Winning Entry in the Critical Writing Prize 2014

We are delighted to publish the winning entry in the inaugural

Critical Writing Prize 2014

for the best student essay demonstrating a high level of critical thinking.

Critical Publishing is committed to helping people in education and social work become the best students and professionals they can be, in particular by fostering a critical approach to learning.

We were very pleased with the number and quality of the entries. The winner is Heidi Higgins of the University of Greenwich who was nominated by her lecturer, Gemma Richardson, and she receives Critical Publishing books to the value of £200.

Our judge, Lesley-Jane Eales-Reynolds, Pro Vice Chancellor (Education) at Kingston University said of Heidi’s entry:

“Really nice piece of writing. It was well structured, the author presenting conclusions and then offering evidence-based premises to support them. She also used this knowledge to interpret her own experiences in the classroom to construct a deeper understanding of what she had observed. She also gave justification for the sources of information that she used. Although reflection and critical thinking are not the same thing, the author demonstrated critical reflection and evidence of critical thinking throughout.”

Have a read for yourself:


A Reflective Evaluation of One Aspect of Effective Learning

 Heidi Higgins

This essay will evaluate one aspect of effective learning in the core curriculum subjects of English, mathematics (maths) and science. In order to do this effectively the question ‘what is learning?’ must be answered before we can examine what makes it effective. Watkins et al (2007, p10) states that “different conceptions [of learning] may be held by different people or by the same person in different circumstances and for different purposes.” For instance, research conducted by Marton et al (1993) found that most of the perceptions of learning were seen as an individual activity, such as getting more knowledge, applying facts and procedures or seeing something in a different way. However this may be because the sample used in the research consisted of university students, where it can be argued that individuals are expected to take more ownership of their learning and thus may not be representative off the whole population in other contexts. It is also widely recognised that learning, especially in the primary school, is a shared endeavour where children build on their ideas, make connections and reflect on their learning experiences. (Browne 2007, Barnes 2009, Harlen 2006, Askew 2012). This social side to learning is something which I have also observed in schools, with group work and discourse as key strategies in helping children to learn.

Due to the fact that there are a variety of opinions on what learning is there are likely to be a variety of opinions about what makes learning effective, such as learning outside the classroom, use of assessment or inclusion. However due to the fact that several authors in the field (Browne 2007, Barnes 2009, Harlen 2006, Askew 2012) have highlighted the impact of dialogue, this paper will examine the aspect of talk with regards to effective learning in the core curriculum. The social nature of talk implies that all of the research conducted in this area of education stems from the seminal work of Vygotsky (1978) and Bruner (1978) in the social constructivist theory of learning. This is the belief that children learn by using social interactions with a more knowledgeable other to scaffold their understanding.

There are several types of talk which contribute to children’s understanding; one example is exploratory talk. This was first defined by Douglas Barnes in 1975 as “hesitant and incomplete because it enables the speaker to try out ideas, hear how they sound and to see what others make of them” (Barnes, 2009, p5). Mercer (1995, p104) has extended this definition by saying that exploratory talk is also characterised by children having “critical but constructive engagement with each other’s ideas. Challenges are justified and alternatives are suggested. Joint agreement in decision making is the end result.” Although it can be argued that these sources are dated, both authors have been quoted or cited a number of times (Dawes 2005, Myhill et al, Earle and Serret 2012) making them seminal authors in this field. Therefore these definitions of exploratory talk are still relevant in today’s society.

I have observed, as well as planned for, exploratory talk in schools for all three subjects of the core curriculum during school experience, for example, during an English lesson the children engaged in talk with their talk partner before they started their plan for a piece of descriptive writing. This was effective for the children’s learning because it allowed them to “shape and sculpt their characters” (Pearson 2004, p37) by talking through their ideas. It has also been suggested that it is through talk that we can “formulate ideas for the first time…reformulate ideas so that our thinking is clarified…and reflect upon our learning” (Myhill et al, 2006, p8, Fisher et al, 2011). Therefore by giving children this opportunity, I have seen from my experience, children- especially those with low imagination skills- are more confident with what they are writing and seem to engage with it more. However due to the fact that talk partners were used, there was the danger that one half of the pair may take over the conversation. One strategy that may make the learning even more effective and reduce this risk is if listening partners were used. This is where the children report back what their partner has told them rather than their own ideas (Myhill et al, 2006).

