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23rd October 1993









In this chapter, I shall describe certain computer-based interactions

that I have observed within primary school classrooms. They all

involve circumstances arranged for children to work together *at* this

technology. By that, I mean circumstances in which small groups of

children (as it happens, usually pairs of children) are organised to

work on the same computer-based problem at the same time. As was

indicated in the last Chapter, such arrangements are typical of

current practice within early education. Moreover, psychologists have

been quite busy in finding ways to conceptualise the processes that

commonly arise within such collaborative problem solving. Again,

discussion in the last chapter dwelt on the various theoretical

distinctions that have been applied to learning organised in this way.

What, therefore, remains to be done? What can inspire yet more

classroom observations of peers working together at computers?

The arguments developed towards the end of the last Chapter should

suggest answers to these questions. I indicated there that prevailing

preferences of theory and method have encouraged a narrow view of what

is involved in collaborative learning. I believe the conceptual

vocabulary typically used to characterise this form of joint activity

requires rethinking - particularly if we are aiming to develop a

socially-grounded theory of cognition. I would like to check my own

efforts at such rethinking against a corpus of material from authentic

class-based collaborations. Hence the presentation of such material

in this chapter.

However, consolidating a socio-cultural perspective on cognition is

only part of my purposes in the present book. I am also concerned

with locating new technology as a particular context in which

the collaborative nature of learning might get organised. So, towards

the end of Chapter 4, I considered what might be the best way to

invest research and development effort in the interests of advancing

new educational technology: what strategy offers the greatest promise

for effectively integrating computers into educational practice? I

have since been arguing for a channelling of research effort in

one particular direction. That direction leads towards a greater

appreciation of how the technology can enter into educational practice

to mediate new forms of *collaborative* interactions - and, thereby

support learning. I am encouraging the question: "How can new

technology *resource* the collaborative nature of education?" So,

the empirical material reported in the present chapter will frame

computers as a distinctive basis for supporting the particular case of

learning within peer interaction. My argument will not be that the

technology is qualitatively different from other resources that might

be deployed within collaborative work: I shall not argue that it is

unique in this respect. However, it does seem to me to have

characteristics that are particularly powerful for collaborators, and

we should be sensitive to what they are.

In short, there is a reciprocity here that allows what I am describing

in this chapter to be viewed from either of two angles. On the one

hand, I am suggesting that attention to peer interactions around

computers is especially helpful for our efforts at conceptualising the

nature of collaboration very generally. On the other hand, I am

framing an account of collaborative interactions that has

particular implications for how we might best design and deploy

computers within classroom life.

My plan for this chapter is as follows. In the first section below, I

shall sketch an account of collaborative problem solving that focuses

on the creation of shared understandings and the particular role of

discourse in achieving this. I wish to argue that collaborations can

be analysed as states of social engagement: occasions upon which some

varying amount of effort is directed towards the creation of common

ground. Then, in later sections of this Chapter, empirical

observations of young children working together at various

computer-based tasks will be described. These observations will be

analysed so as to allow the development of two themes. Firstly, to

illustrate that effective collaboration involves a discursive

achievement: its analysis must go beyond the traditional technique of

counting and cataloguing discrete utterances as they are recorded

during peer interactions. Secondly, to argue that accounts of

collaboration should recognise that this state of social engagement

is, inevitably, situated. It arises within particular contexts of

problem solving and we must seek to understand the constraints and

opportunities that the structure of those particular contexts afford.






The theoretical discussion within this section serves to preface

observations of classroom joint activity that follow later. First, I

am concerned with sharpening the sense in which we must view

collaboration as a discursive achievement growing out of human

intersubjective attitudes. The result should be a framework through

which some particular observations of collaboration can be viewed.




Collaboration and shared understanding


At the end of the last chapter, I expressed an unease with the scope

of concepts currently deployed to explain collaborative interactions.

These concepts tend to represent the discourse of collaboration as

comprising discrete utterances (or short exchanges) that have

circumscribed effects on the cognitions of the individuals concerned:

acting rather as "stimuli" for cognitive change. In this spirit, it

might be claimed that a collaborator could experience a cognitive

restructuring because of *conflict* stimulated by something that their

partner said. Or, it might be claimed that the pressure simply to

articulate the logic of one's position stimulates greater reflective

self-awareness. Such analyses of collaborative encounters see them as

occasions that increase the probability of certain potent events

occurring - certain social stimuli that provoke cognitive change in the

participants. I do not deny that both experiences of conflict or

opportunities to articulate a perspective should be part of

our concern when studying collaborations. Yet, this framework seems

to provide a distorted account of what typically happens on these

occasions: as if it misses something else significant that constitutes

the experience of joint problem solving. So, to stress conflict as

important seems contrary to how we describe a lot of collaborative

experience. It is often harmonious and constructive, not tense or

confrontational. While to stress the articulation of ideas seems to

make it a more passive, inward-looking experience than it often feels.

Moreover, the conceptual focus of both approaches tends to be on the

cognitive apparatus of collaborating individuals. So, accounts will

refer to metacognitions or to the cognitive structures of individual

collaborators; they are less likely to refer to a construction that is

inherently interpersonal and that might be best conceptualised in

social terms. Yet, this might be an approach a more socio-cultural

orientation should encourage.

In fact, the analysis of collaborative interactions has not yet been

greatly extended by socio-cultural ideas. Although, as I indicated in

the last chapter, the classically socio-cultural concept of

"internalisation" is one idea that has been applied in this context.

In his account of the internalising of exchanges within a zone of

proximal development, Vygotsky refers tellingly to the 'more capable'

peer as a possible partner for internalisation. Again, this seems to

distort our casual experience of what collaboration often involves: it

creates a constraint we may not always wish to accommodate. Although

the internalisation of moves socially-produced with an expert may

often be a part of what can happen, collaborations are experiences

that typically involve quite equable levels of expertise among the

participants. The socio-cultural appeal to processes of

internalisation seems to imply that peer interaction must be

approached as something less symmetrical: a kind of peer tutoring.

How, then, might a socio-cultural perspective contribute further

towards conceptualising the way that peers interact when they solve

problems together? This perspective should help define the cognitive

gains that arise from collaborating as being gains that are socially

constituted. It should help identify a cognitive resource that is

firmly located within the dynamic of the social interaction. My

suggestion here is that, in part, this might entail recognising the

importance of a human capacity for intersubjectivity, and how it

allows the possibility of creating structures of shared understanding.

There is certainly something missing from accounts of collaboration

that dwell only upon inventories of utterances - coded and categorised

for their pragmatic content. What, in particular, is not captured

is any sense of participants having used language to construct an

achievement of shared knowledge. Typically, analyses of these

interactions do not attend to how far collaborators are mutually aware

of such common ground, and how they draw upon it as a discursive

resource. There is one compelling reason for thinking this is an

important way to frame an account of what happens during collaborative

relationships: it reflects the way participants in such relationships

typically describe their experience when asked. Schrage (1990) has

assembled the reflections of a number of eminent collaborators as they

discuss the way they work - scientists, journalists, composers and so

on. They do not put their emphasis on the potential for productive

conflict, or the opportunity to clarify ideas through articulating

them publically. Such notions may be recognised as important products

of what goes on, but what successful collaborators are more likely to

refer to is the feeling of working towards constructing an object of

joint understanding - something that comes to exist between them as a

cognitive resource.

