INTRODUCTION onwards in pedagogic practices ensuring that

INTRODUCTION

 “It is through language, especially spoken language,
that teachers teach and children learn”. (Alexander, 2006, p. 5). Talk for
learning is one of, if not the most, the important part of children’s learning;
this makes sense as it is part of their “everyday life” (Alexander, 2008, p.
2). If pupils
in the classroom do not get a chance to use talk they can lose out on the
benefits of it (Grugeon et al. 2012). Historically talk and questioning from pupils
was discouraged in the classroom and practitioners favoured the more
traditional didactic methods. Thankfully there has been a shift from the 1980’s
onwards in pedagogic practices ensuring that dialogue takes place in the
classroom between educators and students and between the pupils themselves. This
in part has been thanks to the Vygotskian view that “the child’s cognitive
development also requires it to engage, though the medium of spoken language,
with adults, other children and the wider culture”. (Alexander. 2008, p. 1) Collaborative
learning is now seen as a powerful tool, and as Alexander suggests “if we want
children to learn – as well as learn to talk – then what they say probably
matters more than what teachers say” (2004, p. 6) Vygotsky (1962) believed a
child’s language ability determines the development of thoughts, in this way
the greater a child’s linguistic talent, the better their aptitude is likely to
be to learn efficiently and also to understand through talk.

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Vygotsky, a
social-constructivist, believed that it was necessary to allow children to be
active learners. Talking is fundamental to their development, and necessary to
clarify what they have learnt. “By giving our
students practice in talking with others, we give them frames for thinking on their
own” (Vygotsky: 1978). It is crucial
for them to have good role models; this is defined as the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’
(Pound, 2006). Vygotsky viewed teaching and learning as social activities that
take place between social actors in socially constructed situations, such as
the classroom. Vygotsky’s theories have pushed collaborative learning to the
forefront of primary school teaching methods, and there is much evidence that
implies a strong positive correlation between collaboration and pupil learning
(Slavin: 1980; Roseth et
al: 2008, Nichols: 1996.) Vygotsky’s theory has also been supported by
Clark (1998), who believes that talk between pupils is a key mechanism for
developing children’s learning and speech is not just a device for the transfer
of information from one person to another. Collaborative work, according to Van
Boxtel, provides interactions between pupils that involve elaborate
explanations and as a result and are instrumental for improving pupil learning.
Bruner (1966) was also an advocate of the social nature of learning, believing
that if children learn in a social setting they would be provided with the
right structure and stimulus to facilitate their learning.

This essay focuses on how working collaboratively
impacts student learning in the primary classroom. My
pedagogical understanding of student learning should be construed in the light
of trying to improving the conceptual understanding of my pupils i.e. a mastery
approach. I believe that it is of critical importance
that teachers
should look at every opportunity to use dialogic talk in the classroom, and
move away from didactic teaching methods towards a more student-centred
approach. In order to explore children’s level of engagement with group talk, I
will look at the use of dialogic and exploratory learning to enhance talk for
learning.  I will
discuss the development of collaborative learning and the theoretical
approaches and perspectives that underpin it, and how these have influenced my
practice, then critically assess the advantages and disadvantages of this
approach to learning. In this essay collaborative learning describes where “students
work together to accomplish shared goals and maximise their own and others
potential”. (Johnson et al. 1994). This should not be confused with
cooperation, which is according to Jansenn is “the division of labour amongst
group member.” (Jansenn et al: 2010).

I will also evaluate how cooperative learning in the primary school
classroom can be used; (i) to optimise pupil learning; and (ii) as a means of
assessment (i.e. listening to their talk to check for understanding).
This
in turn will provide the basis for my planning and delivery of a series of
maths lessons, using group work as a focus to improve the learning of my
pupils. I will then discuss and report my findings focussing on the impact of
these on my emerging practice. Before finally, drawing my own conclusions about
the effectiveness of collaborative learning in the primary classroom and in
light of this, consider the implications for my future practice and my own
developing philosophy of teaching and learning.