Exploratory talk can also be used in this way (gaining and synthesizing ideas) in science (Harlen 2006, Dawes 2011) and maths (Askew 2012, Pound and Lee 2011). However one could argue that exploratory talk is mainly used in these subjects for enabling children to make connections and develop reasoning during enquiry and problem solving tasks. For instance in one science lesson the children were working in groups to solve the problem of how to turn on a light-bulb when the only pieces of equipment they had were a light-bulb, a battery and an assortment of objects. The talk that was present in this lesson was effective for children’s learning because it allowed them to make connections with their prior knowledge and justify reasons for their choices. Scott (2009) argues that learning should enable the pupil to make connections in science in order to deepen their understanding. As the children were sharing ideas there was the potential for them to change or extend their understanding. The children were also able to negotiate meanings if there were different understandings present (Lyle 2005). This type of exploratory talk has also been seen in maths lessons where the children were taking part in investigations. Children were seen making connections between their prior knowledge of the different aspects of maths and the problem that they were solving. Making connections is seen as an important aspect to learning, especially in mathematics because “the more connections [a child has] the more secure and useful their understanding” (Haylock and Cockburn, 2013, p11).

However, exploratory talk may not be successful all of the time. When children are uncertain how to take part in discussion, “group work is disrupted and learning falls away” (Dawes, 2005, p128). For example during a maths lesson that I observed, where the children were taking part in an investigation, I found that the exploratory talk stopped when the children could not agree on an idea. This may have been because they did not know what to do in this situation. Therefore it can be argued that if exploratory talk is not modelled effectively disputational talk may occur (Corden 2008, Skinner 2010, Myhill et al 2006, Fisher 2004). Disputational talk is characterised by an initiation followed by a challenge which lacks any form of resolution, or a resolution is suggested but it is not supported by the other members of the group. It is “effectively unproductive disagreement” (Littleton et al, 2005, p168).

One strategy that may have benefitted these children would have been to engage in shared sustained thinking with the class teacher. This occurs when two or more people work together to solve a problem or evaluate an activity. Both parties must contribute to the thinking and it must develop and extend understanding (DfES, 2004). Had the class teacher used shared sustained thinking in the maths lesson that I observed, the children would have been able to see the teacher modelling to them exactly how exploratory talk works when there are disagreements. For example the teacher could have modelled how to use argumentative talk rather than disputational talk to settle the disagreements. This would have been more effective for children’s learning because argumentative talk is defined as a “reasoned piece of discourse in which a claim has been justified” (Berland and McNeill, 2009) and so it would enable the children to justify their choices while thinking about other perspectives. However the majority of research that has been conducted about shared sustained thinking has been done with children in the Early Years Foundation Stage (DfES, 2004, Clarke 2007, Wild, 2011). This implies that shared sustained thinking may be more of a challenge to take part in, in the older key stages, or the results may not be as effective. On the other hand research by Fisher (2004) has found that when teachers teach through dialogue they are also teaching about dialogue by modelling its codes and conventions which children may learn to copy. This shows that children of any age may benefit from shared sustained thinking in all three core curriculum subjects.

The resources and the structure of the lesson may also affect the effectiveness of the talk and therefore the learning that takes place. Corden, (2008, p146) states that “too little structure for some kinds of talk may result in chaos and pupil anxiety; too much structure for investigative tasks may inhibit discussion.” This was seen during an English lesson where the children were having a debate. There was not enough structure in the lesson which resulted in some of the children talking about aspects which were not relevant, and some children taking more of a passive role. One strategy that could be used to give this type of lesson more structure is drama. Kempe (2005, p106) argues that drama provides children with a context in which they can “hone their ability to speak to suit different situations”. This implies that with the children in role, they are more likely to empathise with other perspectives making a debate more successful. This would have made the learning in the English lesson mentioned above more effective, because the children would have had a focus – their role – but they would still have the freedom to explore their ideas in more detail.

