Fulbright scholar heads back to school

  • The Science of SpeechIsraeli linguist Hadar Netz is spending the year at William & Mary, working with the School of Education to analyze conversation patterns in local classrooms.

    Photo by Steven Salpukas

    The Science of Speech

About a year and a half ago, Israeli linguist Hadar Netz had a moment that every academic dreams of. Netz, who three years ago earned her Ph.D. from The University of Haifa in Israel and is now an adjunct professor at Oranim College of education, was attempting to find literature on the discourse which typically occurs in gifted classrooms.

She discovered that there wasn’t any.

“There has been quite a lot of research done on regular classes in terms of the discourse that goes on,” she said. “But the discourse that you find in gifted classes hasn’t been analyzed. It seems like nobody’s done any work on that.”

Thanks to a Fulbright grant, Netz is now conducting her post-doctoral research on the topic at William & Mary’s Center for Gifted Education. She said she considers the center at the College’s School of Education as one of the two leading centers for gifted education research in the academic world. And Netz adds that Professor Tracy Cross, who is executive director of the gifted center, is “a big part of why [she] chose to come to William & Mary.”

Netz arrived in Williamsburg this past summer, and has been gathering data ever since in fifth through eighth grade classrooms in Williamsburg-James City County. Her research focuses on conversational sequences which typically occur in regular classroom discourse -- and whether or not they appear in classes designated gifted and talented.

The most common of these sequences is something called IRF, which is linguistic shorthand for Initiation-Response-Feedback. IRF functions in three parts, beginning when the teacher initiates discussion, usually by asking a question. A student then responds by giving the answer they believe the teacher is searching for, and the teacher in turn provides feedback. However, she said, research has shown that this pattern is not very conducive to learning because students generally provide teachers the expected answers within this system, and are thus discouraged from creative thinking.

“It doesn’t really encourage any independent thought or any creativeness on behalf of the students,” said Netz. “It’s just a vicious cycle recycling the same material.”

However, Netz believes that because of the high levels of intelligence, curiosity, and non-conformity generally found among gifted students, the patterns of discourse in gifted classrooms might be different.

“It makes sense to assume that the discourse that goes on in those classes would be different from regular classes,” she said. “With gifted kids you might have different patterns and different dynamics and different control. It’s not necessarily the teacher who always initiates discussion.”

Netz said that her theory is worth checking. If it proves true that IRF doesn’t hold in gifted classrooms, then teachers need to be trained to see breaches of this three-part discourse system as outside-the-box thinking rather than threats on their authority, she said.

“And,” she added, “if it’s no different -- if we do find the same IRF sequence -- then that’s not very good for learning, and certainly not for gifted students where we want to encourage their creativity and open-mindedness.”

Netz spent the previous semester in Williamsburg gathering data from local classrooms of gifted students. After data collection comes transcription - a very, very long phase of the process according to Netz -  and then data analysis. In the meantime, though, Netz said that she is learning a lot just sitting in on classes. She’s impressed with the discussions

“It’s very informal, and it’s also very open to taking the discussion in directions that we want to talk about,” she said.

While here, Netz has also had the chance to attend a conference for the National Association for Gifted Children in Atlanta, and is looking forward to presenting some of her research at the College’s Center for Gifted Education next month.

Outside of the classroom, Netz has enjoyed getting to know the character of Williamsburg, which she says is quieter than she expected, but also extremely welcoming, and “absolutely beautiful.”

She described the fall as “absolutely breathtaking,” and even though she has been to the United States three times before now, she said that the weather of Williamsburg definitely factored into her decision to study here over her other option in Connecticut.

“Coming from Israel, I don’t deal very well with cold weather,” she said “I don’t know if that should have affected my choice but it did.”

After her work in Williamsburg is concluded this summer she will return to Israel to continue her research, where she hopes to study whether the patterns she has observed in the United States hold true in Hebrew and Arabic speaking gifted classrooms as well. In the meantime though, she said that she continues to be grateful that everyone she comes into contact with is very helpful in making her research as easy as possible.

“I’m surrounded by a very helpful community,” she said. “And that is nice.”