Group Talk - Benefits for Science Teaching

From OER in Education


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What is meant by ‘group talk’ and ‘argument’?

Group talk includes any activity where pupils’ ideas are explored verbally between pupils, even if the final product is written or practical. It includes verbal argument (in this context the word argument is used to describe discussion between pupils who hold differing views) as much as more formal debates (about contentious topics such as genetic engineering). Group talk can be both collaborative and competitive.

Stop and think

Before reading ahead, jot down your first thoughts to complete the following statements:

  1. An activity a science/maths teacher might carry out that could be called a ‘group talk’ activity is …
  2. If the activity was successful, what I would expect to see the pupils doing is …and what I would expect to hear in their conversations is …and what I would expect to see the teacher doing is …
  3. The benefits to the learner of science/maths would be …
  4. A teacher might not use group talk activities, giving reasons, such as …

What does successful group talk and argument look like?

When you take part in productive talk as an adult, you make suggestions and support, modify or clarify others’ views. You challenge ideas, ask questions to seek clarification, summarise and evaluate the pros and cons. You care about your own opinions, but allow others to shape and counter them.

In lessons where productive group talk is taking place you will see pupils discussing ideas with each other independently of, but guided by, the teacher. Pupils will often be turning to face each other, making and maintaining eye contact with others and using animated expressions with their eyes, face and through gesture. They will want to convince others, but will be looking for opportunities to consider others’ views. Words and phrases related to reasoning (such as because, why?, what if ...?) will be used. At times, pupils will be thinking and saying little as they listen to others. The teacher will be aware of the progress of the conversations and intervening without interrupting the flow of the talk. The pupils will be in control of the time taken on a discussion and will be clear on what they are expected to produce as a result of the activity.

When the group talk is over, pupils may have changed their minds at least once. They will be able to explain their current viewpoint and any previous opinions they held, as well as some of the views held by others.

Why do it? What are the benefits to the learner?

  • Higher-level thinking Pupils are challenged to defend, review and modify their ideas with their peers. It encourages reflection and metacognition (thinking about one’s own thinking). Pupils often communicate ideas better with other pupils than with teachers.
  • Assessment for learning Effectively reveals the progress of the pupil to the teacher, encouraging the pupil to self- and peer-assess while allowing the teacher to plan more effectively. As such, group talk complements methods embraced as Assessment for learning.
  • Illustrating science in action Working scientists use group talk – in class it models how they work, supporting the teaching of the ‘ideas and evidence’ aspects of scientific enquiry.
  • Developing the whole child The ability to resolve disagreements is a life-skill.

Pupils become more reflective as they try to arrive at a consensus by expressing different points of view; or work collaboratively to explore ideas, plan and make decisions. Further, it supports the development of literacy.

  • Pupil motivation and emotional involvement When argument is taking place, and pupils are actively prompted and provoked to defend a point of view – by the teacher and by others – it raises the emotional involvement in a topic, so that pupils are more engaged. In essence, they are being encouraged to ‘care’ about the science viewpoint they have, and to take a stand for or against it, even if they concede to others along the way. These features are more common in good English, RE and humanities lessons.
  • Variety and learning styles Can be used as an alternative to written or practical work (for example, experiments), or just listening as the teacher explains and demonstrates. Group talk encourages the use of different learning styles and thus can be inclusive to pupils excluded from more traditional (and often written) activities.

Why is group talk relatively uncommon in science and maths lessons? What are the issues expressed by teachers?

  • External factors Many teachers may feel a pressure to ‘deliver the curriculum’. There is no time in the lesson to do more than impart information. Also, the teacher may be concerned about having evidence of work having taken place (for example, usually something written down in books) – for others in the school, for parents or for Ofsted.
  • Internal factors The teacher may be reluctant to take a risk with group talk because they are afraid that discipline will be a problem. They do not feel comfortable with the apparent loss of control and, as their pupils are not used to being given this level of freedom to express their ideas, they may be reluctant or misbehave. If group talk has been tried in the past it may have been unsuccessful because of a lack of consideration of factors such as classroom layout and teacher behaviour.

When are pupils more likely to engage in group talk and argument?

  • when seating arrangements and environment are planned in order to facilitate discussion;
  • when the teacher’s language and non-verbal communication are planned in advance in order to promote pupil confidence in the stimulus material for group talk;
  • when the teacher withholds their opinion, or the answers for longer than usual;
  • when groupings are chosen by the teacher, and are regularly changed;
  • when timings are specifically used and usually kept short;
  • when group talk is used regularly and becomes part of everyday science lessons.

It is the teacher skills of running group talk that require the most effort to develop and are the focus of this unit. Once developed, they can then be used with little preparation on the part of the teacher, allowing them to be a regular feature of lessons.

The ideas presented in this unit complement those in the resources Questioning and other resources in the

Watch the video sequence 1. This shows a science teacher giving her reasons for using group talk and argument

Now, revisit the STOP THINK questions you answered earlier.

Has your thinking changed? If so, in what way? If not, which ideas have been reinforced?

Why use group talk: a teacher’s perspective

Think of a class you are going to teach next week that might be amenable to this way of working.

Warn them that you are going to try something different with them next lesson. Plan for a plenary activity which will encourage group talk. For example, pose a question such as ‘How does the density of the particles in water change as ice melts?’ Give the pupils two minutes think time, then ask them to pair up and come up with a consensus model to explain what they think is happening. The pairs should then be instructed to convince another pair that they have the best model. Some of the models are then shared with the rest of the class.

Or this might be by setting them a contentious question that they have to answer by the end of the lesson.

Make sure that you leave sufficient time to do the activity justice.

Evaluate how successful the activity was. If you feel that you could have organised the plenary differently, then make a note of this for next time.

Try an activity

Watch the video sequence 2 where pupils are engaged in productive group talk without the need for teacher intervention.

Make a list of the pupil behaviours that can be seen which promote group talk, for example, the way the pupils face each other and the way they question each other.

Read Group Talk in Science - Research Summary. Use a highlighter pen and mark those reasons for the promotion of effective group talk which are the most important for you in your lessons.