I am suggesting that students of educational interactions among peers

need to come to grips with this conception. Evidently, it suggests a

close link to ideas already reviewed in this book: particularly those

ideas concerned with collaborations developed in the course of

teacher-learner interactions. It naturally suggests the idea of

common knowledge as discussed in Chapter 5. Edwards and Mercer locate

this concept at the focal point of instructional activity: 'We can say

that the process of education, in so far as it succeeds is largely the

establishment of these shared mental "contexts", joint understandings

between teacher and children, which enable them to engage together in

educational discourse' (1987, p.69). Yet, little has been done to

identify the creation of shared mental contexts as an achievement

arising within other learning interactions - exchanges other than

those that take place between pupils and their teachers. In

particular, this idea has barely been considered as a way of analysing

the more symmetrical relationships that arise among classroom peers

who are engaged in joint problem solving.




Collaborating and conversing


At present, there is very little analysis of collaborative interaction

that adopts this perspective. Only Roschelle and Teasley appear to

have worked within a framework of the kind that I am describing here

(Roschelle, 1992; Teasley and Roschelle, 1993). They have studied

pairs of high school students working on a computer-based simulation

of principles from Newtonian mechanics. Their inclination, like my

own, is to characterise what transpires in terms of the partners

creating a "joint problem space". However, I believe there are

several respects in which an analysis of this kind needs to be

developed further. One is simple, but is necessary to any approach

stressing the situated nature of these events: the process of creating

joint problem spaces needs to be understood as something governed by

the structure that particular tasks present to collaborators. In

other words, these achievements need to be studied with attention to

how they are distinctively organised within the constraints of

particular contexts for acting. My assumption is that the nature of

what is socially constructed will vary in interesting ways that

reflect the structure of different problem tasks. I believe this

process is also likely to vary developmentally - reflecting different

histories of experience at joint problem solving. Finally, it is

likely to vary in ways that are associated with the period over which

joint activity is sustained. The implication of this last point being

that we need to respect the ecology within which learners' joint

problem solving is typically organised: in particular, the community

structure of classrooms. The observations described later in this

chapter represent small steps taken in these directions.

Roschelle and Teasley's work comes closest to the description of

collaborations made later in this chapter. Yet, I do not wish to

apply exactly the same analytic distinctions that they chose for

systematising their own observations of collaborative discourse. It

is worth elaborating on this difference, as it highlights some

important features of the conceptual framework within which this

research is located. Teasley and Roschelle (1993) note that

conversation is the process whereby their collaborators construct a

joint problem space. Thus, it may seem natural to borrow from

research traditions that are most centrally concerned with the

analysis of conversations. Accordingly, Teasley and Roschelle

organise their documentation of collaborative talk around the

participants techniques for: (i) introducing and accepting new

knowledge, (ii) monitoring ongoing activity for divergence of meaning,

and (iii) repairing such divergences. These are distinctions that are

commonplace within conversational analysis (Clark and Schaeffer, 1989;

Schegloff, 1991). However, adopting this analysis raises the question

of how we should regard collaboration as a distinct species of human

communication - how it is subsumed within that more general category

of communication we simply refer to as "conversation". This, in turn,

raises methodological questions. In particular, whether the

distinctions we make in analysing conversational cohesion are adequate

to capture the special forms of cohesion that might exist in

conversations that are also dubbed "collaborations".

It is certainly the case that conversational analysts have always been

deeply concerned with the "grounding" that must go on during

talk (Clark and Brennan, 1991; Clark and Schaeffer, 1989). This

is a concern, like our present one, with shared understanding. Thus,

one problem that has been studied is how talkers ensure that the

demonstrative references they make in their conversation are specified

well enough to be understood. This can be managed by relying on

conversational grounding. So, if a speaker makes some demonstrative

reference but their referent is actually ambiguous, then listeners may

cope with this by selecting a referent item on the basis of its

'saliance with respect to common ground' (Clark, Schreuder and

Buttrick, 1983, p.296). That is, they select a referent item that is

the most striking option; what defines "striking-ness" is an item's

relationship to the intimate context of mutual knowledge that has been

constructed between these particular conversants.

More generally, participants in conversation must each do work to

establish the mutual belief that what they have said is adequately

understood at that moment. So analysts of routine talk have exposed

important social-interactive techniques that are deployed to help with

this purpose: things that get done to construct the grounding from

which a sense of conversational *cohesion* can arise. Now, I have

been claiming here that the analysis of collaborations (as a

particular kind of interaction) must also concern itself with the

dynamics of such shared understanding. This might imply that analysts

of conversation will have already done the research that is necessary

to clarify how collaborative learning is managed. Or it might imply

that at least they already have available exactly the set of

conceptual distinctions we need. But although there is a way in which

it is appropriate to claim that conversations are occasions that

demand collaboration (Clark and Wilkes-Gibbs, 1986), there are also

good reasons to respect a common sense distinction here. Certainly,

there is no line that cleanly separates out from "conversation" a

class of interaction that we will invariably label as "*a*

collaboration" - a particular kind of conversation. Yet, there is

undoubtably a contrast to be respected and, because of this, we might

suppose that the analysis of collaborations requires additional

distinctions to those that we make in analysing routine conversation.

I believe this is so and will indicate why, before proceeding to study

some particular examples of collaborative talk.

Clark and Wilkes-Gibbs (1986) invoke a *Principle of mutual

responsibility* to express the sense in which all successful

conversations must depend upon collaboration:

The participants in a conversation try to establish, roughly by the

initiation of each new contribution, the mutual belief that the

listeners have understood what the speaker meant in the last utterance

to a criterion sufficient for current purposes. (p.33)

They illustrate the exercise of this Principle with a corpus of

conversational fragments in which speakers and listeners are seen to

be comfortably operating rich repertoires of interactive behaviour:

speakers' verbal 'presentations' are routinely met with various verbal

and non-verbal strategies of 'acceptance' by their listeners. The

progress and repair of any conversation is thus made possible through

mutual commitment to these collaborative processes. Moreover, the

overall structure of such exchanges are said to be managed in ways

that minimise joint effort: this amounts to the so-called *Principle

of least collaborative effort* (op.cit., p.26). Speakers will

experience pressures to respect the natural pace of conversation, as

well as pressures that arise from inherent uncertainty as to their

listener's existing knowledge. Such considerations may encourage

speakers to limit the effort they invest in making their reference

evident (while awaiting confirming feedback). We might say that a

capacity for intersubjective understanding allows them to pursue such

an optimisation strategy.

Yet, the Principle of mutual responsibility, as stated above, invites

further research. For example, studies are needed to clarify what

boundaries serve to define the notion of a "contribution" within

conversations. This issue has already been explored (Clark and

Schaeffer, 1989). However, we also need to investigate more of what

is meant by claiming a listener has understood something to 'a

criterion sufficient for current purposes'. This relates directly to

our present interest in collaborative learning. For Clark and

Schaeffer's phrase reminds us that conversations are indeed conceived

for various purposes, and that the particular ways in which mutual

responsibility is managed in talk will surely reflect this variety.

