Collaborative learning in the primary classroom

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My analysis of children's IWB use for collaborative learning in the primary classroom is informed by a sociocultural understanding of the ways in which thinking and learning may be shared between those involved in any purposeful activity. This perspective on school learning emphasises the importance of the communications, social interactions, and relationships between children and teachers in historical and cultural context (Daniels 2001; Palincsar 1998; Wertsch 1991). With regard to computer technology, I also acknowledge the influence of Hutchins (2005), who discusses the blending of material artefacts and cognition as a fundamental human process, which both stabilises and extends the way people think about the world and achieve their ends. In examining children's talk at the IWB, we draw on Mercer's (2004) sociocultural discourse analysis, which he describes as "…an integrated set of methods and procedures…(designed) to understand how spoken language is used as a tool for thinking collectively" (p. 138). This approach uses qualitative and quantitative data, retaining the talk transcripts as the primary focus of analysis.

Research Methods

Data collection at each of the settings consisted of semi-structured interviews with the class teacher, observations/field notes of lessons, video recordings of lessons and opportunistic dialogues with the children.

The following questions guided the data collection:

How is the IWB used as a tool in the classroom? (What pedagogical approaches are being used?)

To what extent is the IWB made use of or available for use in pupils' planned or spontaneous play activities?

To what extent do activities for pupils using the IWB promote use of higher-order thinking skills such as reflection on learning or encourage them to develop their meta-cognitive ability?

What affordances do teachers feel that IWB technology might provide within the foundation phase?

The guiding principles behind these research questions were heavily influenced by Roberts-Holmes (2005) in that they were: "purposeful, well-designed and honest about your assumptions (2005; p.6)


The interviews were conducted immediately after the observational period, recorded digitally and transcribed. The semi-structured interviews included some predetermined questions however the exact wording of the questions was flexible as were follow up questions to interesting statements from the subjects. The children were not interviewed however opportunistic dialogues were undertaken with the children who participated at the end of each session observed. Particular emphasis was placed on how they had perceived the activity with the IWB especially if they had labeled the activity as 'play'.. In the analysis of data the researcher attempted to identify and further interpret these as „units of meaning‟ in individual transcripts, as well as those occurring across the data set as a whole (Hycner, 1985, in Cohen et al. 2000).


Each setting was observed during two half-day sessions. The observations were naturalistic observations of the children's activity in their classroom (Greig and Taylor 1999). During the observations all interactions with the IWB were video recorded, the observations also involved the writing of detailed field notes during and immediately after the observation recording the nature and duration of each episode with IWBs. Particular attention was paid to the presence, involvement, levels of engagement and interaction between individuals when working with IWB. Within 48 hours notes were reviewed and written up electronically. As field notes were reviewed, memos were recorded to document emerging thoughts, feelings and questions regarding the observations (Flick 2006).

Data analysis

The lessons observed were analysed using the ATLAS (analysing teaching and learning in activity settings) framework (Kennewell 2001). The qualitative data gathered (from interviews, lesson observations and opportunistic discussions with children) were each analysed using a constant comparative analytic process (Strauss and Corbin 1990). This grounded approach used in vivo terminology and was facilitated by ATLAS software.

There were several stages in the recursive process of analysing the interview data. Several stages of the process were conducted more than once and revisited as new interpretations were tested and refined. During these stages the researcher was moving backwards and forwards between dual perspectives on the data, working closely with individual transcripts, moving away and looking at the data set as a whole (Cohen, 2000).

Ethical considerations

In addition to parental consent, ongoing consent was obtained from the children who participated in the study (Alderson, 2000). All settings and participants of the study names were replaced with fictitious names or codes.


All the data sources were analysed to find codes that could be organised into categories of types of IWB use in the classroom. The following categories were identified: (a) the use of the IWB for whole class teaching; (b) the use of the IWB for group work; and (c) pupil's independent use of the IWB. Some of the interview statements most strongly supporting the categories are presented. Findings regarding teacher's feelings regarding IWBs are also reported.

The IWB as a tool in the classroom

The most frequently viewed use of the IWB was for whole class teaching, where the class teacher was in control of the IWB and used pre-prepared resources. This was the most commonly observed use of the board for 51 out of the 60 sessions observed. During these sessions the children were expected to be 'good listeners' for the majority of the time. The teaching observed generally involved teachers evaluating rather than extending pupils' responses to questions. The majority of questions were closed in nature and designed to elicit, short answers which were 'right' or 'wrong'. Pupils were often expected to watch repetitive and undemanding activities on screen in order for all pupils to 'have a turn with the IWB'. Where pupils were invited to make contact with the IWB this was generally in a tokenistic way to click or click and drag an item to provide a correct answer. Children often experienced difficulties using the IWB as it was too high or they were not practiced at manipulating the board or associated peripherals. Sustained dialogues of more than eight words were uncommon between teacher and pupil and non-existent between pupils. Examples of open questions that Galton et al. (1999) and Alexander (2004) propose engender 'higher-order' thinking were the exception rather than the rule. During opportunistic discussions with the children not one of the children who had been engaged in whole class activities with the IWB described their activity as playing.

Group work

The next most common viewed use of the IWB was for groups to use a pre-prepared resource. This was viewed in 41 out of the 60 sessions observed. In these instances the teacher was usually situated with another group of children. These activities were frequently repetitive and undemanding and frequently did not demand any 'higher-order' thinking, where answers are not-predetermined or more than one possible answer exists.

