starts to display the complexity of communication that takes place among five middle school students working with SimRocket, a rocket simulation software artifact. In particular, confusion about references to comparable rockets is repaired through a rapid sequence of elliptical utterances, which convey meaning only through the indexing of their interaction context. A group understanding emerges that exceeds the prior understanding of the individual participants, and that allows them to derive scientific conclusions together.

Analyzing Collaborative Learning

Quantitative studies of collaboration are indispensable for uncovering, exploring and documenting communication structures. However, they cannot tell the whole story. Although measures of utterances and their sequences—such as frequency graphs of notes and thread lengths in discussion forums—do study the processes in which collaborative learning is constructed and displayed, they sacrifice the meaningful content of the discussion in favor of its objective form (see chapter 10). This not only reifies and reduces the complex interactions to one or two of their simplest dimensions, but it even eliminates most of the evidence for the studied structural relationships among the utterances. For instance, the content might indicate that two formally distinct threads are actually closely related in terms of their ideas, actors or approach. Coding utterances along these characteristics can help in a limited way, but is still reductive of the richness of the data. Similarly, social network analysis (Scott, 1991; Wasserman & Faust, 1992) can indicate who is talking to whom and who is interacting in a central or a peripheral way within a network of subgroups, but it also necessarily ignores much of the available data—namely the meaningful content—that may be relevant to the very issues that the analysis explores. We will look at a set of utterances that would be impossible to code or to analyze statistically; the structural roles of the individual utterances and even the way they create subgroup allegiances only become clear after considerable interpretive effort.

The other way in which both traditional experimental method and narrow discourse analysis tend to underestimate their subject matter is to exclude consideration of the social and material context. Some approaches methodically remove such factors by conducting controlled experiments in the laboratory (as though this were not in itself a social setting) or basing their findings strictly on a delimited verbal transcript. Fortunately, countervailing trends are emphasizing the importance of in situ studies and the roles of physical factors, including both participant bodily gestures and mediating artifacts. Increasingly, the field is recognizing the importance of looking at knowledge distributed among people and artifacts, of studying the group or social unit of analysis and of taking into account historical and cultural influences. In our data it is impossible to separate the words from the artifact that they reference and interpret; we will see that artifacts are just as much in need of interpretation (by the participants and by the researchers) as are the utterances, which cannot be understood in isolation from physical and verbal artifacts.

The study of collaborative learning must be a highly interdisciplinary business. It involves issues of pedagogy, software design, technical implementation, cognitive theories, social theories, experimental method, working with teachers and students, and the practicalities of recording and analyzing classroom data. Methodologically, it at least needs its own unique intertwining of quantitative and qualitative methods. For instance, the results of a thread frequency study or a social network analysis might suggest a mini-analysis of the discourse during a certain interaction or among certain actors. Interpretive themes from this might in turn call for a controlled experiment with statistical analysis to explore alternative causal explanations or generalizations. In this chapter we present an attempt to uncover, in empirical data, the sort of meaning-relationships that other methods ignore, but that might enrich their analysis.

What’s in a Sentence Fragment?

We naively assume that to say something is to express a complete thought. However, if we look closely at what passes for normal speech we see that what is said is never the complete thing. Conversation analysts are well aware of this, and that is a major reason why they insist on carefully transcribing what is said, not forcing it into whole sentences that look like written language. The transcript analyzed in this chapter is striking in that most of the utterances (or conversational turns) consist of only one to four words.

Utterances are radically situated. In our analysis we will characterize spoken utterances as indexical, elliptical and projective. As we will see, they rely for their meaning on the context in which they are said, for they make implicit reference to elements of the present situation. We will refer to this as indexicality. In addition, an individual utterance rarely stands on its own; it is part of an on-going history. The current utterance does not repeat references that were already expressed in the past, for that would be unnecessarily redundant, and spoken language is highly efficient. We say that the utterance is elliptical because it seems to be missing pieces that are, however, given by its past. In addition, what is said is motivated by an orientation toward a desired future state. We say that it is projective because it orients the discussion in the direction of some future, which it thereby projects for the participants in the discussion. Thus, an utterance is never complete in isolation. This is true in principle. To utter a single word is to imply a whole language—and a whole history of lived experience on which it is grounded (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/2002). The meaning of the word depends on its relationships to all the words (in the current context and in the lived language) with which it has co-occurred—including, recursively, the relationships of those words to all the words with which they co-occurred. We will see the importance of co-occurrences for determining meaning within a discourse later.