So, if our 'current purpose' is to have a casual conversation, then

the talk may be allowed to weave and turn in ways that indicate we

have set this criterion to be quite low. On such occasions, the

'effort' invested in establishing mutual understanding may be limited;

we may let uncertainties of reference slip passed; we may tolerate

inconsistency; we may encourage fluctuations of topic. However, if

our 'current purpose' is to *collaborate* - in the narrower, everyday

sense of that purpose - then our criterion may be set rather high.

What, in particular, we do and say to meet that criterion may be quite


Thus, any analysis of collaborative learning or problem solving will

need to go beyond considering only the local management of the

conversational exchange. In particular, the issue of 'accepting' a

conversational contribution (Clark and Schaeffer, 1989) becomes more

problematic: it may not simply amount to understanding what the

speaker intends, but deciding whether it is an acceptable contribution

to a particular common ground that is "working" in favour of the

collaborative purpose. So, our situation in considering peer-based

collaborations must be very much like that confronting Edwards and

Mercer in their analysis of classroom talk. There also, the

participants are motivated by the particular purpose of creating a

consensus of understanding. The established framework of distinctions

for analysing conversational cohesion will certainly apply - for

conversation is surely involved - but that framework will not do the

analytic work that we are most interested in getting done. That is,

it will offer few pointers to how mutual understanding is actively

pursued: how it is refined for the specific purposes of individuals

committed to a "collaborative" enterprise. The joint interest of

collaborators in creating a common product, or in reaching a

consensus, requires that they make a point of attending to this

development of mutual understanding. It must be a more central

concern of their conversation. In any event, the context of their

effort (the materials and resources etc.) will doubtless constrain how

they may proceed.



Proposed analysis of collaborations


I suggest two distinctive features that should be part of any analysis

of interactions that have been termed "collaborative". One is an

attempt to capture both the form and extent of a heightened *concern*

amongst collaborators for the construction of common ground. For, in

collaborative interactions, this purpose is brought into the

foreground of conversation. Thus, the sense of individuals

"collaborating" (as opposed to "merely" conversing) will arise the

more they explicitly reflect upon the creation of this shared

understanding. Analysis of collaborative interactions, therefore,

need to identify the ways in which this patent concern of the

participants is managed: an analysis needs to document the explicit

investment participants make. In other words, a traditional

conversational analysis - dwelling only on local monitoring,

divergence and repair - may miss the active investment collaborators

make in an organised convergence.

Another feature that I believe should be characteristic of any

analysis of collaborations is a sensitivity to how the structure of

the underlying shared task affords different opportunities for

creating this shared understanding. The social business of creating

common ground may be more or less constrained or facilitated in

different contexts for interaction. An analysis of what gets done

must attend to this dynamic - perhaps, in educational contexts, with a

view towards invigorating it. An important theme in my analysis

here is that shared understanding may be created to a greater or

lesser degree, depending on constraints naturally characteristic of

different settings for interaction.

This raises the question of how situations may be more or less

effective for collaboration. Moreover, allowing the idea that there

may be such a variation reminds us that simply putting learners

together for the purposes of joint activity may not necessarily be the

same as prompting them to collaborate. Curiously, most empirical

studies of peer interaction and learning seem to work with just such

an operational definition of collaboration. To be sure, they may

allow that different occasions can be more or less "successful", but

this judgement is typically derived from quantitative profiles

summarising various categories of collaborative action. An occasion

that is effective then becomes one that is rich in favoured categories

of talk - conflict, hypothesising, challenging or whatever. I am

suggesting that we take variation in the quality of interaction (as

"collaboration") more seriously. It may be helpful to regard

collaboration as involving a state of social engagement: one that is

more or less active on any given occasion. It is not something simply

to be taken for granted whenever joint activity is organised; rather,

it is a state of affairs to be diagnosed from the partners' detectable

commitment to constructing a shared understanding.

In summary, I am arguing that empirical analyses of collaborative

learning should, firstly, focus upon participants' access to a shared

understanding, including their explicit concern for elaborating such

mutual knowledge. Secondly, analysis should clarify how particular

contexts of problem solving provide distinctive resources to promote

this interactive achievement. I am not concerned with fixing the

precise semantics of "collaboration" and, in particular, do not wish

to dictate an exclusive field of use for this term. However, I

believe it is helpful to distinguish a state of social engagement that

is defined in terms of a striving after shared understanding; and

helpful to consider how such striving is effectively resourced.

In what follows, I shall describe observations of primary school

children jointly working at each of four computer-based tasks. The

interactions were all organised to blend into normal classroom routine

and the target activities were selected from among the range of those

that were familiar and in use within the schools. I hope that by

looking at rather different contexts, some sense of the variety of

possible shared understandings will emerge. That is, we shall be able

to reflect upon the following processes. How different task

environments afford distinctively different kinds of common ground;

how such mutual knowledge is negotiated and elaborated (beyond the

simple "repairs" of conversational analysis); and how the resource of

common ground is invoked as a platform for the construction of new

moves forward.






The general procedure behind the observations reported below was as

follows. Schools were chosen where the use of computers was

commonplace and where pupils typically worked at them in pairs - or

small groups. For the present observations, same-sex pairs of pupils

were formed by class teachers and they worked in the normal area where

a computer was kept. This was usually a quiet corner of the classroom

or a reading area between classes.

Making observations in settings such as these is, I believe,

inherently problematic. I am sure that the details of what children

say and do on these occasions is highly sensitive to the social

context - including, the presence and identity of a research observer.

For such reasons, clear empirical relationships found in one study may

defy replication following seemingly trivial changes to features of

the working arrangement observed (cf. Littleton, Light, Joiner, Messer

and Barnes 1992). Indeed, this volatility might discourage any great

faith in parametric studies aimed at isolating "variables" relevant to

predicting collaborative performance. Practitioners may find more use

for broader characterisations of such performance: these may then be

drawn upon to guide the situated judgements that they have to make

within specific circumstances of teaching and learning.

However, the particular significance of these considerations here is

the practical one of refining an observational method. If, as

researchers, we wish to understand the organisation of activity within

classrooms, then our intrusions should disrupt the social order of

classrooms as little as possible. In the present case, the activities

chosen were familiar, being drawn from local resources and curricula;

the occasions of observation were those upon which pupils would

naturally be working in the manner arranged; the style of observation

was discrete although the act of observing was declared, explained and

its confidentiality was discussed. All material reported here was

drawn from sessions towards the end of school years, during which the

researcher would have become a familiar figure. The observer was not

himself present during the sessions that were used for research

purposes: these were video recorded in an open but unobtrusive manner.

Such recording was itself familiar and, with respect to the material

discussed here, on only two occasions did pupils make explicit

reference to being recorded (in each case, playful comments made

during the story composing activity). The adventure simulation task

(Granny's Garden) described below was not video recorded with a

camera. In this case, the observer was present in the background

making field notes, while the pupils' talk and the screen output

signal from their computer were both directed to video tape.

