Interpretive Authority | Susan Jean Mayer

Interpretive Authority

Interpretive authority explained

I employ the notion of ‘interpretive authority’ in order to draw attention to the parts teachers and students play in framing questions for consideration, developing tentative thoughts and theories, and evaluating those ideas in classroom discussions. Although traditionally, teachers have framed discussion questions and evaluated their students’ thinking themselves, learning research has shown that having students generate their own questions and weigh each others’ ideas against some available proving ground can promote valuable and lasting kinds of learning.

Democratic educators require a principled basis for envisioning and enacting classroom practices that can advance critical democratic purposes, such as fostering mature disciplinary literacies among all students. My interpretive authority heuristic offers a practical, mixed-method tool capable of supporting individual classroom teachers, schools, and school systems in investigating and theorizing the kinds of learning opportunities that are made available to students in different academic areas at each stage of their school careers.

In revealing the emotional and intellectual demands made by different types of classroom interaction, research on interpretive authority distributions can help to inform educators’ decisions about where, when, and how to open up content areas to student debate and discussion. This quality of grounded investigation promises not only to deepen professional conversations within schools, but also to support the broader field in thinking beyond standardized test scores in its struggle to evaluate comprehensively and to improve significantly the quality of educational opportunity available to all.

The case for focusing on middle schools

Just as early childhood educators seek to establish constructive patterns as children begin their primary schooling, preadolescence offers educators the opportunity to intervene as a child moves into abstract thought and the new kinds of learning it generates. Like the ‘early childhood’ years, the middle school years, which represent a child’s ‘early adulthood,’ require pedagogical interventions that have been tailored to the demands and possibilities of a specific developmental period.

Psychological and sociological research has shown that preadolescence presents distinctive challenges and opportunities, particularly for students whose own identities are under-represented within mainstream culture. Children are intellectually vulnerable and socially uncertain at this time of their lives; internal motivators begin to shift, and external motivators cease to exert sufficient pull for many. Yet the foundation for a successful secondary career needs to be established during this time.

Nurturing students’ personal sense of interpretive authority in relation to their immediate worlds can draw preadolescents into an engagement with academic thought during a period marked by their intense self-absorption and growing preoccupation with peer relationships. In inspiring probing discussions about conceptually central matters, and by demonstrating the ways in which disciplinary lenses can provide traction for advancing one’s personal observations and reflections, educators provide compelling justification for the demands they make on students’ lives.

Teacher training workshops

Single half-day and multipart on-site workshops in the exploration and investigation of interpretive authority within K-12 classrooms are available. Contact Susan Jean Mayer at 

Read more:

Mayer, S.J., 2009. “Conceptualizing Interpretive Authority in Practical Terms.” Language and Education, 23(3), 199-216.

Mayer, S.J., “Assessing Student Interpretive Authority within Democratic Classrooms,” unpublished paper.