In analyzing the episode that we refer to as “a collaborative moment” in this chapter, we make no distinction between “conversation analysis,” “discourse analysis” or “micro-ethnography” as distinct research traditions, but adopt what might best be called “human interaction analysis” (Jordan & Henderson, 1995). This methodology builds on a convergence of conversation analysis (Sacks, 1992), ethnomethodology (Garfinkel, 1967), nonverbal communication (Birdwhistell, 1970), and context analysis (Kendon, 1990). An integration of these methods has only recently become feasible with the availability of videotaping and digitization that records human interactions and facilitates their detailed analysis. It involves close attention to the role that various micro-behaviors—such as turn-taking, participation structures, gaze, posture, gestures and manipulation of artifacts—play in the tacit organization of interpersonal interactions. Utterances made in interaction are analyzed as to how they shape and are shaped by the mutually intelligible encounter itself—rather than being taken as expressions of individuals’ psychological intentions or of external social rules (Streeck, 1983). In particular, many of the utterances we analyze are little more than verbal gestures on their way to becoming symbolic action; they are understood as not only representing or expressing, but as constituting socially shared knowledge (LeBaron & Streeck, 2000).

We worked for over a year (2000/2001) to analyze a videotape of students learning to use a computer simulation (on March 10, 1988). I say “we” because I could never have interpreted this on my own, even if I had already known all that I learned from my collaborators in this process. The effort involved faculty and graduate students in computer science, communication, education, philosophy and cognitive science as well as various audiences to which we presented our data and thoughts at the University of Colorado at Boulder. It included a collaborative seminar on digital cognitive artifacts; we hypothesized that this video might show a group learning the meaning of a computer-based artifact collaboratively, and hence, potentially visibly.[1]

We logged the three hours of video, digitized interesting passages, conducted several data sessions with diverse audiences and struggled to understand what the participants were up to. Despite much progress with the rest of the learning session, one brief moment stubbornly resisted explanation. The closer we looked, the more questions loomed. In the following sections, we pursue a limited inquiry into the structure of that single moment and try to understand what was meant by individual words and sentence fragments.

The Complexity of Small Group Collaboration

Conversation analysis has largely focused on dyads of people talking (Sacks, 1992). It has found that people tend to take turns speaking, although they overlap each other in significant ways. Turn-taking is a well-practiced art; it provides the major structure of a conversation. The talk is often best analyzed in conversation pairs, such as question/answer, where one person says the initial part of a pair and the other responds with the standard complement to that kind of speech act. These pairs can be interrupted (recursively) with other “genres” (Bakhtin, 1986a) of speech, including other conversation pairs that play a role within the primary pair (Duranti, 1998).

In much of the three-hour SimRocket tape from which our moment is excerpted, talk takes place between the teacher posing questions and one of the students proposing a response. The teacher indicates satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the response and then proceeds to another conversation pair. This is, of course, a typical classroom pattern (Lemke, 1990).

In the specific collaborative moment, something very different from the teacher-centered interaction takes place. In this tape segment, a many-to-many interaction is displayed in which meaning occurs at the group level. The structure of interaction departs from the teacher-centric dialog and teacher-interpreted meanings. It somehow overcomes the rigid sequentiality of directed turn-taking, where one person at a time seems to present their own thinking.

Text Box:  
Figure 12-1. The SimRocket simulation and the list of rocket descriptions.
Let us first take a look at this special segment. The group of 11-year-old boys is discussing a list describing eight different rockets that can be used in a rocket launch simulation (see figure 12-1). They are trying to come up with a pair of rockets that can be used experimentally to determine whether a rounded or a pointed nose cone will perform better. The moment is concerned with the students noticing that rockets 1 and 2 have the identical engine, fins and body, but different nose cones, while rockets 3 and 4 differ only in their number of fins.


Figure 12-1 goes approximately here


This interaction takes place about an hour and a half into the classroom session. It is initiated by the teacher posing a question. For the few minutes prior, the teacher had been speaking primarily with Chuck, who had been describing some imaginary rockets he would like to design for the simulation in order to solve the problem of the nose cone. The teacher’s question, accompanied by his emphatic gesture at the computer, succeeded in re-orienting the group to the list on the screen. After a significant pause, during which Chuck did not respond to this question that interrupted his train of thought, Steven and Jamie uttered responses as though talking to themselves and then simultaneously repeated them, as if to emphasize that they had taken the floor. But their response was to disagree with the teacher, something not so common in a classroom. So, the teacher restated his question, clarifying what it would take to justify an answer. Chuck responded in a confusing way, not directly answering the question, but attempting to apply the criteria the teacher put forward. [2]




And (0.1) you don’t have anything like that there?






