How Children Become Effective Collaborative Learners

Kate Ismay is a primary years teacher who is interested in how children become effective collaborative learners. She carried out this research (for the IOE’s MTeach) in her own classroom, in Earl’s Court, London, 2005.


I began my research in 2005, in my Year Six classroom. I had just begun my second year of teaching in an inner-London primary school. I remember being astonished by the sudden responsibility with which I found myself grappling.  I had 29 ten-year-olds, from many different cultures and religions, speaking many different languages, under my (usually sole) supervision all day, every day. I had to organize them, teach them, and help them grow as people. I had a good-sized classroom, furniture to arrange as I wished, and a free reign to put the children wherever I chose, at any given time. Of course, I was not entirely new to this: I had trained as a teacher in several London schools and had spent my NQT year with a Year Three class in the same school. But my early months as a teacher just served to show me how many ethical and pedagogical questions remained unanswered. The more I saw of ‘education’, the more I realized my practice could not be informed by following tidy bite-sized ‘instructions’. This was the beginning of my time as a reflective practitioner – of becoming the teacher that asks, at every turn, why do we do it this way?

I wanted to carry out a piece of small-scale action research that would help me understand how to organize group work in my classroom, both in terms of ideal size and composition of the group, and in terms of supporting children in their understanding of how to work collaboratively within these groups. My motivation stemmed from my own (and others’) frustration when collaborative learning tasks had, in my view, failed in my classroom, leading to off-task behaviour and disputes between children. I felt that it was my duty as a child educator to give children social learning opportunities, and to help them to overcome the problems that might arise in such situations. An early version of my research question formed: what is the best way to seat my children, and how would the arrangement of these groups affect learning, confidence and friendships?

To do this, I needed to explore the complexities of collaborative learning, to gain a better understanding of when and why we ask children to work in groups. I began reading everything I could find on ‘group work’, ‘collaborative learning’, ‘communities of learning’ (Watkins, 2005), the SPRinG project, (Blatchford et al 2002; 2003; 2005). I read about gender balance in groups, arguments for and against mixed-attainment in groups, issues with teacher involvement in group work. I became fascinated by a Californian approach called ‘Tribes’ (Gibbs, 2001) which came as close as I had found to a holistic approach to group work expectations in the primary classroom. I learned that there was a need for further research into this area in the UK, and I could begin by contributing a small-scale piece of practitioner research.

I began by involving, with their informed consent, the children in my class. I framed the research process as ‘our’ project, to be carried out over six months, a process which would lead, I hoped, to a better understanding for us all, about the ways that group work can best be managed by classroom teachers to maximise the learning potential for children. We were inspired, as a group! We were going to work out what to do, together!

I did not try to prove that collaboration and social interaction improves learning. This was an underlying assumption of my research supported by the theories of the social constructivists. My question was not why teachers should include group work in the classroom: it asked how we can do this effectively. The scope of the project was clearly very broad, and to give it a workable structure, I conducted it in two phases. The first phase investigated the ‘ideal make-up’ of a group and used a conceptual framework offered by Blatchford et al (2003). They identified the following four ‘themes’ of group work: size, composition (friendship, gender, and attainment) given task and teacher involvement. The second phase explored the social competencies needed for effective group work and described the implementation in my class of the ‘Tribes’ process: the Californian approach to building a collaborative classroom community (Gibbs, 2001).

My method of data collection was extended conversation with the children over a sustained period of time. They were my informers, whether by written or verbal statement, or through my observation of them over the course of an academic year.

1. Group Size: I wished to discover what group size the children find most manageable. My pre-research assumption was that the most popular grouping would be pairings, although I expected that this would vary from subject to subject.

2. Group Composition: I wanted to discover how the children felt about mixed gender, mixed friendship and mixed attainment groupings, and the impact that these aspects of group composition have on the effectiveness of that group. I expected that they would reject same-attainment grouping in all subjects (although not differentiation of set tasks). I hoped that by involving the pupils as co-learners, the children would come to understand that they learn from their peers through purposeful talk, peer support and explaining their thinking.

3. Set Tasks: I wanted to refine my understanding of the kinds of task that are most appropriate for group work. I expected that the children would prefer to work in groups for humanities and science projects, where they collect and share information and engage in group debate and problem solving. Certain parts of literacy lessons also seemed appropriate contexts for group work e.g. collaborative creation, peer tutoring, and editing.