I argue that when used in the right way cooperative learning in the
primary classroom between children is a powerful tool that enables children to
gain a deeper conceptual understanding of the subjects being taught.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SCHOOL AND CLASS CONTEXT

 

School and Class Context

Before considering how
theories have influenced my practice in the Literature Review section of this
essay, it is prudent to give the reader some information about the setting and
context of my placement school. My placement school hereafter referred to as
“PS”, to ensure anonymity (BERA. 2011), is located a deprived South London
borough. It is one of the biggest primary schools in the UK with over 900
pupils. The borough is one that has suffered highly in terms of welfare cuts,
and according to a campaign from End Child Poverty 37% of children in the
borough are living in poverty.

I teach a year 2 class with
28 pupils, and have no teaching assistant; 48% of my class are eligible for
Pupil Premium Grant which is well above the national average of 13.46%. I also have
36% of the class who are learning English as an additional language, and 32%
have diagnosed special educational needs. Research tells us that children who
are from poor backgrounds generally finish school with substantially lower
levels of educational attainment than their wealthier peers. The Avon
Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children suggests that the gap in attainment
between children from the richest and poorest backgrounds gorws particularly
fast during their primary school years. It also evidences that only around ¾ of
children from the poorest 1/5 of families reached the expected level at KS2,
compared to 97% of children from the richest 1/5.

Unfortunately my PS’s most
recent SAT’s results continued this trend with only 40% of pupils reaching the
expected standard in maths, writing and reading by the end of KS2. Also
worryingly no pupil achieved the higher standard. Many pupils struggle with
their language and literacy skills, and the school is only to aware of how
fundamental a solid grasp of these skills are to allow them to access the
curriculum and make good progress. Poor literacy at primary school is strongly
associated with later low achievement, and again has been highlighted by Cassen
et al as a specific risk factor for those children from disadvantaged
backgrounds. My PS has put in place a literacy programme called Success for All
(SFA), which was designed by Slavin and Madden in the 1980’s. Research from the
Edcuation Endowment Foundation has alluded to the scheme having a positive effect
on children’s learning, as has research by the John Hopkins University. Borman
et al. have also noted that it has “positive effects on reading outcomes”.

The scheme has influenced my
philosophy of teaching and learning as it puts collaborative learning
techniques at the forefront of its content. I have taken these cooperative
learning strategies and embedded them in my teaching of maths, and strive to develop
my pupils’ conceptual understanding as much as possible which in turn allows
them to actively build new knowledge from experience and prior knowledge.

 

 

 

LITERATURE REVIEW

Over the last 50 years there has
been much written on talk for learning in the classroom. In this section of my
essay I will look at various theorists’ ideas behind dialogic and exploratory
learning, along with a constructivist view of active learning within a primary
school setting. Many schools have traditionally held an instructionist or
transmissionist model, whereby the teachers “transmits” information to the pupils.
However, Alexander points out that “talk in learning is not a one-way linear
communication but a reciprocal process in which ideas are bounced back and
forth and on that basis take children’s thinking forward” (Alexander 2004 p.
48). Despite schools moving away from the transmissionist model, Alexander
still believes that constructive talk in the classroom is still underused
(Alexander, 2008, p.92) This view is emphasised by Myhill who states that “as a
culture we value reading and writing more highly than oral competence and our
assessment system is still predominately in the written mode.” (Myhill, 2005.
p. 1)

In the primary school class,
dialogue is promoted as a means of; (i) improving teaching and learning (Nystrand, Gamoran, Kachur and
Prendergast 1997); (ii) helping
intercultural understanding (Delpit 1988); (iii) progressing pupil voice and
democratic values (Fielding 2004); and (iv) cultivating argumentation and
thinking (Osborne, Erduran and Simon 2004). 
In 2003 an English policy endorsed teaching through dialogue, and
a new concept of dialogic talk was introduced into the curriculum:

