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More talk, less chatter

Ruth Merttens considers some of the pitfalls of group work

Collaborative work is hard. Even when children are familiar with some forms of group work, genuine collaborative work, where there is to be a joint outcome, risks descent down the slippery slide of arguments and bad behaviour. Teachers are understandably afraid to take risks with an often precarious strategy that assumes each child is responsible for their own work.

And although we all know that talk and silence in the classroom do not, as some parents and politicians believe, match poor or good learning conditions, to engage in a process that depends on argument and negotiation seems to many teachers to be running for a fall.

However, educational principles, as well as the Primary Strategy, require that we return to this issue. Children learn, almost always, through articulating (a nicely ambiguous word signifying connecting as well as speaking) their activities. And this process, as Vygotsky observed, rests at the heart of the ways in which knowledge, skills and understanding pass from the mind of the teacher to that of the child.

Teachers model and demonstrate, articulating a process or narrative.

Children imitate, but, in order to make the knowledge their own, they must articulate the process or narrative for themselves, becoming "the teacher" speaking inside their own heads. Talk is not an optional extra, it is an essential component in learning, especially in an abstract subject such as maths.

It is true that some adults carry on the dialogue necessary for learning in silence, but many of us require a conversational partner as we puzzle out something new - learning a new piece of software, for example, is rarely accomplished alone and in silence.

But collaboration means a great deal more than sitting children round a table while they each complete their own work. For true collaboration, there are no individual outcomes. Children have to explain, argue, justify their position, change their minds and then debate or negotiate a new position. Progress is continuously in flux, passing from one child's control to another's. No one child is responsible for the outcome; it is a mutual venture.

Is it possible, then, to encourage true collaborative learning in the midst of a hectic classroom? The following suggestions may help.

* Truly co-operative activities: much depends on the nature of the activity.

A collaborative activity should require that children negotiate each stage.

This is not turn-taking, but real joint activity, where the actions of each individual affect the outcome and so have to be part of a dialogue by means of which the activity is articulated.

* Shared responsibility: no individual child produces the outcome, so responsibility for its success rests with the whole group. Children must come to appreciate the nature of joint responsibility - they stand or fall together.

* Small numbers: most collaborative activities work best with small numbers, say two or three. Occasionally, it is possible for a larger group to collaborate, but this is likely to require a greater degree of supervision.

* Adult not always required: any activity can be either "product" or "process" driven. If it is product (often not written but demonstrable) there is no requirement for adult participation other than normal supervision of behaviour. If it is process, adult participation will needed to check that the process has been successfully managed.

* Levels of attainment: sometimes children need to be at a similar stage of attainment to collaborate, or one child may dominate. But children operating at differing levels can collaborate well - eg, if one is a good reader, and another has a logical approach or good spatial awareness, they may bring compatible skills to bear on the problem in hand.

* Purposeful talk not chatter: collaborative activity involves talk that is purposeful and to the point. The discussion is on-going, acting to progress the activity through its various stages.

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