Collaboration and complexity

by Dr James Mannion

This is the third in a series of six extracts from Fear is the Mind Killer: Why Learning to Learn deserves lesson time – and how to make it work for your pupils.

The feedback we have received so far has been pretty phenomenal. You can read all the very kind things people have said about it here. And you can buy it here (John Catt) or here (Amazon).

Here are all the posts in this series:

This post is about a method for making sure that every child is able to engage in productive, exploratory talk with every other student in the class, in any group size.



It is standard practice in many schools to have a seating plan in every classroom, designed by the teacher. Because many children are prone to ‘talk off-task’ when they sit with their friends, teachers often arrange their seating plans specifically so that this doesn’t happen.

When children are in a seating plan, if you ask them to discuss something with the person next to them, there are many reasons why that conversation might not go well. They might never have spoken to one another before, and feel awkward, nervous or anxious for that reason. One pupil might have bullied or made fun of the other at some point in the past, and the residue of a grudge hangs over their table like a silent cloud. One of them might be deemed more ‘popular’ than the other, and that popularity differential might be too steep to allow an extended conversation about their learning. One might secretly admire the other… and so on.

Such micropolitical features of student life are often invisible to us as teachers – but for young people, it is sometimes all that they can see. In order to enable high quality spoken communication to blossom and flourish in every conceivable direction, we need to find ways to help our students overcome such interpersonal obstacles. That’s where collaboration and complexity comes in.


What does it look like in practice?

One of the aims of the Learning Skills curriculum is to make sure that by the end of the year, every student is able to have a high-quality conversation – steeped in the features of exploratory talk – with anyone, in any group size. This is the end-point. It’s not where you begin. Instead, you begin by telling the children the first sentence of this paragraph, and then repeating this message regularly throughout the year. It’s really important to make sure that they hear this message as often as possible.

At first, to avoid the awkwardness of seating plan-based discussions, we allowed the students to sit with a talk partner of their choosing. We then spent the first half-term getting them to practice using talk rules, until they reached the point where they were able to use some or all of the features of exploratory talk within a lesson. In these talk lessons, we often used a book called Thinking through Philosophy by Paul Cleghorn, which includes many fantastic open-ended discussion tasks. [1] During these lessons, the teacher would circulate and wherever we saw exploratory talk taking place, we would stop and ask the students to model what they were doing to the rest of the class. In this way, we provided individuals with positive reinforcement, and gradually steered the whole class toward more productive ways of speaking and listening together.

The following half-term, we repeated this process with three students in each group – again of the children’s choosing. A group size of three is a lot more complex than a pair, because you have three times as many relationships (A-B, B-C and A-C, rather than just A-B). So already, the sparks begin to fly. Again, we would spend the whole half-term getting them to a point where they could engage in discussions, in groups of three, that consistently featured many or all of the characteristics of exploratory talk.

Next, we moved to a group size of four. Again, this increases the complexity considerably, with six relationships now (A-B, A-C, A-D, B-C, B-D, C-D). And again, we worked the cycle until all students were able to communicate effectively in groups of four.

In the second half of the year, we repeated this cycle again – but this time, the teacher choosing the groupings. Over time, we gradually worked up to the most challenging groupings, but we didn’t avoid any particular combinations of pupils. The aim was to make it so that any pupil would be able to engage in an exploratory conversation in any pair or group they found themselves in. To recap:

  • Half-term 1 – pairs, students choose
  • Half-term 2 – threes, students choose
  • Half-term 3 – fours, students choose
  • Half-term 4 – pairs, teacher chooses
  • Half-term 5 – threes, teacher chooses
  • Half-term 6 – fours, teacher chooses

Running alongside these oracy lessons, we also had weekly philosophical inquiry sessions where students were expected to embody the features of exploratory talk in whole-class discussions.

Combined with the use of talk rules, this method proved highly effective as a way to systematically nudge our students out of their comfort zones, learning to collaborate effectively in increasingly complex groups as they moved through the year. As we will see in Chapter 6: The evidence for Learning Skills, the students really valued the way in which Learning Skills required them to mix with one another in this way, and we agree. We can’t recommend it highly enough.

In the next excerpt in this series, we will look at the importance of investing the time in helping all students get really good at debating – and how to make it work for your pupils.


[1] Cleghorn, P. (2002) Thinking through Philosophy. Blackburn: Educational Printing Services Ltd.

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