“Teaching through dialogue
enables teachers and pupils to share and build on ideas in sustained talk. When
teaching through dialogue, teachers encourage children to listen to each other,
share ideas and consider alternatives; build on their own and others’ ideas to develop
coherent thinking; express their view fully and help each other to reach common
understandings. Teaching through dialogue can take place when a teacher talks
with an individual pupil, or two pupils are talking together, or when the whole
class is joining in discussion.” (DfES/QCA 2003 p. 35)

However, both the executive
commissioned Rose Review (2008) and the independent Cambridge Primary Review
(Alexander, 2008) found that in the main subjects, Maths and English, spoken
communication has been pushed to one side in favour of written work. It is
worth noting that the Rose Review was criticised for its insufficient research
base, but both together provide a compelling argument that the lack of talk in
the classroom has had a detrimental effect on the children’s learning. The
situation has not been helped by the fact that the Primary National Strategy
which was also introduced in 2003 does not specifically allude to using talk,
and as a consequence primary teachers have been given scant advice on how to
use talk effectively for learning.

It is worthwhile noting that not
all kinds of talk are beneficial (Barnes, 2008). For example some pupils who
are unable to organise their work depend on teachers for instructions and thus
prefer a didactic teaching style. Leftsein (2010) has argued that dialogue in
the classroom is not a feasible goal. I believe that primary school children
require opportunities in their lessons to talk through their thoughts in order
to develop understanding. Research by John Smith (2010), alludes to the fact
that in many observed lesson classroom talk is generally by the teacher with
little or no opportunity for student participation. Alexander (2012)
categorises that exchanges between pupils and teachers often fall into a
pattern described as “Initation Response Feeback” (IRF). IRF exchanges will be
looked at in more detail later in this essay. They have their value but as
Alexander (2012) points out “they must from part of a more diverse range of
interaction”.

Myhill (et al. 2005) categorised
talk into dialogic learning and exploratory learning. Alexander (2008) in a
concerted effort to make dialogue more equal in the classroom and thus improve
the nature of teacher pupil interactions, and among pupils themselves,
developed a pedagogical approach to teaching known as ‘dialogic teaching”
Dialogic teaching is based on five principles, each of which helps to encourage
classroom talk and promotes communication and the language skills of children.
These five principles were coined by Alexander (2008) and restated in Mercer
and Hodgkinson (2008, p. 103) as: (i) collective; (ii) reciprocal; (iii) cumulative;
(iv) supportive; and (v) purposeful. “Talk is considered to be more dialogic
the more it represents the students’ points of view and the discussion includes
their and teachers’ ideas” (Mercer, Dawes and Kleine Staarman, 2009, p.354).

These principles provide a
framework for teachers to help us to develop authentic and purposeful learning
activities in our lessons. If lessons are planned according to the 5 principles
the pupils in class will use talk as a thinking device which will enhance their
learning and help them to develop a higher level of understanding.. Principles
1 – 3 necessitate teachers and pupils sharing ideas, learning in a group
setting which in turn should facilitate the pupils to build on the ideas of
their peers as well as their own. Key to dialogic teaching is the ideas that
students need to feel that they are in a supportive environment, they must feel
safe to express their opinions and not fear being judged if they make a
mistake. Lastly to ensure successful dialogic teaching, we must as educators
plan lessons with a particular purpose and outcome in mind. This necessitates
having a clear long term plan in mind with reference to specific learning
objectives and outcomes.

Research from Education Endowment
Foundation (2017), suggests that dialogic teaching can help primary students to
make greater progress and boost their results in the core subjects. The
research was conducted in 78 primary school in England, each containing a
higher than average proportion of disadvantaged pupils, with over 2500 year 6
pupils. The lessons in true dialogic format encouraged the pupils to debate,
discuss, reason and argue with each other. The independent evaluation of the
scheme found that those pupils who took part in the study made an average of
two months’ more progress in English and science than a similar group of pupils
who did not take part. Those from the poorest backgrounds also made two months’
more progress in maths. These findings indicate that dialogic teaching seems to
improve the students’ “overall thinking and learning skills, rather then just
their subject knowledge” (EEF).

