Group Talk in Science - Research Summary

From OER in Education

Consider the research

Cognitive and emotional development

Lev Vygotsky (1973) believed that it was children’s interaction with others through language that most strongly influenced the level of conceptual understanding they could reach. He believed that we can learn from others, both of the same age and of a higher age and development level. One of the main ways this operates is through scaffolding in the zone of proximal development. This concept refers to the gap between what a person is able to do alone and what she or he can do with the help of someone more knowledgeable or skilled than him or herself. It is here that the role of teachers, adults and peers comes to the fore in children’s learning. They can help bring the child’s knowledge to a higher level by intervening in the zone of proximal development by providing children’s thoughts with so-called scaffolds (small planned steps of support), which once the learning process is complete are no longer needed by the child.

His work has gone on to influence the thinking behind the CASE (Cognitive Acceleration though Science Education) and CLIS (Children’s Learning in Science). Materials written to support CASE Adey et al (1989) which promote the ideas of social construction (where learning takes place between members of a group) and metacognition (thinking about one’s own thinking). The success of CASE methods in getting pupils to work in groups and resolve conflict is well established and these ideas can and have been successfully adapted for use at Key Stage 4 or post-16, for example, Moran and Vaughan (2000), and into the primary curriculum.

The influential writings of Daniel Goleman (1996) also highlight the importance of working in groups as a life skill, and one which is dependent on the emotional intelligence of the group members. He argues that schools have a key role to play in this aspect of the development of the whole person.

Pupil attitudes to group talk and argument

  • Pupils moving from primary to secondary classrooms are quoted in a recent study by the DfES (Curriculum continuity, 2004): ‘You were expected to work as a group’ (primary); ‘There is less group work; teachers often expect you to work individually’ (secondary); ‘There were group work rules such as taking turns, having a chair, a scribe and a timekeeper’ (primary); ‘We only have group work rules in English’ (secondary).
  • In their study of pupils’ attitudes to their science education, Osborne and Collins (2000) reported how pupils they interviewed ‘appreciated teachers who were willing to engage in ‘discussions’’ and who allowed pupils to contribute. Some pupils equate ‘writing’ in science with ‘work’, with practical or discussion work seen as more engaging and providing welcome variety.
  • Matthews’ (2001) project involved pupils working in small groups of varying gender mix where they are asked to reflect on their own and others involvement in group talk. He concluded that, when combined with feedback discussions, collaborative learning in the pupils studied can lead to pupils getting on better and helping each other with their learning, and that this leads to pupils liking science more and being more likely to continue with it in the future.

The emphasis in Shakespeare (2003) is to provide stimulus for argument and then provocation to continue to defend or alter one’s views in such a way that there is an emotional involvement in the science and thus greater motivation to resolve the dispute. This was supplemented by examples of phrases seen to work well in class that sustain and enhance the responses provided by pupils. In a later project, funded by Wellcome Trust and DfES entitled Running arguments? – teacher skills for creative science classrooms, D. Shakespeare, S. Naylor and B. Keogh worked with Bedfordshire teachers from Key Stage 2 to post-16 on the skills needed to run arguments in lessons. Pupils’ opinions were sought as teachers changed their practice and behaviour in class and included reference to the positive attitudes pupils developed towards regular changing of groups and the chance to work with others, including the making of new friendships. Only a small minority reported a dislike for group discussion.

Managing group talk and the effect of teacher behaviour

Through extensive studies of teacher and student behaviour in lessons, Kress et al (2001) illustrate the importance of teacher action in the class that helps pupils make sense of the science. Further, writers such as Robertson, and Neill and Caswell, have studied the importance of teacher behaviour and non-verbal communication and the influence on pupils’ involvement in lessons. The need to express emotions and enthusiasm is critical to communicate the subject ideas in a lesson and non-verbal aspects are critical. As part of identifying role behaviour in pupils in science, they also identified how pupils in practical work adopt roles such as the collector (gets the equipment), connector (puts it together and dominates proceedings) and observer (mostly passive), where the distance to the centre of action was important in determining the role adopted. These ideas can be applied to group talk, making the seating and orientation of pupils very important. Although based on a study of group seating in primary schools, Hastings and Chantrey Wood (2002) conclude that ‘there is a strong pedagogical, empirical and essentially intuitive case for arranging the physical environment to support the attention and activities that a task requires …’ and suggest that ‘… involving children in changing from one to another is a viable modus operandi’. A similar case can be made for secondary age pupils.

The use of Ground Rules has been explored by an Open University team led by Professor Neil Mercer since the late 1980s, studying talk in lessons. Where pupils are engaged in productive talk in lessons, teachers agreed a set of ground rules for talk, making the purpose and value of talk in lessons explicit to pupils and how and why to engage one another in lessons.

Development of scientific argument

Osborne ran the IDEAS project which culminated in 2004 in materials and ideas produced specifically for the development of scientific argument in lessons, based on teachers’ and pupils’ experiences and development in class. As well as being a source for ideas for stimuli for argument, it also promotes the explicit development of terminology with pupils: evidence, reasons, facts, persuasive language, etc.

Group talk and assessment for learning

The Assessment for learning Black Box project, as summarised in Black et al (2003) highlights the importance of the importance of questioning, feedback and self- and peer-assessment in developing deeper understanding and ultimately raising achievement in class. The research project, involving teachers changing practice and monitoring the outcomes, involved techniques where small groups were useful if not essential.


Thinking Science. The curriculum materials of the CASE project, P. Adey, M. Shayer, and C. Yates (Andover, Hants: Nelson 1989)

Assessment for Learning: Putting it into Practice, P. Black, C. Harrison, C. Lee, B. Marshall and D. Wiliam (Maidenhead: Open University Press 2003)

Emotional Intelligence, D. Goleman (London: Bloomsbury 1996)

Group seating in Primary schools: an indefensible strategy? Paper to BERA Annual Conference, N. Hastings and K. Chantrey Wood (2002)

Multimodal teaching and learning, G. Kress, C. Jewitt, J. Ogborn and C. Tsatsarelis (London: Continuum 2001)

Improving Science and Emotional Development (the ISED project): concerning citizenship, emotional literacy, science and equity, B. Matthews (London: Goldsmiths College 2001)

Words and Minds: How we use language to think together, N. Mercer (London: Routledge 2000)

Introducing CASE methodology at Key Stage 4: an example of bridging, School Science Review, 82 (299), 47–55, J. Moran and S. Vaughan (2000)

Body language for competent teachers, S. Neill and C. Caswell (London: Routledge 1993)

Ideas, evidence and argument in science (IDEAS) project, J. Osborne, S. Erduran and S. Simon (Kings College, London 2004)

Pupils views of the school science curriculum, J. Osborne and S. Collins (Kings College, London 2000)

Effective classroom control, J.Robertson (London: Hodder and Stoughton 1996)

Starting an argument in science lessons, School Science Review, 85 (311), 103–108, D. Shakespeare (2003)

Running Arguments? – teacher skills for creative science classrooms (course materials and final report for the Wellcome Trust and DfES), D. Shakespeare, S. Naylor and B. Keogh (Unpublished)

Thought and Language, L. Vygotsky (Cambridge: MA: MIT Press, 1973)