“It sort of gets a little repetitive talking to the same person over and over again…”

by Topsy Page

I’ve been thinking recently about children and young people’s experiences of school, and how they are often put with the same talk partner for several weeks (or even the whole school year).  It makes me wonder how I would feel if I were in that situation as a learner.

Consider the following analogy.  Imagine you sign up for a weekly evening class to learn a new skill.  The advert says it will be an interactive class where you get to work with fellow students, and you’re OK with that.

As the weeks go by, you find that everyone always sits in the same place – it’s easier than choosing a new seat each time – and you always do the interactive tasks with the same neighbour.  But this person turns out to be a less-than-perfect learning partner.  Maybe they’re annoying, or very chatty about non-related things.  Maybe they distract you, or they don’t say much, or they always dominate the conversation.  They might spend time on their phone, or don’t listen to you, or talk over you, or you don’t find their ideas very interesting or challenging.

How would you feel?  What impact would this partnership have on your learning?

Now imagine a parallel universe where each week when you arrive at the class, your teacher has organised the pairings.  You look for your name, find your place, say hello to your new partner, and the session begins.  Each week you sit with a new person.

Some weeks you have partners who listen carefully to your ideas, ask you relevant questions, stay engaged, challenge you, and ‘click’ with you; other weeks it’s not quite so perfect.  Overall, though, you don’t have to worry too much about who you’re sitting with and you feel it’s a fair system.

Changing partners isn’t just fairer, it has multiple benefits including enhancing learning across the curriculum, improving relationships and developing oracy skills.

 

Let’s look specifically at how changing talk partners can help develop oracy skills.  The Oracy Skills Framework is useful here:

  • Changing partners develops social & emotional oracy skills by helping pupils to practise managing interactions with a variety of different partners; it develops listening and empathy.
  • Changing partners develops linguistic skills, such as choosing appropriate words and phrases to suit different partners.
  • Changing partners develops physical oracy skills, such as varying pace, tone and gesture to engage different partners.
  • Changing partners develops cognitive oracy skills – reasoning, structuring and summarising words in response to different partners’ contributions and levels of understanding.

What do pupils say about changing partners?

During talk audits, I ask pupils what they think about the idea of changing partners more often.  I’m fascinated by their responses.

‘Other people have different opinions…’

The most common response from pupils is that they see the value of getting different ideas from different partners – for example:

If we change more, the partners might help us more and they might understand it more.  Both of us.  (age 7)

You swap seats and other people come and put other ideas into your brain.  (age 8)

If you change then you can talk to others – you can get different answers and experiences. (age 9)

I like the idea of switching talk partners because then you learn more about others and their thoughts. (age 10)

It’s good to switch more often because you could be getting the same ideas.  Other people may have different opinions which could help you!  (age 11)

I think that’s good, because then you hear other opinions not just your partner’s – different viewpoints. (age 15)

‘It gets a bit boring with the same partner’

Another common response is the flipside of this – that talking to the same partner time after time can become boring and repetitive:

It sort of gets a little repetitive talking to the same person over and over again.  But my partner is really nice!  (age 8)

It gets a bit boring with the same partner and you want to hear other people’s ideas.  (age 9)

I’m constantly sat next to the same person.  There’s nothing wrong with them, but I’d like a change!

It would be nice to get to know more people. (age 12)

‘We’d get to know our classmates’

Pupils also tell me they’d like to build social relationships by working with different partners – for example:

So we can talk to people who are new.  There’s a new girl in our class who I don’t know.  It would be good to be partners with her.  (age 9)

We’d get to know our classmates and what they’re thinking. (age 11)

‘You might have someone naughty’

Some pupils give harder-hitting responses.  Imagine being stuck with someone who undermines your confidence:

My partner just corrects me all the time and it sometimes makes my confidence go low.  (age 7)

Sometimes you don’t like your talk partner. You might have someone naughty.  (age 6)

Changing often is good.  If you hear the same person again and again he might be talking about other stuff, not the lesson.  A new person could be talking about the lesson – he could give you good info!  (age 8)

Sometimes you get put with people you don’t like, or don’t work well with.  (age 9)

For me, sometimes my partner is a bit annoying.  (age 10)

All the above pupil voice comments appear to support the idea of changing classroom pairings regularly.

‘He’s smart!’

A small minority are not so convinced about the idea of changing partners.  Here is a sample of their comments, with some thoughts and questions to reflect on:

If you have a partner you like, then no.  (age 8)

This child is happy with their partner, she gets along well with her.  She doesn’t feel the need to change.  But, is it ok that she misses out on hearing different perspectives, building relationships and learning important communication skills from working with others?

No, I like staying with the person I sit with.  He’s smart!  (age 9)

This child clearly feels he is benefitting from working with this particular partner.  But, should others also have a chance to experience this support?  How does always being the ‘less smart’ partner impact on self-confidence or self-efficacy?  What might be the impact on the ‘smart’ child?

I don’t think we need to change that often because if it’s not working out you can tell the teacher.  (age 10)

This child feels able to speak to a teacher if they are experiencing problems with their talk partner.  In an ideal world all children would, but in reality how many wouldn’t?

If they’re not your friend, it’s a bit awkward.  You don’t say much.  You sit in silence.  (age 15)

Clearly this student isn’t used to interacting with a wide range of peers.  That makes me feel sad, especially as this is fairly simple to fix with frequent structured oracy activities.  It also makes me wonder what type of instructions are being given for talk partner tasks, and whether there are any accountability measures in place.

Some teachers I work with also like to keep things as they are – they don’t want to risk disruption by changing pairings.  I understand the reasoning behind this, as I know first-hand the challenges of managing behaviour, plus there are sometimes particular students who benefit from stability.  Getting your classes used to changing partners, while managing different pupils’ needs, does initially require time, energy and commitment.  But surely this is similar to getting pupils used to using new resources in maths or carrying out experiments safely in science.  In all these situations, the time and energy are worth investing because of the impact on learning.

If you invest time in getting pupils used to working with a variety of partners, the benefits outweigh the cost.  Eventually new partners won’t be an issue, it will just be a normal part of learning.  Start by doing frequent quick tasks with new partners, to help them get used to working with lots of different people.  Once students are used to changing partners often, they won’t make a fuss.

If you’re inspired to change pairings more often, I recommend two ways to do it:

  1. Random pairings – use lolly sticks with names on, or an online randomiser. This is transparent, fair and easy to organise.
  2. Targeted pairings – sometimes carefully plan pairings based on complementary strengths and weaknesses for different tasks, so pupils can help and support each other.

In summary, changing partners can help with learning across the curriculum, building relationships, and oracy skills development.  Pupils typically agree.  If you’re not already actively providing your students with opportunities to work with a range of partners, consider doing so.

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