I don’t think so



Not with the same engine



┌ No



Not with the same



With the same engine … but with a different (0.1) … nose cone?=



┌ =the same=



└ =Yeah,



These are both (0.8) the same thing






Aw┌ right



     This one’s different


The teacher paused at 1:22:03, encouraging student discussion, and Brent jumped in, cut the teacher off, and lurched forward and pointed at a specific part of the list artifact (see figure 11-1 in chapter 11), while responding to the teacher’s quest for something “different.” For the next 16 turns, the teacher was silent and the students rapidly interacted, interjecting very short, excited utterances in a complex pattern of agreements and disagreements. From the conversational structure, one sees that the standard, highly controlled and teacher-centric dialog had been momentarily broken and a more complex, collaborative interaction had sprung forth. Normally reticent, Brent excitedly rocked forward off his chair, pushed through a line of students, filled a void left by the teacher, and directed attention pointedly at the artifact.

Dramatically transforming the stage within which talk takes place, Brent had signaled an urgent need to resolve some disturbing confusion. The importance of this move was evidenced in the bodily behavior of Kelly, a student who said nothing during the entire episode. Kelly was slouched back in his seat, with his head rolling around distractedly, up to this point in the transcript. As Brent leaned forward, Kelly suddenly perked up and also leaned forward to pay attention to what was transpiring.

At 1:21:53 the teacher opened a conversation pair with a question. It was intended as a rhetorical question, that is, as one that was expected by the asker (the teacher) to make the conversation partner (the group) see that there was something “like that there” and to answer in the affirmative, signaling that they had seen what the teacher was indicating. We can see that it was intended as a rhetorical question because the negative answers supplied by the students were not accepted. As the first part of an adjacency pair addressed to the plural “you,” the teacher’s utterance spoke to the students as a group and called for a response from the group. Various students tried repeatedly to produce the projected response on behalf of the group. The three students who tried to answer in the negative—first Steven and Jamie simultaneously, and later Chuck—repeated their answers, as if to re-assert answers which the teacher’s question was not projecting. Rather than accepting these answers, the teacher rephrased the question and paused again for the projected affirmative answer.

Brent responded to the conflict between the expectation given by the rhetorical question and the attempts by the other students to give a negative answer. The section of transcript discussed next can be seen as an attempt by the group to resolve this conflict and provide the affirmative answer that the teacher’s question sought, finally completing the interrupted conversational pair of (rhetorical) question and (affirmative) answer.

The Problem

Brent interrupted the teacher with, “This one’s different.” The word “different” referred back to the teacher’s last statement. The teacher’s full question, elaborated in response to Steven and Jamie’s disagreement was: “And (0.1) you don’t have anything like that there? . . . With the same engine but with a different (0.1) nose cone?” In the meantime, Steven and Jamie had both picked up on the teacher’s term “same,” as had Brent.




      This one’s different   ((gestures with pen at computer 1 screen))


The teacher had used the terms, “same” and “different” to clarify what he meant by “like.” In rhetorically asking, “Don’t you have anything like that there?” The teacher was suggesting that the list of rockets (“there,” where he was directing their attention) included a rocket whose description was “like” the rocket they needed, namely one that had the same engine but a different nose cone from the one with which they would compare it.

The teacher’s original statement at 1:21:53 was elliptical in its use of the term “like.” It assumed that the audience could infer from the context of the discussion in what ways something (“anything” “there”) would have to be in order for it to be like the thing under discussion (“that”). After two students responded that they could not see anything like that there, the teacher tried to explicate what he meant by “like.” He did this by picking up on Jamie’s “Not with the same engine” and defining “like” to mean “with the same engine, but with a different nose cone.” Scientific talk tries to avoid the elliptical ways of normal conversation. Throughout the session, the teacher modeled for the students this explicit way of talking, often taking what a student had stated elliptically and repeating it in a more fully stated way. In this instance, the teacher is doing just that. Sometimes one of the students would pick up on this and start to talk more explicitly. Here, Brent picked up on the term “different” as a key criterion for determining likeness.

Of course, the problem for us as researchers is that Brent’s exclamation, “This one’s different,” is itself elliptical. In what way is “this one” different?