A further resource that can be used in any of the three core curriculum subjects to structure talk, making learning more effective is concept cartoons. This is because giving children a ready-made disagreement can enable children to agree with one of the points, providing they can justify the reason for this choice (Dawes, 2011, Scott, 2009). This would also provide children with a balance between a focus and freedom to explore ideas. Askew (2012, p130) states that “children respond better to talking about statements than answering questions” therefore children may respond well to concept cartoons because a question is not involved hence the children will not be afraid of getting an incorrect answer.

A second type of talk which contributes to children’s understanding is cumulative talk. This is defined as a type of discourse where “speakers build positively but uncritically on what the other has said” and work together in a co-operative way. (Wegerif and Mercer, 1997). Pearson (2010) extends this definition by stating that the main difference between cumulative and exploratory talk is that mutual acceptance and support is involved and that the end result is always an agreement. In Alexander’s research about dialogic teaching (2008,pg.27), he states that this type of talk can benefit children’s learning because it can enable children and teachers to build upon their own and other people’s ideas and turn them into a chain of enquiry. Due to the fact various other authors (Myhill et al 2006, Harlen 2006, and Earle and Serret 2012) have been influenced by this research, I have reason to believe that Alexander is a leading authority in this field of education and therefore what he suggests is reliable. Alexander has listed one of the five principles to dialogic teaching as cumulative, which shows that he regards this type of talk as being important to learning and thus should be incorporated into the classroom.

I have seen cumulative talk used in schools, especially in the core curriculum subjects of English and science. It was effective for learning in these two lessons because the children were able to work together to reach the same outcome. Since the work belonged to all of the group members, I found that each person put the same amount of effort into the work, as each member had some responsibility to ensure that the work was successful.

Since children are using cumulative talk to work together, it can be argued that talk especially in this kind of context can be extremely beneficial to children who have English as an additional language (EAL) (Fisher, 2004, Fisher et al, 2011). Cumulative talk is beneficial for children’s learning especially for those with EAL because it gives children the opportunity to encounter language in different contexts and genres. It also enables children with EAL to simultaneously learn the social and communicative strategies, as well as the interpersonal skills needed to become “competent members of the classroom community” (Haneda and Wells, 2008, p119). These are skills which children can transfer across the curriculum implying that cumulative talk is effective for children’s learning in all three subjects of the core curriculum. As cumulative talk involves the group working as a team, contributions made by a child with EAL are likely to be valued, making them feel more included. On the other hand, although this type of talk may be inclusive for children with EAL, it may not be inclusive for all learners. Browne (2007) highlights the fact that there may be children in the class with special educational needs (SEN) who may feel excluded, for example children with hearing impairment or selective mutism. This suggests that although talk is an extremely useful strategy, a more holistic approach to learning may still be needed.

Additionally, from an educational point of view, it can be argued that cumulative talk is limited because “it does not produce critically grounded knowledge” Wegerif and mercer (1997, p55). As cumulative talk involveschildren agreeing, all of the members of a group may agree on information even if it is incorrect, causing the misconception to become “contagious” (Ryan and Williams, 2007, p45). For example, in some lessons such as maths, the children are expected to “communicate mathematically, including the use of precise mathematical language” (DfE, 1999). This implies to me that if a mathematical term is used incorrectly during this type of talk, it could cause all of the group members to develop this misconception.

A third type of talk which contributes to children’s learning, especially in English, maths and science is presentational talk. This is a type of discourse where children are given the opportunity to explain their thinking and demonstrate what they know (Soloman and Black 2008, Earle and Serret 2012). One big difference between presentational talk and any other type of talk is the fact that an audience is involved. The talk is often influenced by what the audience expects and so the speaker’s attention is more on meeting the needs of the audience and so they will adjust the language, content and manner accordingly (Barnes, 2009).

