A classroom environment for social construction

A learning environment that enables social construction requires some degree of preparation, before you even start planning for a thinking activity with a class.

1 Take a look around your classroom. Are the tables arranged to encourage groups to work and talk together?

Sometimes classrooms have smaller tables pushed together so that six pupils can sit and work conveniently for a numeracy or literacy hour. This gives pupils the personal space needed for them to work, write and read individually.
However, this arrangement sometimes makes social construction problematic. Children seated too far apart from each other find working from one sheet of paper, or even listening and speaking together, awkward. Large tables with children far from one another can also allow reluctant group members to disassociate themselves from their group by moving away where it is easy to appear to be participating without actually having to engage.
One small single table for a group of four or five pupils encourages the group members to talk and work constructively together.

Figure 3.1: The classroom environment

2 Think about what you intend to provide in the way of resources (pencils, paper, etc) for each group.

What is the pedagogical rationale behind the number of resources you have allocated to each group? Have you given out enough of each resource to ensure that there are no arguments among groups over who gets a turn? What would you do differently if the main goal were to encourage a group to collaborate, delegate, rely on each other and recognise how worthwhile this way of working can be?
Working in small groups on challenges, as part of their professional development, highlights for some teachers the role that resources can play in reducing or increasing the collaborative potential of group work. In applying this to their classroom practice they have noticed, for example, that there is more opportunity for pupils to go off and work individually if they each have their own resource, say a pencil to write down their ideas. Sometimes, by simply giving each group just one pencil or pen forces that group to talk to each other, albeit with some initial conflict in a struggle for control, in order to negotiate a strategy for sharing and scribing ideas.
It can also be important to make sheets of paper or pictures big enough (for example, A3 rather than A4) so that everyone can see and access the information. Even small aspects like whether the print is oriented towards you so that you can read it can make a difference. As adults, it may be intuitive to move your chair or position so that you can get better involved with the task. This may not be so obvious for pupils, especially if they learn in a culture where getting up from your seat or moving around requires permission from the teacher. Some pupils might appear less engaged during a group task simply because where they are sitting prevents them from being able to fully access what is on the table.

3 Imagine you were one of your pupils sitting in the classroom. Can you see and hear your peers from other thinking groups, no matter where you are positioned in the classroom?

Focusing the learning around what pupils say to each other and to the teacher can reveal just how easy or difficult it is to hear what is being said. Although making radical changes may be beyond your control, especially if you teach in an open plan school, there are some steps that can be taken to raise the status of speaking and listening in the classroom. Where are the different thinking groups positioned? Can they see and hear other groups? When working alongside teachers in their classrooms during cognitive acceleration lessons, we sometimes notice a group working at a table that is tucked away behind a display board or just outside the radar of the rest of the class or the teacher. If you can’t see or hear your peers properly, the motivation to construct meaning with them is diminished.

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