Pupil conversations were transcribed and annotated by reference to

video recordings and notes. Where sections of these transcripts are

reproduced here, the following conventions of presentation are

adopted: the speech is printed towards the left of the page while any

contextualising notes are printed towards the right. All cases

involve pairs of children and they are arbitrary identified as "A" and

"B". A numeral in front of these letters distinguishes a particular

pair - as, say, in the partnership 5A and 5B. The following symbols

are used within the discourse:

/ Short but distinct pause

// Pause of more then 2 seconds

. Gap of irrelevant talk between two segments



[ Point of overlap between speakers' talk, the overlapping

utterance being printed directly beneath.

? Question intonation

Italic type Emphatic speech

s-p-e-l-l Letters of a word spoken out in turn






Six pairs of girls and 6 pairs of boys aged between 7 and 8 were

observed using a program called Anagram. It was selected from a

package of basic literacy programs widely distributed to primary

schools at the time. Its apparent purpose was to encourage

pupils' attention to the structure of simple words by presenting

targets of jumbled letters ("anagrams") and offering the opportunity

to type the correct word underneath each successive target. The

program presents 16 such problems. A display of the current set of

possible words was available at the top of the screen for a pupil to

refer to; upon each correct solution, that word was removed from the

display. Thus, the activity can be summarised as a recurring sequence

of the kind: computer presents target - pupil types response - target

removed from display (once correct entry typed).

Given the typical routine of having children work in pairs, what form

of joint activity is encouraged by a simple structure such as that

described above? I do not wish to become entangled in discussing

whether the children observed can be said to have "collaborated", or

not. Exactly what we take this term to refer to should not be

prescribed here. However, the simplicity of the present task should

help us make sharper distinctions that may prove broadly helpful for

characterising joint activity. So, in describing reactions to this

task, I wish to identify a certain range of interactions that an

activity such as this seems naturally to afford. Later, I shall be

able to contrast such interactions with others that can be observed at

computer-based tasks having different characteristics. My view is

that a relatively rich, articulated interaction could be sustained by

an activity of the general kind described in this section - but that

the present structure is not at all effective. We might even worry

that the activity it supports can sometimes be counter-productive.

Of the 12 pairs of children observed, only two of these partnerships

acted in a way that seemed to invite confident use of the term

"collaborate". The basis for such an intuitive judgement lies in

convergent action and attention: children apparently oriented towards

the same thing. Barring only four trials upon which minor

distractions arose for one member of each partnership, the two pairs I

have mentioned mentioned reliably attended jointly to the target word,

and they also scanned the display of options together. However, the

same could be said for most of the other pairs, most of the time. So,

sustained attention to the computer screen does not, in itself, set

apart the pairs we sense as collaborating more. The single factor

that makes a striking difference to the atmosphere apparent within

these various pairings is the sense in which the activity is being

constructed as a sequence of *turns*. For 10 of the pairs, respecting

this structure was a significant issue. That is, they maintained a

rigid pattern of alternating responsibility for disposing of the

current target word.

In three of the pairs there were periodic exchanges in which the

partners argued about disruptions of their natural activity sequence.

In one case, a brief physical struggle arose. In the example below,

one of the girls completes a word that her partner has started

(perhaps getting impatient, or thinking her partner has become



3A: Its my go (A moves to take over typing as B

pauses mid-word, searching for key)

3B: No it's not

3A: I know where the O is (B is now looking for this key)

3B: Got it // that's right (B completes last letter of target)

3A: I have another go 'cos you

had two of my goes

3B: I haven't

3A: Yes you did // my go now

3B: No / you just had a go

3A: You had two of my goes

3B: I didn't

3A: You did (A starts typing answer to new



There are two interpretations of this concern to sustain turn taking

that I wish to confront. The first is the possibility that these

pairs are collaborating effectively: they just happen to assign the

(trivial) business of keying-in to a structure of turns. The second

is the possibility that turn-taking is a strategy to minimise each

individual's involvement in a task that might not be very enjoyable.

I shall appeal to detail of the interaction to indicate that neither

of these interpretations can be readily accepted.

One route towards tackling these questions lies in consideration of

what participants do during the periods when it is not their turn. In

this, there was some variation. With four of the ten turn-taking

pairs, both partners would occasionally call out the correct answer

during the other's turn and while the other was still looking for that

word. In two further pairs this happened, but only one partner acted

this way. Certainly, on the criteria of shared attention we must say

that, most of the time, they are focussed on the same material:

attending to the same target. However, the "collaborative attitude"

of these pairs remains different from that of the two pairs I

identified at the outset as working together effectively. With the

turn-taking pairs, it does not appear that the alternating structure

merely reflects some incidental need to ensure equable participation

in the keying-in (nothing here, or at other times, indicates that this

is seen as a particularly interesting thing to do). In other words,

these pairs are ensuring they get alternate "goes". With these pairs,

where one partner declares the answer during the other's control of

the keyboard this seems more in a spirit of being assertive, or

disruptive - rather than supportive. These contributions may be made

from a withdrawn seating posture, and not accompanied with active

screen pointing to identify the item. It is not unusual for the

keying-in partner to object to such contributions:

7A: Its "like" (Identifying the correct answer)

7B: Alright / I *know* (B keys in l-i-k-e)

7A: My turn

By contrast, the two pairs that give a sense of collaborating do not

display this tension. They are more likely to be in a similar posture

towards the computer. When one of them is keying in a word, if the

other verbally recites the letters, then it is in pace with their

partner's typing. They are likely to monitor reactions in the other,

or talk in the first person plural:

8A: Theres "come" // shall I put in "come"? (A pointing to this word)

8B: Yes / go on




8B: What happens if we get one wrong?

This is not a kind of harmony that is so apparent in the turn-taking

pairs. However, the difference has to be carefully made. This is not

a difference based simply upon some pupils enjoying the task and

others not. Certainly, if some pupils were not properly engaged, then

turn-taking might arise as a way of limiting their enforced

participation. In fact, all pairs were quite animated; they seemed to

like the exercise and individuals sustained their attention when not

taking their own turns. However, in some cases (just the two

collaborating pairs), a common pattern of attention organised by this

task is complemented by an active effort among the partners at

coordination. These efforts are subtle and intermittent (given the

simple nature of the task) but, in small ways, they serve to monitor

and consolidate a shared understanding. So, a demonstrative gesture

may accompany a spoken identification of the correct target - to

ensure mutual recognition. Guesses are sometimes put to partners

before steps are taken to key them in - to ensure endorsement of the

choice. Control of the keyboard is casually managed - because

keyboard disputes are typically symptomatic of the "having of goes"

and (in the case of these collaborators) *both* partners are

effectively having one extended, coordinated "go".

Thus, a small number of pairs convey a sense of collaborating. The

talk and action of these partners is more concerned to monitor, update

and confirm the topics of a potentially shared understanding.

Of course, this is a very modest, undifferentiated task. However,

that may make it a good case to reason from. For, it is just on

the borderline of what naturally might support collaboration. Among an

arbitrary population of pairings, it promotes a variety of

interactions - and some of those patterns of interacting we may want

to say are more "collaborative" than others. In considering these

interactions, I would like to sum up what is taking place in terms of

an investment that is, or is not, made in defining mutual objects of

attention. The case where there is limited investment of this kind

requires us to think about why the effort may be avoided. The case

where it does occur requires us to think about characterising what is

happening in terms of a certain kind of discursive achievement.



