Page 1 Theme: Science; Pupil grouping; Thinking skills Reasoning as a scientist: ways of helping children to use language to learn science

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Theme: Science; Pupil grouping; Thinking skills

Reasoning as a scientist: ways of helping children to use language to learn science


Mercer, Neil, Wegerif, Rupert and Sams, Clare; The Open University

Dawes, Lyn; DeMontfort University, Bedford


British Educational Research Journal, 30(3), 2004 pp 359-377

Why is working collaboratively useful?

The researchers of this study argue that interaction amongst students can improve their understanding and attainment in science, but that it is not enough simply to encourage students to talk and work together. Rather, they need to be guided by their teachers into effective ways of using language for thinking together. This study investigated the effects of teaching children in primary schools to do just that and to apply their ‘thinking together’ skills to the study of science, including experimental investigations of light and sound. The study took 23 weeks to complete and involved 230 children in Year 5 from matched classes in schools with similar catchments in Milton Keynes.

The researchers found that teaching children to work and talk together had a positive effect. Teachers will find the study contains evidence about the value of group discussion for science education and for the development of individual children’s ‘thinking skills’. Teachers will also find the discussion about the theory underpinning the intervention illuminating and helpful in their own practice.

United Kingdom; England; Key Stage 2; Primary schools; Pupils; Science; Speaking and Listening; Peer groups; Pupil grouping; Collaboration; Communication skills; Thinking skills

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How did pupils benefit from the talk and reasoning strategy? Page 3

How did the pupils’ talk change? Page 4

How does working collaboratively lead to better understanding? Page 5

How were pupils encouraged to “Think Together”? Page 6

What was the “Thinking Together” Programme? Page 7

What is the theory behind the “Thinking Together” programme? Page 8

How was the study carried out? Page 9

What are the implications of this research? Page 10
Where can I find out more? Page 11

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How did pupils benefit from the talk and reasoning strategy?
The researchers reported evidence that the “Thinking Together” programme had a positive effect on the pupils that were involved. Compared with children who followed a normal curriculum, students in the target classes who had been taught to talk and reason together:

  • shared their thoughts more clearly;

  • made more detailed contributions to discussions;

  • worked more effectively towards joint decisions and solutions;

  • achieved significantly better scores in reasoning tests;

  • showed increased respect for the ideas of their peers;

  • improved their subject-related knowledge and understanding; and

  • used more words associated with reasoning.

In their analysis, the researchers identified words that were indicative of reasoning (‘because’, ‘if’, ‘I think’, ‘would’ and ‘could’) and found an increase of up to four times in their usage in post intervention talk. They found that the average number of utterances of the phrase ‘I think’ rose from 35 to 120 in the target classes. There was also a significant and dramatic increase in the number of long utterances pupils used, (exceeding 100 characters when transcribed) which increased from a mean of 1 long utterance to a mean of 46.

The scores of pupils in the target classes on science National Key Stage Test questions and concept mapping activities both increased significantly compared with the control classes, and the scores for pupils’ performance on non-verbal reasoning tests increased for both groups and individuals.

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How did the pupils’ talk change?

The researchers found significant differences between the talk and collaborative activities shown in the control and target classes. In general, children in the target classes used much more of the kind of engaged, critical, supportive discussion which the researchers call ‘Exploratory Talk’. The two examples below show the main differences between the conversations in these two groups.

The first example shows the talk within a control group while working on a Science Explorer investigation to find an effective material for soundproofing.
Control Group
Darryl: Metal?

Hannah: Right try it.

Deborah: Try what? That?

Hannah: Try ‘glass’.

Darryl: Yeah
The next example shows part of the conversation within a target group who have been working on the “Thinking Together” programme for two terms. They are working on a Science Explorer investigation to find an effective material for blocking out light.
Target Group
Alana: Dijek, how much did you think it would be for tissue paper?

Dijek: At least ten because tissue paper is thin. Tissue paper can wear out and you can see through, other people in the way, and light can shine in it.

Alana: Ok Thanks.

Alana (to Ross): Why did you think it?

Ross: Because I tested it before!

Alana: No, Ross, what did you think? How much did you think? Tissue paper. How much tissue paper did you think it would be to block out the light?
The example of talk between children in the control group showed minimal input from each participant and no engagement with each other’s thinking. The children were not working together in a beneficial and collaborative way. The example of conversation in the target group on the other hand shows pupils asking each other for information and opinions. They are working collaboratively, questioning and building on each other’s ideas and striving to reach a joint decision.

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How does working collaboratively lead to better understanding?

Teachers commonly expect to teach children facts, subject knowledge and literacy skills but not how to talk to each other and have effective discussions.

Observational research at primary schools has shown that when children talk and work together it is often un-cooperative, off task and unproductive. (Galton & Williamson, 1992; Wegerif & Scrimshaw 1997) This research concluded that these results arose from the children’s lack of understanding of what they need to do to have a good discussion. Hence in this study the researchers sought to explore:

  • the nature and content of children’s discussions;

  • the outcomes of a structured intervention (the Thinking Together Programme) on the quality of children’s discussion; and

  • the outcomes of the intervention on children’s understanding of science.

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What was the “Thinking Together” Programme?

