chapter  6
12 Pages

Expert support for group work in elementary science: The role of consensus


Evidence has been amassed over the past 20 years to indicate that group work among children can support knowledge and understanding in elementary science (see Howe, Tolmie & Mackenzie 1995; Sherman 1999). Group work has therefore been promoted in many countries as a key component of teaching. Its relevance to science education is, for instance, a recurring theme in contemporary guides for practitioners (e.g. Harlen & Qualter 2004; Sherman 1999). Group work is also emphasized throughout a recent issue of the professional journal Primary Science Review (Association for Science Education 2004). Within the United Kingdom, it has even been enshrined in national policy (Department of Education and Science 1989; Learning and Teaching Scotland 2000). Perhaps as a result of these initiatives, group work is already well-embedded within elementary science teaching. A recent survey of 111 British primary schools (Baines, Blatchford & Kutnick 2003) revealed that 28% of the teaching in science involves ‘peer interaction’, compared with 5% in mathematics and 12% in English. Nevertheless, no matter what its significance, group work among children will never be sufficient to deliver the science curriculum. Children working with each other are not going to construct Newton’s laws or Darwin’s theory of evolution, nor, given the difficulties that adults are known to experience (Dunbar & Fuselgang 2005; Kuhn, Amsel & O’Loughlin 1988), are they going to master the full intricacies of hypothesis testing. Expert guidance will be required in addition, primarily from teachers but perhaps also from computers. However, although this point is taken for granted in most relevant discussions, little is said about how guidance should be given. This is troubling, for expert input to group work is theoretically challenging from a number of perspectives. For instance, within the Piagetian tradition (e.g. Doise & Mugny 1984; Piaget 1932), knowledge growth is thought to depend upon coordinating existing beliefs with alternatives, and the unequal power relations between children and experts are believed to undermine coordination. Within the Vygotskyan tradition (e.g. Vygotsky 1978; Wood 1986), expert guidance is critical, but it is depicted as requiring interventions that are carefully tailored to individual needs. It is hard to see how comparable interventions could be achieved with groups. Studies highlighting the challenge posed by expert guidance have recently been reviewed in Webb (in press), and the challenge is amply illustrated in

research that I have conducted with children in the 8-to 12-year age range. For instance, mimicking characteristic teaching strategies, Tolmie, Howe, Mackenzie and Greer (1993) gave children a quiz with feedback, after group work relating to object flotation. Conceptual growth in children who experienced the quiz was significantly worse than in otherwise equivalent children who did not have this experience. Howe, Tolmie, Thurston, Topping, Christie, Livingston, et al. (2007) report a classroom intervention, where teachers took children through extended programmes of instruction first relating to evaporation and condensation, and then relating to force and motion. Group work made a positive contribution to learning, but its impact was weakened when teachers intervened directly within group interaction. One clue to interpreting these results may lie with evidence that the benefits of group work are not always immediately apparent with the 8to 12-year age group (Howe, Tolmie & Rodgers 1992; Tolmie et al. 1993). Children in this age range often require post-group opportunities to consolidate group experiences and resolve the contradictions that group work generates (Howe 2006; Howe, McWilliam & Cross 2005). Arguably one problem with the quizzes used by Tolmie et al. (1993) and the interventionist teachers observed by Howe et al. (2007) is that they pre-empted crucial post-group processes by forcing premature closure. The implication is that expert guidance requires subtle balancing acts. Without doubt then, group work in elementary science poses a conundrum. On the one hand, group work will never be sufficient to deliver the curriculum; expert guidance is also essential. On the other hand, expert intervention can often undermine the value that group work is known to possess. One potential response to the conundrum is to conclude that group work is more trouble than it is worth, and focus upon the delivery of expert guidance in non-group settings. Despite the emphasis on group work in policy documents relating to science (as noted above), there are signs that government thinking in the United Kingdom is moving in this direction. Recent policy initiatives emphasize whole-class or ‘interactive’ whole-class teaching (Alexander 2006). However, as also noted above, group work is now firmly entrenched in science classrooms, and there may already be a momentum that is hard to shift. It may therefore be prudent to explore whether group work and/or expert guidance can be planned in a fashion that avoids the potential pitfalls, permitting productive combination rather than antagonism. This was the issue examined in research reported by Howe, Tolmie, Duchak-Tanner and Rattray (2000) and Howe and Tolmie (2003), and therefore it is aspects of this research that will provide the focus for this chapter. After summarizing the theoretical underpinnings, the chapter will outline the relevant procedures, and conclude by describing and interpreting the main results.