On resisting shared reference


There are three particular observations that are suggested by some

children's resistance to adopting a collaborative attitude around this

task. Firstly, the interactions clearly remind us that setting up the

social arrangements for a collaboration by no means ensures that it

will ensue - in the sense of a striving for constructing shared

reference. The participants were motivated, they all conversed in a

lively manner and the task got completed with good humour. Thus,

coordinating the seating and, thereby, facilitating the talk does not,

alone, ensure a coordination of the understandings. Secondly,

these interactions direct our attention to variations in task

design. Part of the shortfall in our expectations for joint activity

must be traced to structural characteristics of the activity itself.

This issue is important to address in relation to computer-based tasks

because they are so interactive. Their design may incorporate

distinct contingencies involving events presented to users and those

users' various inputs in return. In the present case, the rigid

pattern of self-contained word problems may be particularly

well-matched to the emerging strategy of turn taking.

However, this response to the contingencies of the program is not

inevitable. We have seen in the present case that not all pairs of

children adopted it. This variation might be researched in a number

of ways - including reference to the history of interaction enjoyed by

particular pairs, or to similarities in ability on the underlying task

and so on. However, one factor that might be found to moderate

whether such contingencies evoke turn taking strategies or not is the

culture of classrooms or schools.

This is my third point suggested by the present observations: the

existence of collaboration has to be understood against a background

of an institutional culture. This is highlighted by other behaviour

in some of these pairs not yet mentioned. In two pairs, one of the

partners in each case periodically announced during a "go" being taken

by the other that they knew the current answer. Their reluctance to

actually say the word might be taken as reluctance to spoil the

other's turn. However, the manner of these intrusions did not suggest

this. They were announcements made with a more satisfied tone: as if

declaring a certain superiority. The link to institutional life

arises if we suppose that this kind of interaction reflects a

broader pressure to work independently: to become conscious of one's

own understandings as personal achievements.

A related point occurs more forcefully in the interactive style of two

further pairs. In these cases, there was an underlying impression

that one partner was quicker and more fluent at this task than the

other. Indeed, on their own turns, they each reliably found the

targets more quickly. In one of these pairs, this more able

individual conspicuously sighed and heaved on several of the

protracted turns taken by the other. While, in the other pair, on

several trials the more able partner adopted a distinct (and weary)

tutoring tone:


11A: Ummm (looking for key "b")

11B: Its somewhere near the h // (giving a hint)

Don't forget they're capitals (screen letters are lower case,

B assumes is A is confused

by upper case keyboard)

Through these examples, I am implying that a pervasive theme within

classroom culture may be the idea that, as a pupil, one is generally

supposed to solve problems independently. Computer-based joint

activities do not necessarily subvert this (although I shall argue

later that they have a special *potential* for doing so). The present

style of software may even present a task structure that reinforces

the idea of competitive and parallel (rather than collaborative) joint

activity. In that respect it may be counter-productive: providing a

different experience of joint work than that which teachers may be

intending to cultivate.

There is a further concealed feature in this kind of

task/culture/pairing blend that invites investigation. Where a

pattern of discrete problems prompts a turn-taking strategy and where

the turn takers display asymmetry of ability, then the superiority of

one individual relative to the other may become visible and potent -

to them both. This is not just a product of the sequential

organisation of the problems. In addition, these tasks often put a

premium on speed of response and they furnish feedback of a clear and

evaluative kind. In terms of events reported here, we may only

speculate. However, the slower individuals within the asymmetrical

pairs described above may have their attention rather explicitly drawn

to this discrepancy in ability. Of course, it is true that there are

many ways in which such differences are signalled within classroom

life. However, the direct and relentless feedback characteristic of

these computer activities may prompt a more vivid interpersonal

comparison - especially when received in the setting of a close

collaboration. Moreover, there is much evidence to suggest that

pupils of this age are able and inclined to judge their own

intellectual abilities in terms that are relative to their classroom

peers (Ruble, 1988). Some activities may furnish particularly

striking data that can feed such comparisons.

In the example of this simple language program, we have seen that the

nature of the social interactions supported can reflect structural

features within the contingencies of the program and can reflect

aspects of classroom culture. There is certainly a sense in which we

may want to say that - despite comparable levels of animated talk -

children may or may not collaborate when we put them together in this

way. What it is that is "resisted" within these turn-dominated

interactions, is the construction of mutual understanding through

shared reference. In the example of Anagram, the potential for

working this way is present, but limited. I turn next to

summarise what does constructed by those pairs for whom that potential

is, in some part, realised - and why it is necessarily "limited".

On cultivating shared reference

As I have already remarked, there is a straightforward sense in which

all these children have a shared object of attention. They are all

attentive to the computer display that presents the problem: they all

remain on-task in this sense, even when they do adopt a turn-taking

framework of coordination. However, orientation to the same display

defines a very limited sense of sharing reference. It may be what

leads us to claim that they remain *task*-engaged; it does not provide

an adequate basis for claiming that they are *socially*-engaged around

that task. What is required beyond this joint reference to an

external display is a *distribution* of attention across it. In

particular, in the case of the simple anagram program, what is

required is, first, a process of search (for the target solution) then

followed by a process of keying-in the response (itself, comprising a

sequence of letter searches). Thus, the collaborative achievement of

shared reference depends upon an active concern for coordination.

There must be a concern to coordinate reference with respect to the

sequencing of attention and action that the task contingencies invite.

So, in some of these anagram pairs, there is an apparent investment in

ensuring mutual recognition and identification of the target word:

8B: It's "one" isn't it? (This is the target word)

8A: Yea / right / o-n-e


That is, language (and perhaps gesture) is deployed to monitor that

both partners are attending to the same task feature at a particular

moment. A similar kind of investment may be evident during the point

where a chosen word is being typed in:

2A: OK / l // i // k // e (each letter is spoken by

A as soon as preceding one

is typed in by B)

2B: Right // what's this (Start of new trial)

This effort towards sustaining shared reference is brought into relief

by those turn-taking children who, during their partner's turn,

boast that they know the answer but are not going to say it. This is

a strategy that certainly reveals a momentarily shared frame of

external reference; but it also reveals a (considered) failure to

coordinate socially the distribution of attention within that frame.

These partners are doing the opposite of "collaborating" in this

sense: they are withholding the communicative contributions that could

ensure a fusion of reference at a particular moment - and which might

create a platform for subsequent joint action.

This notion of a "platform" - a shared position from which partners

investigate further - is one that I wish to elaborate. In the case of

Anagram, the opportunities for collaborators to construct such a

resource are very modest. They amount to no more than a possibility

of creating a mutuality of reference and attention that can govern the

next response in a cycle of action. There is barely any sense in

which that mutuality can influence subsequent decisions or can

otherwise accumulate to the advantage of the collaborators. If

mutuality were to accumulate in the course of joint problem solving,

then it could be characterised as an internal, private object of

shared understanding. In the next set of classroom observations, I

consider a task that seems particularly rich in its potential for

conjuring up this sort of shared object. That task is the requirement

for partners to compose a story at a word processor.