The Confusion

In analyzing this passage, there is also the interpretive problem of reference or indexicality. Brent has just pointed at the list of rocket descriptions, but it is impossible to tell from the video data which description he indicated. Even if we knew which one Brent pointed to, his utterance does not make clear which other rocket he was comparing with the one to which he pointed. We have to deduce the answers to both these questions from the ensuing discussion, to see how the participants themselves took the references.

Jamie’s immediate follow-on utterance began with “Yeah, but,” indicating a response that was partially supportive. Because we know that Jamie was responding to Brent, we know that Jamie’s use of “it” referred to Brent’s “this one.” Chuck, in turn, built on Jamie’s response and reclaimed the floor by interrupting and completing Jamie’s incomplete utterance of the term “nose cone.” So, Chuck’s subsequent utterance—which he tied to the preceding phrase with “but”—uses the word “it’s” to refer to Brent’s “this one” as well.




Yeah, but it has same no…






Pointy nose cone=



=Oh, yeah=



=But it’s not the same engine


At this point we see the conflict begin to be stated. Chuck’s “but” suggested a disagreement with Brent and possibly with Jamie also. In the next second, both Jamie and Brent came back with “yes it is,” showing that they took Chuck’s comment to be a clear disagreement with what they were saying.

Kelly’s non-verbal behavior again indicated that something unusual was happening: he rocked forward onto his elbows to follow events more closely. He stayed in this position for the rest of the moment.

At this point in our interpretation, we see several shifting factions of opinion. At first, all the students seemed to disagree with the teacher. Following Brent’s bold gesture, some of the students seemed to disagree with other students. In this analysis, we are not yet able to fully work out the basis of this disagreement because of the elliptical and indexical nature of the utterances that form the data.

We can overcome the problem of the elliptical—but not the indexical—character of the utterances by looking closely at how the individual utterances built off of each other, repeated the same words, or used conjunctions like “but” or “yeah” to signal continuity of topic. However, it is harder to know, for instance, which rockets are indexed by pronouns like “it.” It seems likely that Jamie and Chuck were, in fact, indexing different rocket descriptions with their use of the pronoun “it.” This would certainly cause confusion in the discussion because the repeated use of the same word should signify commonality of reference. To determine which rockets they were each indexing in their utterances, we will have to continue our interpretive effort.

The Repair

In the seconds that followed the previous transcription, Jamie and Brent stated virtually the same thing simultaneously. This indicates that the state of the group discourse—from the perspective in which Jamie and Brent were viewing it—must have been very clear. That is to say, the network of indexical references, as interpreted from Jamie and Brent’s utterances, is uni-vocal. Within this set of references, Chuck’s claim that “it’s not the same engine” is clearly wrong. Jamie and Brent insisted that “it” is the same engine.




Yeah, it is, =



=Yes it is,



┌ Compare two n one



Number two


Jamie and Brent supported their counter-claim precisely by clarifying the references: they were talking about similarities and differences between rocket number two and rocket number one on the list in the simulation artifact.

Jamie’s imperative, “compare two and one,” is first of all an instruction to Chuck to look at the descriptions of rockets 2 and 1 on the list. At the same time, it is a reminder that the purpose of the whole discourse was to conduct a comparison of rockets in order to determine the best nose cone shape. Jamie’s utterance served both to propose an explicit set of indexical references for the problematic discussion and to re-orient the discussion to the larger goal of solving a specific scientific task. His utterance thus served to state both the indexical and the projective basis of the discourse. He was saying that the group should index rockets 1 and 2 in the list comparison so that they could then conduct a comparison of rockets 1 and 2 in the datasheet artifact as their projected future task.

Jamie and Brent solved our task of interpreting the indexical references! Of course, we might still want to try to reconstruct the networks of references that different participants had at different points in the discourse. We would thereby be retrospectively reconstructing the process of construction that the discourse originally went through to reach this point. We would be “deconstructing” the discourse.

If we go back to the minute of discussion between the teacher and Chuck that preceded our transcript, we indeed find the source of the confusing references. Chuck had switched the discussion from nose cones to fins and had in fact solved the problem of how to determine the best rocket fin configuration. He said to compare rockets 3 and 4, which were identical, except that rocket 3 had three fins and rocket 4 had four fins. Then Chuck wanted to return to the problem of nose cones. He proposed making the simulation software modifiable by users so that he could either change the nose cone of rocket 3 or 4, or else change the engine of rocket 2 to match the engine of rockets 3 and 4. This would have created a pair of rockets with the same engine as his baseline rocket (3 or 4) but with different nose cones. So, Chuck was actually then already following the theoretical principle of only varying one attribute at a time. However, his description of the changes that he would make got quite confusing—plus, it made unrealistic assumptions about the software.

