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Publishing Soon: Common Knowledge: The Development of Understanding in the Classroom

This June, Routledge reissues Common Knowledge: The Development of Understanding in the Classroom under its Routledge Revivals program.

First published in 1987, Common Knowledge was a radical departure from the traditionally individualistic psychologies which underpinned modern approaches to educational theory and practice. In this article, the title's authors, Derek Edwards and Neil Mercer, discuss their writing of the title and the research they have been involved in since its initial publication.

Common Knowledge, then and now

By around 1980, when we began the research that features in this book, other investigators had already pointed to some of the characteristic features of classroom talk. For example, teachers use lots of ‘closed’ questions to assess children’s understanding and provide feedback on what they hear – and, to what might seem a surprising extent, their pupils go along with this. What nobody had really asked was what ensures that this pattern of interaction is reproduced in classrooms all over the world? Our suggestion was that it depends on the participants following a set of normative conversational rules, which were part of their ‘common knowledge’. These ‘ground rules’ are usually left quite implicit, and include ‘Only a teacher can nominate who should speak’, and ‘pupils should try to provide answers to teachers’ questions which are as relevant and brief as possible’. Classrooms are not peculiar places for having such ground rules; chat shows, job interviews, church services, sales encounters and so on all have them, which participants usually seem to ‘pick up’ as they are rarely spelled out. But if you want to understand how classroom education works (or doesn’t), you need to try to reveal these rules, and other kinds of knowledge that teachers and pupils are taking for granted as they go about everyday life in school. This is what we set out to do.

The idea of ‘ground rules’ was an important starting point for Common Knowledge, which goes on to analyze video recordings of the actions, interactions and talk by which classroom lessons are conducted, and by which shared understandings are produced. The book’s central concern is not the structure of discourse (e.g., question-answer sequences), nor of social relations and interaction per se, but rather, children’s understandings of the concepts they were being taught. Yet the central theme is the inherently social nature of those conceptual understandings, approached as a matter of ‘common knowledge’ rather than individual cognition, where the very notion of individual cognition – what children understand and how they think – is itself a product and feature of practices for establishing and recognizing common knowledge. This was, at the time, quite a radical way of approaching children’s learning and cognition, and indeed cognition generally.

A major issue for our study was that classroom education was a world still strongly dominated, at least in theory, by Piagetian ideas about ‘learning by doing’, and by cognitive-psychological notions of how knowledge is abstracted by individual minds from action and experience. What concerned us, under Vygotsky’s influence, was examining how teachers nevertheless are able to make sure that children learn what they are supposed to learn, which is largely a ready-made set of concepts, phenomena and explanations that pre-exist children’s entry into the classroom. A major foundation for the book was therefore the close analysis of video-recorded classroom lessons, examining exactly what was said, by whom, and at what point, with regard to the objects, actions and events of classroom work. Much of the analysis, of extracts of classroom talk, focuses on how teachers manage to direct, shape and conceptualize what exactly it is, that children are ostensibly ‘learning from experience’.

So what has followed, in our own research, since 1987? One of us (Neil Mercer) continued to study classroom talk, but in a more ‘interventional’ way, aimed at improving the quality of teaching and learning. With several other colleagues – mainly Lyn Dawes, Rupert Wegerif, Karen Littleton and Paul Warwick – this has involved working closely with teachers to make their interactions with children, and children’s interactions with each other, more ‘dialogic’. It has generated the Thinking Together approach to classroom education, which has been quite influential at home and abroad [see ]. The book Dialogue and the Development of Children’s Thinking (N. Mercer & K. Littleton, Routledge, 2007] describes that line of enquiry. Some related research has been about the use of digital technology for supporting learning in the classroom [see].

The direction Derek Edwards took, was to extend the book’s focus on education, toward a basic and general interest how psychological themes such as knowledge, memory, emotion, causal reasoning, intentionality, etc., can be studied in terms of how they are conceptualized in language, as part of real-world social practices. Working with colleagues such as David Middleton, Jonathan Potter and Elizabeth Stokoe, this became ‘discursive psychology’, which is an integrated package of method, data and theory for the study of how people use psychological concepts in (and for) everyday life. Settings range from domestic phone calls to counselling, neighbor complaints and police interrogations – and, of course, education. For access to a range of that work, go to

Derek Edwards
Emeritus Professor of Psychology, Loughborough University

Neil Mercer
Professor of Education, University of Cambridge

For further title information, and a detailed list of contents, visit the following link:

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    Published December 7th 2011 by Routledge