Computer programs of the kind described above are less popular now

than they were at the time my observations were made. Currently,

there is more enthusiasm for generic, tool-like software. Text

processing, in particular, is an activity that surveys suggest is now

widespread within primary education (Becker, 1991). Moreover, the

notion that children might use a word processor as a collaborative

activity has attracted particular attention. In fact, in Britain,

collaborative writing is now a National Curriculum attainment target

(DES, 1989a). Practitioner accounts suggest that collaborative text

processing works well (eg. Crawford, 1988). While more formal

observational research suggests an advantage for organising joint

writing with computers over its organisation with more traditional

media (Davies, 1989; Dickenson, 1986).

Children's early explorations of narrative structure is typically a

socially-organised affair (McNamee, 1979). So, it is natural to

invite pupils to compose stories as a collaborative task. Moreover,

the computer furnishes a setting for them that is well adapted to

joint activity. The product of writing is made equally visible to the

partners; there is no stigma attached to poor handwriting; any editing

that might emerge from discussion can be comfortably executed. In

fact, the example is a good illustration of how a technology

restructures an activity such as to afford richer possibilities of

collaboration (Daiute, 1985). A socio-cultural attitude towards

educational research will find the opportunities implied in such a

situation especially attractive to study.

Here, I shall report observations of 5 pairs of 10-year old children

composing a story together at their classroom computer (an Acorn BBC

Master, equipped with the word processor 'WordWise'). The procedure

was one with which pupils were familiar. Their teacher supplied them

with a one-sentence idea which they were required to use as a trigger

for their own story. In this case the sentence began: "the bus driver

forced on his brakes, but it was too late...."

The children worked at this task for a single session of around an

hour - in the longer cases incorporating a morning break period.

Details of this session length, the amount of talk within it, and the

length of the stories written are given in Table 7.1. It is clear

that there was a lot of talk and that it was fairly evenly distributed

within all the pairs: the dominance of the most talkative partner

varying across pairs from 57% and 68%. One option for systematising

this talk would be to code and categorise the individual utterances.

This might generate profiles for each pair describing, for example,

how many assertions, questions, challenges, endorsing remarks (and so

on) were made within the session. As stated before, I believe this is

a style of analysis that has some value but it is not the one that

will be adopted here. I am more concerned to capture how far partners

are socially "engaged", in the sense of being involved with

constructing and exploiting shared objects of understanding. This

requires examining the talk as coherent discourse - rather than

categories of discrete verbal utterances.

-------------- insert Table 1 about here -----------

How would a shared object of understanding be defined in the context

of composing a story? It might be identified with the text the

children write: the collection of sentences on their computer screen.

This is certainly available as an external, shared point of reference.

So, it might function rather as the display in the Anagram program

described above: an object over which children might chose to

coordinate the distribution of their attention. However, the children

make surprisingly little explicit reference to this product. In only

two pairs was there any re-reading of text further back than the

current sentence. And in these cases (two and three examples

respectively), this seemed to function only as a loose search for

reminders. It was typically read in a quiet, distracted voice (as if

awaiting some inspiration) and there was no explicit discussion of the

material reviewed in this way. While it may have triggered the next

suggestions that a partner made, such suggestions were not discussed

with any reference to text that had been read. On the other hand,

there was quite frequent re-reading of individual sentences during

mid-composition (on average, 38% of sentences got some review of this

kind). However, the purpose seemed to be more one of choosing the best

syntax, rather than furnishing an occasion for developing content.

Yet the transcripts of these interactions do often convey a strong

sense of children focussing on a shared object known to them both.

So, their discussion seems economical in a way that must be

presupposing of particular mutual knowledge. Moreover, as with the

Anagram task, there is also an impression of some pairs being more

engaged in this way than others. What I believe creates this

impression is an underlying variability in how much investment is put

into negotiating the narrative detail. In other words, for some

pairs, the talk is serving to create a relatively articulated (if

implicit) object available for shared reference. This covert

object comprises an accumulation of mutual understanding that

underpins the sentences selected for the final story.

We may be alerted to the fact that there is such an investment

"behind" the story by looking at particulars in the product itself.

Here are a few sentences from the beginning of two of them:

One day in September a coach tour was about to begin on Junction road.

It was going to London for three days with the new Zebra coaches...


One day we were taking some old ladies to London. They wanted to see

Max Bygraves. In one and a quarter hours they stopped to have some

grub. They had a cup of coffee and a glass of wine (very


The elements of this story have their own history. Some of it is to

be linked with very generally-shared cultural experience; while some

of it is more intimately linked to local knowledge. "Junction Road",

"Zebra Coaches", "Max Bygraves" and "old ladies going to London" are

all highly evocative - that is, they promote distinctive narrative

possibilities. Moreover, in these cases at least, such elements have

arisen from discursive processes in which their significance is

mutually established and agreed. Junction Road is a familiar route

near these pupil's school; here are the authors making a commitment to

this as one story ingredient and, in doing so, recognising its

narrative potential:

1B: You could put / like we were going along //

what road?

1A: Oak Tree Road / Oak*wood* Road // (Fictional roads?)

Say we were going along *Junction* Road

1B: Junction / yea

1A: Go on / make it Junction then the lollipop (Traffic control person)

lady can fall in.

1B: Alright

1A: They were going along Junction Road (Reciting possible format

for B to type in)

A similar process is illustrated in the following discussion from

another pair. Here they are concerned to establish characterisation

within the story. In terms of the way the narrative develops, their

discussion and decisions firm up the shared idea of a day trip

involving fun-loving old ladies:

5A: Where could we be taking them? //

To London?

5B: To Scarborough

5A: I know / think of a really old pop star

what grannies would like.

5B: I know / Max Bygraves.

5A: Whose he?

5B: That man who's on Family Fortunes //

says he can sing.

5A: What about that man // oh forgot what he

is called now

5B: Alvin Stardust

5A: I know / Russ Abbott // 'cos old ladies

would like him

5B: Oh no / he can't sing

5A: I know but he's funny

5B: I know // don't put Russ Abbott (Privately, has selected

earlier Bygraves;

this gets typed in)

At later points in the discussion of what to write, it is quite common

for the consequences of earlier understandings to work through; as,

for example, those established in the extract above. They surface as

an influence on current planning. For example:

5A: They sang Old King Cole

5B: We won't want any pop songs / 'cos

they're old ladies

5A: I know

5B: Think of one of Alvin Stardust's songs // (A sings)

What's that called?

In the following extract, an existing, already negotiated context is

invoked to support an interpretation of what could happen once the bus

had fallen down a deep hole in the road.

1A: Suddenly we heard a scream // the (Making suggestions

Lollipop Lady had fallen down // for typing)

No / we all looked up

1B: We wouldn't see anything except the roof

1A: There wouldn't be a roof / it didn't cave

in on top of us

1B: Were we on the top deck or the bottom deck?

