Social construction within a ‘thinking group’

Here we will consider some dilemmas you may have already encountered, or which you anticipate with thinking group work, such as:
• ‘How do I ensure that all abilities and personalities in my class remain engaged during group interaction?’
• ‘Should I assign roles (chairperson, scribe, etc) to particular pupils to help support these thinking groups with social construction?’
• ‘What does good social construction look like in a group?’
• ‘Can this be replicated in the primary classroom?’

Arranging groups

Choosing the groups is an important aspect of developing effective thinking in your class. If you are starting a cognitive acceleration programme at the beginning of the academic year, take the first few weeks of the term to observe and get to know the pupils. Let’s Think! for Year 1 and Let’s Think through Science! in Years 3 and 4 all provide some introductory group activities for the purpose of observing and considering the groupings within the class. The same groups can be used if you are using Let’s Think through Maths! or other thinking programmes.
In setting the groups, it is important to consider the thinking ability as well as gender and the social and emotional aspects of the children. It has been shown that children make more progress in developing their thinking when a group with a range of ability work together. However, it is more successful when the range is not too wide — you would rarely put the highest attainers together with the lowest attainers. It is important to include boys and girls where possible, different language abilities and children who behave with a range of responses within the social and emotional spectrum. In the first few weeks, the groups are observed and children are tried in various groups. However, once the initial period is over and the groups are formed and identified, it is better for them to remain within those groups for the rest of the programme. Some groups will, inevitably, work better than others. Part of the challenge is in learning to work together as well as to think together.
Learning good group behaviour
It cannot be assumed that children automatically know how to behave in a group. Once established, children need to be taught how to collaborate. As adults, we have all been in groups which function more or less well. It is reasonable to spend time helping children to understand what makes a group work best. Group behaviours need to be observed and explicitly discussed so that children really understand what behaviours help the group and what behaviours hinder cognitive progress and social/emotional well-being.
Groups do well when they acknowledge their own difficulties and set their own targets to improve their working arrangements. It often helps them to stop and observe a well-functioning group and identify what is making that group work well and able to achieve its aim. This is particularly effective when groups start functioning within a whole class and, therefore, do not have the teacher sitting with them facilitating all the time. Sharing equipment can be difficult and sharing ideas is even more so.
The younger the children, the more carefully the skills of successful group work need to be established. In the Early Years, children need to learn that they have to stay and participate during the 15 to 20 minutes of the activity. At the beginning, they tend to want to wander off as they often do during other activities, but they have to learn to listen to peers and value their ideas. Young children tend to listen more readily to the adults in their midst but have difficulty in recognising that their peers can teach them something. When children experience their own ideas being used and valued, this gradually becomes easier for them to understand.
To maximise opportunities for children to talk productively, the teacher watches and listens carefully and is active in facilitating the children describing, explaining and providing reasons for their ideas, as well as possible solutions and disagreements. Quiet children need to be drawn in and given time to speak and verbalise their ideas. Distracted children need to be made curious and want to become engaged in the task. Dominant children need to be given their space but gradually learn how to allow others to also have their rightful place. Non-engagement by an individual not only deprives the group of that learner’s position but prevents them from revealing their own sense-making to themselves. When a child offers his or her emergent understanding, then the group can both assess and modify their learning collectively. Progress rests on the reaction from others in the group.
What does it feel like?
Once your classroom layout, ground rules and groups are established, what does effective social construction within these groups feel, look and sound like? If as a teacher you have ever had the experience, perhaps on an INSET day, of working in a group to meet cognitive challenges, you may know how daunting and threatening it can be. You may worry that the process will expose some lack of knowledge or understanding. Precisely the same happens with children. They may lack the self-confidence needed to interact effectively with other group members. They may simply prefer to work on their own and find working with others frustrating and a waste of time. Reflection on our own experience helps us to understand the same difficulties encountered by children working in groups and may explain why some avoid or disrupt group work.
From your own first-hand experience you also may be able to identify some of the many roles undertaken during group work, going beyond the basic chairperson/scribe/reporter. Many roles are less formal, more intuitive and not necessarily exclusive to one member of the group.
You may have noticed that, during social construction, one or more members of a group might play the part of the risk-taker or the initiator — someone who gets things going, who is the first to make suggestions and try out ideas.
It is also important to have encouragers in the group — people who listen to and support ideas and create and maintain positive energy within the group, especially when there is a lull in enthusiasm or the group is in the thick of a seemingly impossible challenge.
Often, it is the clarifier’s or questioner’s contribution that enables the group to move further. This person might not appear to speak much because they are listening and digesting all the collective thinking taking place and, when they do speak, it is often a question to help them understand better or slow down and retrace the thinking that has just transpired.
Some members of the group may be peacemakers. They are acutely and instinctively aware of who is involved and who is dominating and will draw in the more shy, reluctant members of the group. They diffuse tension, sometimes through a joke, and are the first to suggest a compromise in order to advance the group’s thinking.
You may observe children of all ages adopting these roles from time to time and sometimes you may even model such a role yourself to move a group’s thinking forward.


Lets Think Handbook Copyright © by Alex Black. All Rights Reserved.

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