One prime purpose of education is to pass on a culturally accepted body of knowledge to the next generation. Another is to create autonomous, independent learners who can take control of their own thinking and learning and, ultimately, have the capability and confidence to add to the existing body of knowledge and create something new (Wells, 1999). Both have their place in the classroom, but for the development of good thinking in your pupils it is the latter that we will focus on.
What key educational motive dominates your classroom talk? How often are you using classroom talk to pass on knowledge or to check for understanding? Are these ‘motives’ squeezing out chances for your pupils to talk freely and openly, simply as a way of thinking aloud? Do you encourage and allow time for pupil-initiated questions or pupil follow-ups to pupil comments? Are you giving pupils enough time to talk in their groups? It might feel like a lifetime letting them talk in their groups, and your management radar might be picking up all kinds of ‘off-task’ talk so that you instinctively stop and gather them back as a whole class. One pupil reflected, ‘… when we are doing the talking we only get a little short time because then Miss is ready to pack up’.
It can be scary …
The classroom can be a noisy, complex and unpredictable environment where the teacher and the pupil take equal control over the course of the learning and the talk. For the pupils and the teacher, it can be a daunting, uncomfortable, frustrating and traumatic experience. They struggle to articulate their personal ideas, leaving themselves vulnerable to questioning and rejection. The teacher may be straying far from the safe terrain of whole class teaching, where he or she talks and the pupils listen. This picture is a far cry from the rosy picture of a controlled and quiet classroom — a picture that teachers and pupils (and headteachers and parents) often associate with learning.
… but it works!
And yet, a socially constructive classroom can be highly empowering. Seemingly shy, uncooperative or less able pupils become more willing to contribute to discussions, revealing a level of insight or ability often undetected in their workbooks and tests. Furthermore, such contributions are spontaneously and publicly recognised and celebrated by their peers. The experience leaves teachers and pupils thinking ‘that was hard work, but I really enjoyed it and it was worthwhile’.
How to do it
In this chapter we will look at the practical working of social construction in primary classrooms and at some of the theory which underlies and justifies such an approach. In cognitive acceleration classrooms, the pupils work through cognitive challenges in mixed-ability ‘thinking groups’ of four or five. Each session (typically an hour long in Year 3) unfolds into a series of short bursts of talk and/or practical activity alternating between phases of teacher-directed, whole class (across group) discussions and less structured ‘thinking group’ pupil talk within groups. Both whole class interaction and the within-group interaction offer opportunities for social construction. Creating and making the most of these opportunities is crucial to the development of a classroom of thinkers.
We will suggest an audit of the physical details of the classroom to create the best sort of environment for pupils to share their ideas. Then, we will explore what social construction looks like in a working classroom, using extracts of whole class talk from Let’s Think through Science! sessions to illustrate where the potential for social construction has been realised (and also missed). Theories that we draw on to analyse talk help us to understand classroom interactions, showing what facilitates and what constrains social construction. We then look at the social construction that takes place within a thinking group. We will need to consider the composition of groups and the kinds of dilemmas associated with group work in the primary classroom.
No magic formula will emerge that you can apply to any class to remedy all dilemmas and conjure up the perfect socially constructive classroom. Having had the privilege of working with many groups of experienced teachers, while running primary CASE professional development, I am constantly reminded of how unique and varied classrooms can be. What we can do is to share some insights from the many classrooms we have experienced and see what pedagogical implications might be drawn from them.