1A: The top // but we stuck our head out the

window and looked up //

Right / so we stuck our head out (starts typing)

Characteristically, what gets agreed as the text to input conceals a

body of mutual understanding created in the talk preceding this moment

of typing ('it didn't cave in on top of us'). While further narrative

detail is agreed on the spot, in order to make sense of the current

proposal ('Were we on the top deck or the bottom?').

The process of negotiating a shared understanding is made all the more

visible by the children's sentence-by-sentence composition. There is

very little explicit long term planning. Each development in the

story is worked out at the start of each new sentence - although, as

noted above, care is taken to ensure that new developments cohere with

what has gone before. There are only a few cases of a new sentence

being launched without some advance declaration by the author for

their partner to register. (The few exceptions concern pair 4, one of

whom becomes impatient to finish the story in order that he can start

something else he is wanting to do.) Exactly what happens at these

points of composition reveals something of the collaborative process

in each case - as defined in terms of a concern for constructing

mutual knowledge.

So far, I have raised the idea of a common object of understanding

that is actively created within these pupils' collaborative discourse.

I have also illustrated how investment in this process results in the

construction of a platform: a position from which further composition

might economically proceed. Given this framework, we should next turn

to considering how the creation of such a platform is actually managed

through structures of talking. I shall explore this theme under

three headings below. The first identifies some of the particular

discursive strategies employed to refine shared narrative knowledge

that is genuinely mutual. Pair 5 are chosen to illustrate this theme

as they seem the most strikingly committed to getting this mutuality

right. Other pairs illustrate different themes that surface within

the constructive process, and these are covered under two further

headings below. In particular, I consider the possibility of

conflicting goal structures among partners; and also the notion of

differential ownership, as this might arise in relation to shared


Working to create shared knowledge


Pair 5 displayed the most active investment in negotiating and

refining the understandings behind their written narrative. Each

sentence was reliably preceded by some exchange that established the

next set of options in the story - although further negotiation would

also develop once the writing of a sentence had got started. On no

occasion did a member of this pair start typing a sentence without

declaring what they intended to write. It was also rare for a partner

not to react to these proposals: only two of the 16 sentences written

were begun without some verbal exchange around the proposed content -

and in each of these cases discussion started shortly after a few

words had been typed. In fact, the general impression created by most

pairs was one of composing to the following pattern: at each new

sentence, one partner would announce an idea; this was endorsed or,

otherwise, some discussion followed until a final form of words was

typed. Often this amounted to no more than a phrase, so that a

further period of announce-and-discuss would arise in mid-sentence.

In either case, it was also common for minor editorial suggestions to

be made during the typing of what had been agreed.

The pervasive tendency to declare text before it was typed conveyed

an impression of partners recognising the joint nature of the

task. However, it is from discussion around those declarations that

we get an impression of a richer *collaborative* engagement. For it

is there that shared understanding gets defined and is allowed to

accumulate. The simplest reaction to a partner's narrative idea is to

endorse it - either implicitly by silence (rare), or by some form of

explicit agreement. Other reactions become forms of elaboration or

challenge. So, the simplest way in which a declared idea for writing

becomes elaborated is through what we might term "associative

elaboration". In such cases, the idea becomes a prompt for a partner

to generate a modification by means of some natural semantic


5A: We could be taking // it could be a

school trip / or an old ladies outing

5B: Yea / a grannies' party

5A: Right // one day (Starts typing this)



5B: They had a cup of coffee

5A: And a glass of water

5B: And a glass of wine // and some wine (Writes this)


In the first exchange, a substitution for a proposed idea was

generated (grannies' party); in the second, the elaboration took the

form of an extension to the original proposal (*and* a glass of water)

which is then itself substituted (wine). There is no reasoning

invoked to justify the changes, but the associations create a

continuity across the partners' contributions. This suggests a

concern to converge upon the same object of shared understanding; the

acceptance of elaborations serving to sustain the construction of a


At other times, contributions were challenged rather than elaborated.

However, if partners were still working to sustain shared reference,

then we would expect to find these challenges accompanied by

commentary that makes some sense of rejecting the idea in question.


5B: Where could we take them to

5A: I know Scarborough

5B: Whitby

5A: No

5B: Thats too far away for them isn't it

5A: I know / sunny Spain

5B: You wouldn't get to Spain on a bus I don't think


The Scarborough-Whitby exchange is an associative elaboration

(both towns being seaside resorts in Northern England). Whitby

received the stark challenge "No". Interestingly, this prompted a

self-reviewing response from the original proposer: the rejection was

rationalised in terms of the place being "too far away". In this way,

some possible tension may have been avoided. While the next

suggestion (possibly frivolous) was also rejected, this time with the

listener furnishing the reviewing comment that makes some sense of

denying the speaker's suggestion.

Responsibilities for challenging a proposal and, then, reviewing the

basis for a challenge can be the reverse of what is normally expected

in argument. In the example below, the challenge came from the author

of the proposal ('hang on a minute..') while the reviewing commentary

came from the listener who found reasons for persisting with their

partner's original idea:


5A: We stopped to have our lunch (Proposal for text)

5B: And then had a little walk / hang on

a minute some of the old ladies couldn't

have a walk / some of them would be on


5A: No 'cos they would be on walking wheels

5B: Walking wheels?

5A: No / like crutches (Matter seems to be

settled by this)

In a traditional analysis of such talk, 5B's self-challenge

('hang on a minute..') might be coded as an utterance with a

particular pragmatic content: perhaps some species of articulating

one's own reasoning. Such a coding might then increment 5B's standing

(or the standing of the pair) on a researcher's summary statement of

their interaction. There is some value in this traditional analysis,

but it fails to address how such collaborative talk is effectively

occasioned. It fails to reveal how the talk arises from participation

in a set of particular circumstances. The talk itself is surely

unexceptional: we can be sure children deploy the rhetoric of

challenging, reviewing, reflecting and so on, as they argue in the

playground. The interesting question concerns how this rhetoric

becomes mobilised to support a schooled task - and, moreover, why it

becomes vigorously mobilised within some pairs but less so in others.

Here I am suggesting that the focus of our approach to such questions

should be on the nature of an evolving shared understanding and, then,

on a given partnership's varying commitment to investing in this. The

dialogue above illustrates how reasoning (in this case, about

narrative) may be motivated by a concern for respecting and

contributing to a jointly-constructed cognitive object - the context,

events and characterisations that lie behind and inspire a written

story. So, the same concern motivates my final example of discursive

effort clearly visible in these interactions.

Joint thinking of the kind promoted here will often take the form of

an exchange in which there is a convergence upon a solution, but not

by challenging and re-casting some initial suggestion in the manner

illustrated above. In these further cases, the reasoning is more of a

"calculation". The participants are seeking to refine a suitable

status or "value" for some story ingredient that they are toying with.

In the following case, the focus is literally quantitative in this


5B: So it took two hours (Planning to write)

5A: It didn't because


5B: it took two hours to (Thinks A has

get *half* way there misunderstood)

5A: It doesn't because my nanna lives in London

5B: And how long does it take to get all the way

5A: About five hours / right?