So, the teacher’s remark at 1:21:53, directing Chuck and the others back to the list on the screen, can be seen as a projective attempt to have Chuck recognize that rockets 1 and 2 could be compared as is, without changing one of them to be comparable to 3 or 4. In other words, the list had this built-in structure—that Chuck was not seeing and taking advantage of—that it had been organized to solve the problem of rocket comparisons. Unfortunately, because the discussion had been focused on rockets 3 and 4 as the basis for comparison, none of the students could see at first that 1 and 2 met the criteria. As Jamie said, there was no rocket with a pointed nose cone, “not with the same engine”; we can see now that the word “same” referred to the same engine as in rockets 3 and 4.

When Brent pointed to what must be rocket 2 and said, “This one’s different,” his utterance referred to the fact that rocket 2 had a pointy nose cone, which was different from all the other rockets. At that point in the transcript, Brent’s and Jamie’s utterances must be taken as comparing rocket 2 to rocket 1, because, when Chuck kept insisting that “it’s not the same engine” (meaning that rocket 2’s engine was not the same as the engines in rockets 3 and 4), Brent and Jamie retorted “yes it is” and explicitly referred to rockets 1 and 2. As they repeated that they were looking at descriptions of rocket 2 and another rocket with the “same” engine, even Chuck gradually aligned with the reference to rockets 1 and 2. By looking back at the situation prior to our moment in this way, we can reconstruct how our moment developed out of its past, and we can determine a consistent and meaningful interpretation of the utterance references, as understood from the perspectives of the different participants.

The Resolution

In the final segment of our transcript Chuck responded to Jamie’s clarification. When Jamie said “compare two and one,” Chuck actually turned to the computer screen and studied it. With gradually increasing alignment to what Jamie was saying, Chuck said tentatively, “I know.” This is the first time during this episode that his utterances were agreements. Jamie went on to instruct him on how to make the comparison of rockets 1 and 2 by noting how they “are the same.” Chuck’s “Oh” response indicated a change in interpretation of things. Brent made even more explicit how Jamie’s “are the same” was to be taken, namely that both rockets had the same kind of engine.




(0.2) I know.



(0.2) Are the same=






 It’s the same engine.



So if you ┌ compare two n one,



               Oh yeah, I see, I see, I see



(0.8) Yeah. Compare two n one. So that the rounded n- (0.1) no the rounded one is better. Number one.


Jamie repeated his double-edged imperative to “compare two and one.” But he preceded it with “so if you.” He was not only telling Chuck to look at the two descriptions and to compare them, but was also saying that if he did this then he could go on and do something in the future, namely he could compare the data that the students had collected in the previous hour for these two rockets and determine the best nose cone design. While Chuck was conceding that the descriptions of rockets 1 and 2 met the criteria that the teacher spelled out at the start of the moment, Jamie started to look over the data sheet that he had been holding ready at hand during the whole conversation and had brought up to his line of sight at 1:22:13. (Steven had also gone to retrieve his data sheet at 1:22:15, after Jamie first said, “compare two and one” and then checked the list on the screen for a moment.) Then, Jamie announced the findings from the data. In the final utterance at 1:22:21, Jamie compared the data from rockets 2 and 1, but not their descriptions. He announced that the rounded nose cone was better based on its performance data. He stopped himself in the middle of this announcement to check his analysis, which required combining information from the list and the datasheet. Finally, he linked the conclusion about the rounded nose cone to the rocket description (“number one”). This not only resolved any possible conflict about the references of the discussion, but showed how they worked to solve the larger task that had been projected for the discourse.

At the end of our collaborative moment, a quiet consensus was reached. Jamie and Steven had moved on to the data sheets and everyone else was looking intently at the list, having acknowledged the teacher’s rhetorical question, “And you don’t have anything like that (rocket 1 and 2 descriptions, with the same engine and different nose cones) there (in the list)?” At that point, all the references were aligned with those of the teacher’s original question, which brought an end to the breakdown of references and allowed the group to affirm the question and move on to solve their task using the newly comprehended list artifact.


[1] The materials from this seminar are still available as of this writing at http://www.cis.drexel.edu/faculty/gerry//readings. This includes logs, digitized clips, transcripts, SimRocket, reading lists and related documents. In particular, the moment itself can be viewed at:


[2] Note on the transcription: Numbers in parentheses indicate length of pause in seconds. Brackets between lines indicate overlap. = between utterances indicate lack of pause between them. Underline indicates verbal emphasis.