Characteristics of social interaction

Much of what might be heard and experienced during social construction, especially in groups, might not be what pupils typically associate with successful learning, especially in an educational climate where the pace and the setting and meeting of targets are seen as indicators of achievement. Working within a group as adults, the possibility that our line of enquiry might take us down a blind alley doesn’t deter us; we realise that this can reap rich learning and is not a waste of time. We spontaneously encourage each other with positive noises and gestures such as, ‘yes, great, umm, right’ or vocalise half-complete sentences like ‘I wonder if … no’, ‘What about putting …’.
These processes are so integral to social construction and yet many pupils may not recognise their value and place. They feel that there isn’t time to take risks and explore ideas — the goal is to work out what the teacher wants and get there as quickly as possible. ‘Thinking aloud’ looks as if you don’t know what you are supposed to do. Aren’t you supposed to think first before speaking? Trying to make sure that what you say is polished and complete can present real difficulties for young children. One pupil reflected in an interview after being in a primary cognitive acceleration session, ‘… when you are just about to come out with an idea, you forget it. It’s really hard to get it back … and then it goes. It flies away. You try to get it back.’

A ‘difficult’ group

‘They can’t seem to work together.’ I find it really hard getting them to stay focused when another pupil is talking.’ Teachers often struggle with these kinds of classroom hurdles when trying to develop thinking groups in cognitive acceleration sessions. Sometimes, these common classroom challenges exist partly because the furniture layout, the physical environment and the provision of resources prevent pupils from working together and being able to hear each other (as described earlier in this chapter). Successful social construction relies on the creation and nurturing of a learning environment that enables the learner to instigate, shape and manage social construction. The details within the classroom — the presence of a display of group work and rules for thinking together, how the chairs are positioned around a table and where they are facing, how other adults conduct themselves when pupils are articulating their ideas to the rest of the class — can all contribute to the success or breakdown of social construction.
When a group is showing difficulty in working together, the problems need to be addressed. Teachers sometimes think that it is kind to brush over less useful behaviours such as over-dominance, quietness and speaking over other children, but this is misguided and unhelpful to children. It is more effective to discuss the difficulty openly and honestly but without judgement and blame. Children do not need to be criticised but they do need help to become more socially adept. In the group of Year 1 pupils doing the sticks activity described in Chapter 2, Rhana could have a tendency to dominate but this was usually channelled by the teacher
without addressing it directly. In other groups, this is not always possible.

Here is an example from the ‘Potatoes’ activity in Let’s Think through Science! with a Year 3 class. Each group has been given four different-sized potatoes, a plastic bag, a piece of string and an elastic band. Their task is to compare the weights of the potatoes.

Nick Miss, Miss, we can’t do nothing ‘cos Sophie’s taking all the stuff.
Teacher Let’s talk quietly about the problem.
Alan Sophie always takes everything ‘cos she thinks she knows everything so we can’t do anything.
Nick Yes, she always tells us she knows everything. She won’t let us do nothing.
Cara Mmm. She does take the things and tells us what to do.
Sophie But I know what to do so I tell them.
Teacher Nick, what do you think could help to make this group work?
Nick If Sophie will share.
Sophie But I know …
Teacher Just a second, Sophie. Can we listen to Nick?
Nick If Sophie will share the things and give us a chance to say our ideas.
Teacher And if Sophie is sharing and listening, what will you all be doing?
Cara
Alan Saying our ideas. Agreeing what we’ll do. By directly addressing the problem the pupils were able to confront some of the difficulties of collaborative learning. They were able to express what they found difficult and proceed by setting a target for themselves. At the end of the activity, this was reviewed and another target set for the next occasion.
Teacher OK, Sophie, what do you think would help this group work better?
Sophie Well, I know the answers.
Teacher You may know some answers but the others have ideas too. What makes it difficult for you to hear those?
Sophie ‘Cos I think my ideas are best.

At the beginning of the next session, the teacher asked the group what their target was for helping the group to work well together. At the start of the lesson, the group managed well but in the second half the lack of sharing began to take over again. The teacher moved in and asked the pupils to look around the class and identify another group that seemed to be getting on with the job. They then had to observe and verbalise the behaviours they could see that they thought were helping the group. All of this work was done in a non-judgemental and non­critical manner. Nobody was blamed. The teacher emphasised how it was the whole group’s responsibility to work together. If one person found some aspect difficult, someone else might remind them all of their target so that they could get back to the task in hand.
By focusing on the learning and thinking and by regularly evaluating the work done together, the group moved on gradually as the year progressed. Groups can learn how to work better together, but it often requires regular practice in various contexts with the same pupils. Moving pupils in and out of groups has not been found to be useful. In fact, lack of stability and
experience with the same children can delay progress in a substantial way.

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