Three outcomes were observed for groups engaged in this type of activity:

They settled down into a routine of taking turns working individually on the IWB and then chatting to other children in the group about unrelated matters whilst waiting for their next turn.

They worked collaboratively to subvert the activity moving to other programs on the IWB.

They become bored and disruptive and were moved on by the teacher to an alternative activity away from the IWB.

Only children involved in either the subversive groups described above described their activity whilst using the IWB as 'playing'. In only three of the 60 sessions observed were there instances of group work using the IWB that was more supportive of communication and collaboration, e.g.: In a Year 2 classroom, three children played with RoamerWorld on the IWB and the teacher supported their collaborative activity and learning by intermittently supporting discussion regarding the best way to approach the problem and encouraging them to consider alternative solutions. In a Reception/Year 1 classroom children were designing and building shelters in a woodland adjacent to the school with the help of a learning support assistant. Digital photographs of the plans and the shelters permitted the opportunity for visualisation and reflection in groups with the class teacher of work undertaken with a different member of staff at a different geographical location. The teacher was able to annotate directly onto these images to record children's thoughts and ideas and encourage to children to do the same on additional copies of the images using agreed symbols. In a Year 1 classroom children were using digital blue cameras to film a role-play situation where they had dressed up. Later they viewed their scenario and discussed with their teacher the English vocabulary they would need to undertake the scenario through the medium of English. In all three instances detailed above children described their activity as 'playing'.

Pupil's independent use of the IWB

Generally the level of pupil autonomy with the IWB fairly low during formal teaching time in

all the classrooms visited. As a tool in the classroom it was seen by the children as belonging

to the teacher. An exception to this was informal use of the board during 'wet play-times'.

Many of the teachers mentioned that pupils liked to play with the boards during wet playtimes. In six settings this was now prohibited as children had either changed the settings for the IWB software (illustrating a high level of competence) or lost the pen!

"We are not allowed to play on the board." (Boy, four-years-old)

"It is Mrs Jones' board." (Girl, five-years-old)

That is not for playing it cost a lot of money. (Boy, six-years-old)

In some settings children had clearly developed a fairly high level of competence with a variety of software packages through using the board:

Lots of the children in here are very good at using ACTIVPrimary now they often use it at wet play. I go out and when I return they are showing me some new feature that they have found or can use. They have learnt that since they came into this class because none of them will have it at home. (Year 2 teacher)

Teacher's reported feelings regarding IWBs

All teachers were positive regarding the presence of an IWB in their classroom.

All teachers stated that they promoted 'play' as a vehicle for learning in the classroom.

All teachers described their teaching as 'interactive'.

All teachers were positive regarding developing children's ICT capability.

Teachers were generally unsure of how their current use of the IWB fitted with the new foundation phase pedagogy.

They discussed allowing children to express themselves and represent their ideas via different media, documenting children's learning, reflecting with children on work undertaken using the IWB and digital video as a sort of 'time-delay mirror' so that children could document, revisit, reflect upon and develop their work activities which would normally be more transient. This teacher also discussed the potential of the IWB and digital video or images as a tool for visualising and reflecting on pupils' thinking and behaviour.

As only four out of 60 observed sessions with the IWB comprised of activities with the IWB which could be identified meeting the criteria above, this study also suggests that IWB are routinely being used, at present, in the classrooms where observations were undertaken, to support a more instructionist form of pedagogy than would be supported by the socio-cultural principles of the new foundation phase.

All teachers also identified that they valued play as a vehicle for learning. Only three activities with the IWB, during formal lesson time, were described by pupils as playing. Many pupils made comments relating to playing with the IWB during 'play-time'. As the teachers professed to value play highly as vehicle for learning in the classroom, it seems that they are experiencing a divergence of personal philosophy and practice (Bennett et al. 1997). It also seems that the ability of pupils to develop confidence and competence with novel ICT resources through play is also not intentionally being explored with regard the IWB.

The teachers in this study highlight the potential for developing use of IWB technology and supporting peripherals to support formative assessment, which itself has potential for supporting enhanced pedagogy via increasing the understandings of the process of children's learning (Black and William 2003; Broadhead 2006). This approach, combined with an emphasis on play, clearly places the focus within learning on documenting the process rather than product; on accomplishing assessment with the child rather than upon them.

A number of suggestions made by practitioners of how the IWB could be used within the foundation phase pedagogy would fit well with sociocultural principles. This includes use of the IWB for the:

Representation and organisation of ideas.

Visualisation and reflection on thinking.

Communication of ideas and collaboration.

Extension and communication of learning to the broader community and documentation of a more divergent form of pedagogical practice.

In this study it is apparent that pedagogy has accommodated to rather than driven the development of IWB use in the early years classroom. Findings from this study indicate that early years teachers would value additional support and opportunities via ITT and CPD with the IWB technology they have available in the classroom. This should allow practitioners:

Access to additional peripheral resources

The time to develop competence with the IWB technology

The opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the sociocultural theories of learning; international perspectives of play and learning which contribute to a novel, emerging foundation phase pedagogy.

The opportunity to participate in the consideration of how the development of novel practices with the IWB and complementary peripherals might best afford learning as part of an emergent foundation phase pedagogy.

If early years teachers are afforded these opportunities and the good practice disseminated, then it is more likely that the IWB will begin to deliver on the promise of functioning as a useful classroom tool for both children and practitioners.