The project used a programme of twelve lesson plans called ‘Thinking Together’ (Dawes, Mercer & Wegerif, 2004; Dawes & Sams, 2004) designed to raise children’s awareness of spoken language, group discussion skills and effective ways of working together and apply these to the study of science and other curriculum subjects. This programme is based on the researchers’ previous work, and focuses on the development of “Exploratory Talk”, an explicit collaborative style of reasoning. All of the twelve lessons involve a teacher led introduction, a group discussion and a plenary session. The first five lessons are aimed at raising children’s awareness of how talk could be used for working together and establishing a set of ground rules for discussion that will generate talk of an “exploratory” kind. The other lessons encourage children to apply these developing discussion skills to the study of science, mathematics and other subjects. In the project, each of the science lessons applied a specific talk skill and targeted a specific scientific concept. Group activities involved the use of educational software called Science Explorer (Granada).

The ground rules established in each class encourage children to:

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How were pupils encouraged to “Think Together”?
The objective of the “Thinking Together” programme was to raise children’s awareness of talk and encourage them to talk collaboratively. The children were encouraged to think about how and why people talk, for example:

  1. Who thinks they are a talkative person?

  2. Who thinks they are a quiet person?

  3. Who do you like talking to?

  4. When are you asked not to talk? Why?

  5. What does ‘chatterbox’ mean?

  6. Why is it really helpful to be able to talk?

  7. What sort of things can we do by talking together?

Pupils were encouraged to think about different types of communication (e.g. arguing, describing, sharing, persuading) and when each of them is used. They discussed what made a good talker and began to think about how listening formed an important part of conversation. The children were also encouraged to agree and establish certain ground rules for talk and understand the importance of these rules to ensure a good conversation. They also considered how talking and listening skills might be helpful when working in groups.

For more information on the “Thinking Together” programme, see the Thinking Together website (Click to Where can I find out more?)

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What is the theory behind the “Thinking Together” programme?

The authors base their view of learning on Vygotsky’s theory which stresses the importance of talk and social interaction for learning and cognitive development. The researchers relate the theory to science teaching and distinguish two main ways language can be used in learning science:

  • teacher led interaction with pupils – where the more knowledgeable adult guides the development of children’s knowledge and understanding (a process commonly referred to as ‘scaffolding’); and

  • peer group interaction – in which the interactions between pupils are more ‘symmetrical’ (what does that mean in this context?) than the teacher-pupil interactions and so there is more opportunity for pupils to share ideas and explore their understanding.

The researchers argue that teachers commonly expect to help children gain subject knowledge, but not to teach them how to interact with each other – to share and negotiate their ideas and make joint decisions. Yet many children will have few opportunities outside school to develop their skills for critical discussion and joint problem solving. In designing their experimental teaching programme the researchers sought to enable teachers to integrate both kinds of guidance.

Vygotsky’s ideas have been explored in detail in a GTC Research of the Month online publication at:

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How was the study carried out?
The researchers were trying to find out if teaching pupils to think and reason together would raise their attainment in science. The study involved Year 5 pupils from Milton Keynes: 109 pupils in classes targeted with the intervention programme and 121 children who acted as a control group. The target and control classes were taken from a matched set of local schools with similar catchment areas. The control group did not participate in the Thinking Together programme but were taught the same subject content and also used the same Science Explorer software.
The study employed a number of methods of assessing the impact of the intervention on talk, reasoning and learning, including classroom observation and formal assessment. Comparisons between control and target classes were made before and after the intervention. The researchers used a number of sources of data to analyse the effect of this programme including video and audio recordings, non-verbal reasoning scores, science national test scores and a concept mapping activity.
In order to validate the analysis, two researchers who were not involved in the project also analysed video recordings of both target and control groups of children. This confirmed that the target groups had significantly increased their use of Exploratory Talk.

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What are the implications of this research?

In completing this digest its authors began to ask the following questions about implications for practitioners:

  • When pupils are asked to work together in groups, do they work co-operatively and listen to each other’s ideas? How can you help them to communicate and reach a decision together more effectively?

  • Would it be helpful to establish a set of ‘ground rules for talk’ with the children, and give them a framework using key words, e.g. ‘because’, ‘I think’ etc., rather like the idea of a ‘writing frame’? Would it be helpful for teachers and colleagues, including teaching assistants, to model effective discussion for pupils?

  • Would it be beneficial for you and your colleagues to work together to design subject specific activities to encourage this type of collaborative learning? (e.g. developing ground rules for discussions, introducing key words)

  • Would developing these skills have an effect on peer interaction outside of the classroom? Would it be useful to your school to monitor this and look into researching it further?

  • Would professional development involving specialist expertise and teachers coaching one another help to spread the skills needed to teach pupils the how to talk and think collaboratively?

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Where can I find out more?

For more information about the Thinking Together programme as a way of improving children’s language, learning and thinking skills and further publications

For professional development resources related to Thinking Together.

Improving learning through cognitive intervention: Do you want to know more about how teachers have used cognitive intervention to develop pupils' thinking skills?

A short digest on Encouraging Student/Student Interaction in Science lessons:

What Is the Collaborative Classroom? An interesting paper considering the features of collaborative learning including the benefits, challenges and identified roles of both students and teachers.
A TRIPS digest “The effects of cooperative learning on junior high school students during small group learning.” Can be found at:
For an online demo of the educational software used in this research, Granada’s Science Explorer, visit:
A searchable database of thinking skills resources for use in primary schools
Galton, M & Williamson, J (1992) Group work in the primary classroom. London: Routledge.
Wegerif, R & Scrimshaw, P (eds) (1997) Computers and talk in the primary classroom. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

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