Alexander’s concept of dialogic
teaching is not strictly a new one, the Thinking Together programme influenced
by Vygotsky’s theory was developed in the 1990’s. Its aim was to enable
teachers to create an environment where purposeful discussion could take place,
and that students could be active listeners through participation. Monaghan has
commented that the programme was a success as it “showed that pupils worked
effectively together to solve problems verbally.” (Monaghan, 2005). Dialogic
teaching also has a very important role to play in relation to oracy and
metacognition. Evans and Jones (2007) argue that “dialogic learning enables
children to develop language, thinking and reasoning simultaneously”.

Wilkinson defined oracy as “the
ability to express oneself coherently and to communicate freely with others by
word of mouth”. (Wilkinson 1965). He noted that the development of oracy would
lead to increased skill in writing and reading as users of the language became
increasingly more proficient. It has also been stated by Fisher that “it is
through our capacity to verbalise that thinking, awareness and understanding
develop” (2008, p. 106). Thinking out loud in a group setting helps children to
strengthen their conceptual understanding of concepts and increase the chance
of meaningful learning. It helps them express their ideas more clearly or
challenge existing ones. These verbalisations can then allow a teacher or other
pupil to scaffold their thoughts and produce a higher quality of work than if
they were unaided (Bruner 2006).

Research however seems to indicate that dialogic teaching is not
being widely used in primary schools. Smith et al. (2004 cited in Alexander,
2008), cited that in the primary classroom they observed when children answered
a question their answers only lasted an average of 5 seconds, and seventy
percent of the time they were limited to 3 words. This indicates that in the
schools they observed, primary classroom talk was presentational; meaning that
the “talk” was limited to pupils verbalising a restrictive expected answer. Barnes
(2008) constructivist approach puts talk into two categories: (i) exploratory talk;
through which a child arranges their own thoughts, but
collaboratively takes others ideas into account to greater their conceptual
understanding, and (ii) presentational talk. By asking open ended questions
teachers encourages exploratory talk, and this has the benefit of allowing the
pupils to think through the answer with peers. Sullivan et al. (1992) however
believed that in maths lessons open ended questions had no advantage. I
disagree with Sullivan, although I can see why he believed it to be the case as
maths answers are usually thought of as bring right or wrong. I will discuss I
disagree with Sullivan when I look at a series of maths lessons I have taught
in which I used open-ended questions to good effect.

 

Jones and Hodson (2008) confirm that Presentational talk, also known
as “Initiation, Response, Feedback” (IRF), is the most prevalent in classrooms.
This is in part due to teachers asking closed questions. The problem with IRF
is that children are not developing a conceptual and deeper understanding of
the material they are being presented with. There are however some advantages
to IRF as noted by Rajala et al. (2012) who conducted a study in Finland into
presentational talk and found that it sparked conversations between children in
class who were in groups, and also had the benefit of giving a fair chance for
all pupils to answer questions. IRF can be useful tool for a teacher as it
provides an immediate way of assessing the pupils and giving feedback and
responses straight away. However it is noted by Barnes (2008) that teachers
will struggle to fully assess a child when solely relying on short answers
given. Fisher (2008) therefore believes, as do I, that presentational teaching
should be used sparingly.

 

Piaget (1952), understood the relevance and importance for children
to engage with exploratory talk. Piaget believed the pupils’ knowledge and
understanding is a process, it cannot be simply transmitted to learners; it
arises from interactions between the subject and the knowledge. As such, these
interactions should be directly modelled through activities which include
exploratory talk. Children are therefore active agents in the construction of
their knowledge. Collaborative learning provides children with opportunities to
engage in exploratory talk, as it enables pupils to share their ideas in a safe
group setting and self-discover. When working collaboratively, Piaget believed
that children should be grouped together so that similar ability children were
in the same group. The reasoning behind this was to ensure that they were not
intimidated by a more knowledgeable other in the group and would be free to
discuss their ideas with those of a similar ability.

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