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Students in Shana Cunningham’s fourth-grade reading class discuss a nonfiction passage.
An analysis of 71 studies finds that peer discussions and group work boost learning. Credit: Kayleigh Skinner

One of the hallmarks of so-called “progressive” schools is freedom for students to talk to each other in class. Students aren’t required to sit quietly all day, obediently listening to a teacher lecture or silently completing an assignment on their own. The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, whose theories of child development inspire many teachers today, thought peer interaction was important both for a child’s social development and for learning itself. Piaget believed that children were passive recipients of knowledge when instructed by adults. But he noticed that when a child was asking questions and arguing with a fellow student, the child became an active, engaged learner. It’s that active engagement that leads to learning, Piaget theorized.

Yet when teachers open the classroom to group work and children’s chatter, peer learning can seem like a waste of time. Students often veer off-task, talking about Fortnite or Lizzo. Noise levels rise. Conflicts erupt. Are they really learning? Whether it’s productive to allot precious classroom minutes for children to talk with each other remains a debate with practical consequences.

A team of U.K. researchers collected all the studies they could find on peer interaction, in which children are either discussing or collaborating on an assignment together in small groups of two, three or four students. They found 71 studies, covering more than 7,000 children and teens. Most of the studies took place in the United States and the United Kingdom.  The results: Piaget was partly right … and wrong. Students tend to learn better by interacting with each other rather than wrestling with an assignment or a new topic on their own. But interacting with an adult one-to-one is even better than peer-to-peer interaction.

“That’s great, but how many times can a teacher work one on one with a child?” said Harriet Tenenbaum, an expert in learning at the University of Surrey and one of the study’s authors. “Group work should not be seen as a waste of time. There’s something about conversation that helps people learn. Doing problems on your own isn’t as beneficial. ”

Tenenbaum and her co-authors found that peer interaction helped children at all ages, from the youngest four-year-olds to the oldest 18-year-olds in the studies. Groups of three or four students were as productive as pairs of two, though most of the studies had children working in pairs. For studies that noted gender, boys and girls equally benefited from working in pairs or groups regardless if they worked together or apart. The study, “How effective is peer interaction in facilitating learning? A meta-analysis,” was published online December 2019 in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

Students didn’t always learn more from interacting with each other than working alone in the 71 underlying studies. The ones that produced the strongest learning gains for peer interaction were those where adults gave children clear instructions for what do during their conversations. Explicit instructions to “arrive at a consensus” or “make sure you understand your partner’s perspective” helped children learn more. Simply telling students to “work together” or “discuss”  often didn’t generate learning improvements for students in the studies. That’s because students often repeat what they already believe in an unstructured conversation. The instructions force children to debate and negotiate, during which they can clear up misunderstandings and deepen their knowledge.

Related: A study finds promise in project-based learning for young low-income children

“Instructions are really important,” said Tenenbaum. In other words, the trendy direction to “turn and talk to your neighbor” isn’t sufficient.

Unfortunately, this meta-analysis didn’t shed light on so many questions I have about peer dynamics and learning. Do kids still learn well from peers when one student is dominating the conversation or when a partner is slacking off and forcing you to do all the work? These studies didn’t document behaviors during a conversation. Can you learn as much from a bright peer as a struggling learner?  Too few of the studies noted students’ prior achievement levels to compare that with how much they learned during the exercise.

I was especially disappointed that there wasn’t much insight into when a peer-to-peer discussion is most productive during a lesson. These underlying studies didn’t take place in real classrooms but in controlled laboratory conditions. Generally students came to a room and were tested to see what they already knew about a topic. Then some students were randomly assigned to work in pairs or group on that same topic. Students assigned to comparison control groups did different things depending on the study:  toiling on their own, working with an adult or even doing nothing. Then everyone was tested at the end of the exercise to see how much they learned. Learning gains were measured by comparing before and after tests.

Tenenbaum’s advice isn’t to get rid of traditional instruction but to use peer discussions to reinforce a lecture. She recommends that teachers continue to teach a lesson to the whole class, as usual, and then break the students up and have them work with a peer for five to 10 minutes to reinforce the concept. “I wouldn’t say to five-year-olds, ‘work with peers all day long,’” she said. Keeping the peer-to-peer sessions short might also help keep children and adolescents on topic.

But the science doesn’t yet prove this advice is sound. “The next step is to test this in real classrooms,” said Tenenbaum, suggesting that a teacher could give a half-hour lesson and then researchers could split the kids up into working in groups or alone and see who does better. “But it’s really hard for researchers to get into classrooms,” said Tenenbaum. “For schools, it’s disruptive.” Much like talking in class.

This story about peer interaction was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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