4. Interaction between children: I wanted to build a ‘community for learning’ in my classroom, where children understood the importance of supporting one another and learning from collaborative tasks. As this ethos developed, I expected behaviour to improve, and participation levels to rise.

5. Teacher Involvement: I wanted to find a way to build social competencies in the children that would empower them to learn together effectively and independently of the teacher.

My data collection methods included: structured and unstructured observations; a research journal; questionnaires; filmed interviews; taped conversations with teachers; independent children’s writing. A 45-minute film I made of the interviews and discussions is available to view on the MTeach VLE, and may be useful as an example of the rich qualitative data one can gather if children are empowered to participate in research. Over many months they were able to master the language and vocabulary needed to express their feelings and opinions and they became agents for change in their own classroom.

Learning from the process of researching with the children was as illuminating for me as the answers they gave me. Involving the children in the research in the way that I did showed me what a valuable resource I have to inform my developing pedagogy: the children themselves.

SooHoo (1991) writes:

Somehow educators have forgotten the important connection between teachers and students. We listen to outside experts to inform us, and consequently, we over look the treasure in our very own back yards: our students. Student perceptions are valuable to our practice because they are authentic sources; they personally experience our classrooms first hand. (cited by Pickering 1997, p5).

The authenticity of my research arises from the way the data has been gathered. Whilst this data is highly contextualised, and generalisations may not be possible, I feel that I have been able to make informed changes in my classroom, on behalf of the children in it. The quality of the qualitative research makes possible a strong sense of cause and effect between group work (the cause) and its related effects of enhanced socialisation and higher-level thinking. If my methods had been more quantitative, it may have been possible to draw stronger, generalisable claims to correlation, but not a reliable understanding of causation.

Gillies et al (2003) writes: ‘It is only when groups are structured so that students understand how they are expected to work together that the potential for cooperation and learning is maximised’ (Gillies 2003, pp36). Tribes has given the children a way to understand how they are expected to work together. Other researchers have shown that good group work is seen to enhance conceptual development and reasoning, to enhance pupil’s motivation and attitudes to work, and to aid social and communication skills, including personal and social awareness and control (Blatchford, 2005). Tribes achieved these ends too. However, the adoption of the ‘Tribes’ framework within my class was just that: a useful framework. The same ends could have been achieved by different means – there are many books that guide teachers in ways to create a positive learning community. There is no inherent need to call the groups ‘Tribes’, or to use the catch phrases of the community agreements. They just give a neat package to work with when teaching children about the importance of collaborative learning and social relations. When I am telling interested teachers and parents about the Tribes programme I usually describe it as ‘just common sense – a way of making the classroom a nice place to be’. Whilst this may not seem to be a highly intellectual or revolutionary way of working, it is surprising how much difference the process has made to me and the children on a daily basis.

I have learned through this research to be far more flexible in my approach to planning for group work in the daily curriculum – rejecting a one-size-fits-all approach to grouping. Blatchford et al illustrate how whole class teaching and individual learning contexts are seen to be best suited to teaching procedural knowledge but less conducive to solving complex problems that require pupils to monitor and regulate their own thinking. I have grown to understand when group work is going to be appropriate for the children, and when to let them work on their own. As one child explains in their ‘persuasive letter’ to me: ‘many children like to work individually on some subjects, this can give them some space to write a proud piece of writing’ (Isobel). Isobel is giving me an important reminder of how she needs to work independently sometimes. At other times, the children’s learning will be enhanced through purposeful talk (e.g. science experiments):

Eleanor: I think it is good to be in a group when we’re doing a thing like science – the experiments – not the writing up bit. Everyone gets a fair share and everyone’s always talking about it amongst themselves.
Miss I: Is that important?
Eleanor: Very Important.
Miss I: Can you say why that is important, talking about your science experiment?
Eleanor: Because it builds our understanding more. If you don’t talk about it, you don’t understand it fully.

At other times, academic gains should not be our first concern. We must, as child educators embrace the challenge of developing the children’s social skills. Opportunities for this should be at the centre of our pedagogy and be specifically and overtly planned for. Without it, we will be failing to equip children with social communication and negotiation skills. Without these skills they will find it harder to become accepted, adjusted and happy citizens in the ‘real world’.

Please contact me at if you wish to discuss any part of my research, or your own.

Her full dissertation can be read here: TBA


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