This type of speech can help to make children’s learning of English, maths and science effective. The National Curriculum for English states that children are expected to “speak fluently and confidently to different people” (DfE 1999) and so it can be argued that presentational talk is a key strategy for enabling this to happen. It is effective for children’s learning because presenting is a physical activity and so children will be able to feel the difference between different audiences. For example, during school experience, the children were telling their creative stories to the class. The way the children used presentational talk here was very different to when they used presentational talk to engage in a debate. For instance the type of language used was different to match the needs of the audience. This also made the children’s writing more effective since the children then started to use the skills they had learnt from the presentational talk and apply it to their writing to make their writing match the needs of the audience reading it.

However presentational talk is often used in maths and science in a different way. One could argue that presentational talk in these subjects is often used to share findings and to respond to the teacher’s questioning (Barnes, 2009). For instance children often explain how they solved a problem in maths or share a prediction about what think might happen in a science experiment. This could benefit children’s learning because using presentational talk in this way gives children the opportunity to receive feedback from the teacher, allowing the children to reflect on their learning experiences. This is vital to children’s learning because “reflection is an integral part of children expanding their reality or expanding common sense” (Drews, 2011, p17). It is through reflection that children are able to reinforce their ability to represent their ideas and to reason or argue them through with others (Pound and Lee, 2011). This suggests that reflection allows children to make connections and cement their understanding.

It is widely agreed that presentational talk is only effective if the children have time to rehearse what to say beforehand (Fisher 2004, Dawes 2011, Askew 2012). This implies that exploratory or cumulative talk must take place before presentational. This suggests that teachers must ensure that children are aware that they will be engaging in presentational talk so that the children can make sure they have enough time to rehearse.

Furthermore, in order for learning in any of the core curriculum subjects to take place via any type of talk, children must feel “relatively at ease from the danger of being aggressively contradicted or made fun of.” (Barnes, 2009, p6). This suggests that in order for effective learning to take place a classroom “ethos based on trust, mutual support, and value of individual viewpoints” (Drews,2011, pg,15, Myhill et al,2006, Fisher et al,2011) must be in place. This type of school ethos was in place at my school experience placement. All staff was expected to model to the children how to listen and show respect to anyone speaking. Ground rules for discussion were displayed so that the children were constantly reminded of how dialogue works and provided starting points for discussions (Skinner 2010, Loxley et al 2010, Monaghan 2010).

In conclusion it is clear that talk has a huge impact on the effectiveness of children’s learning, especially in the core curriculum. Using talk in education is an area which has been thoroughly researched (Barnes 1975, Mercer 1993) with the majority emphasising the benefits of talk and how it is a key strategy in helping children to learn. Based on all of the research provided one could argue that without talk children would find it hard to make connections, build on their ideas and reflect on their learning and so talk should be incorporated into the classroom as much as possible.

Engaging in this assignment has enabled me to develop both professionally and personally. I have learnt a vast amount about the different types of talk that is used in a classroom setting. The main thing that I have learnt is that I am now more aware that the different types of talk bring something different to children’s learning, highlighting to me the importance of including all of them when I am teaching. This assignment has also allowed me to reflect on how to incorporate talk into the classroom. For example I have learnt that concept cartoons is an extremely good resource to use as a stimulus for talk (Dawes, 2011, Scott, 2009) and this is an idea that I am likely to use when planning lessons for the subjects in the core curriculum.

This assignment has also highlighted targets which would help me to develop further during my newly qualified teacher (NQT) year. One target that I would include is to ensure that my classroom has an ethos which encourages the use of talk but ensures that the children feel safe by fostering a sense of trust. In order to achieve this target I plan to model to the children how to take part in discussion (DfES,2004) on a daily basis as well as displaying ground rules for discussion in my classroom (Skinner, 2010, Loxley et al, 2010, Monaghan, 2010.). A second target I would set for myself is to ensure that I plan for a range of opportunities for children to engage in all types of talk. This is not something which I have previously done and since I am more aware of its importance I feel it is something that I need to work on, especially with regards to the core curriculum.


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