5B: So it'll have to be two and a half

5A: But we stopped for half hour lunch

5B: Did you // so that means it was four and a half

hours // so that would be two and a quarter

hours (Writes this value)

5A's contributions here have some force: she has been to London and

claims to remember the journey time. More often, these kind of

convergences can not be directed by reference to such external

authority. The criteria for decisions will be looser - more what is

amusing, or interesting, or consistent with the narrative so far. Of

course, in such cases, the argument may well turn on their common

access to a shared understanding about that narrative. Such

circumstances suggest that joint story writing is both a good and a

poor model system for considering schooled collaborations. It is good

because it does involve creating a form of joint understanding that is

particularly vivid. For the achievement is continuous with something

familiar in more playful experiences - fantasy-making in general. It

is a poor model system because conflicts over what should be said next

are not so easily resolved. There can often be no legislating

reference to some logic inherent in the joint knowledge that has been

created: a conflict can not necessarily be resolved by appealing to

some privileged way for developing an existing narrative.

Pair 5 seemed successful as collaborators because they managed

effectively the resource of such shared understanding. They

freely entered into exchanges that served to enrich the detail of this

common knowledge. Moreover, they used the resulting structure as a

platform for their joint progress: they appealed to it in order to

establish consistency and coherence for their ideas. In particular,

this effort was realised in an equable manner. In the next section, I

shall refer to dialogue from other pairs where the symmetry of making

contributions was not so striking. This raises the issue of partners

adopting differing responsibility for creating a structure of shared




On owning shared knowledge


Pairs 1 and 3 also engaged in some of the constructive effort

illustrated above for Pair 5. They were certainly as talkative and as

task-oriented (in neither pair was there any reference to off-task

concerns). Moreover, they were as concerned to declare, elaborate,

challenge, review and calculate the content of a shared knowledge.

Their talk exemplified the general processes that dealt with such

things and which were illustrated in the last section. What was more

characteristic of these pairs, however, was an asymmetry of

responsibility for the content of that common knowledge.

In Pair 3, the first sentences were characterised by give-and-take of

a kind that created for both partners a stake in the narrative:

3A: We have to name like three important people (= central characters)

3B: There were three *important* people going? (= special characters?)

3A: No / not like that / like *main* people (disambiguates)

3B: Like the bus drivers name // the bus driver

was called Alex

3A: No / put like there were three boys / yea

three girls like Vicki, Jean and Shelley

3B: They were going because they won a tickey

3A: Yea / they could have won a competition


Here A is concerned to establish the idea that there are to be three

principle characters and, then, who they should be. B's attempt to

include the driver is denied in favour of focussing on three children.

While B's later idea that these children had won the trip is then

accepted. In constructing later sentences, however, B's contributions

increasingly follow the fate of the bus driver example above. The

extracts below are from sentences 3, 8 and 10 respectively:

3A: It had gone 32 miles when they had the

first stop

3B: When the bus broke down

3A: When they had their first stop

3B: Yea



3B: At a cafe

3A: No / a restaurant // 'cos they wouldn't stop

at a cafe they wouldn't all fit in



3B: What did they eat?

3A: they had

3B: Egg

3A: A three course meal / including

3B: A cup of tea afterwards // no including VAT

3A: No // including the drink

3B: Including the drink of cocoa (A writes: 'Including the

drink with it')

This final case is typical; all B's specific contributions (egg, tea,

VAT, cocoa) fail to get incorporated. Perhaps the general idea of

drinking was hers, but that was probably already implicit in A's 'meal

including....' For most of the sentences composed by this pair, B's

contributions were either acknowledged and rejected or re-cast.

Although often this might involve some sense-making by A, as in the

second of the three three extracts above.

The interaction of Pair 1 was similarly asymmetrical, although the

dynamic of their exchange was different. B makes one suggestion early

on that is taken up: in the first sentence she proposed that the

characters are on the bus because they are 'going to the pictures'.

However, thereafter, although she remained engaged with the writing

and the composition, all the contributions originated from A. This is

not because A re-casts B's ideas (as in Pair 3 above) but because B

makes very few specific suggestions. Instead, she participated by

querying all A's input. It is not clear if this persistence occurs

because A never gives ground to negotiate an option, or whether B has

adopted a sceptical attitude for some other reason of her own.

1A: We had already begun to fall down the hole

1B: It wouldn't have been that deep / we'd soon

hit the bottom

1A: Not if it landed on a load of things



1A: When we hit the bottom everyone began to panic

1B: Not everybody would // the driver wouldn't

1A: I would if I was him



1A: When she got to the top / she pulled the rope down

1B: This lollipop lady isn't going to do all these


1A: She would

1B: Probably she'd bring down the food and somebody

else would do the rest

1A: No she'd go up and then throw a rope down to us

/ and hold it at the top

1B: I don't think she'd have enough strength / this

lollipop lady

A (amicably) persisted in her suggestions, justifying them by appeal

to the variety of possible motives and circumstances that a

still-developing narrative can furnish. B also persisted in

challenging most of these suggestions. The result is a sense of both

partners oriented to shared knowledge but (as with Pair 3) a concern

for ownership that leads one partner to take responsibility for most

of the final content. In Pair 3, this is accepted harmoniously; while

in Pair 1, the situation creates more of a tense atmosphere.

Evidently, for these pairs, there is a perfectly proper sense in which

the knowledge base supporting their talk can be said to be "shared".

It is known to both partners and it, thereby, provides the necessary

basis for new narrative ideas that either of them may propose.

However, we also see with these pairs how it need not be "shared" in

the sense of co-constructed. While the talk of both partners may

address a common object of reference, the form that object comes to

take arises from contributions that are more the responsibility of one

partner. I can not pursue empirically the significance of this

asymmetry; however, I believe it requires us to consider a feature of

pupil collaborations that has been neglected by developmental

psychologists. That feature is the *affective* dimension of this

joint activity.

There is not enough relevant data to allow reasoning about the

emotional tone of the interactions described here so far. For

example, it is true that Pair 5 convey an exuberance that might be

associated with their equable investment in creating joint knowledge -

an achievement that then can support them in story-telling. However,

this observation is merely one of correlation: it is not clear whether

effective co-construction is directly arousing in this way, or whether

it is a mere correlate of something else that is. On the other hand,

the idea surely resonates with our intuitions about successful

collaborative thinking. Building a resource of mutually familiar

understanding is often an emotionally engaging experience; perhaps

because of a certain intimacy that it affords. The achievement allows

us to communicate on a topic in a heavily presupposing way - something

like what we do when reflecting more privately on the same topic.

This observation suggests *negative* affect could arise within these

interactions. In particular, this might occur when collaboration

requires that a partner must deploy shared understanding to which they

have *not* been allowed to make a fair contribution. This might be

the experience of partner B in Pair 1 described above.

In the interactions studied here, there is one further basis for a

less than successful construction of shared knowledge. This concerns

the motives that participants may have for engaging in the joint

activity involved.

On the goals for shared knowledge


In this section I shall briefly refer to the interactions of Pairs 2

and 4. They also made a more modest investment in shared understanding

but not for reasons of any asymmetry in the making of contributions.

For these pairs, the achievement of mutual narrative understanding

seemed a less important goal of the activity. Evidently this is a

straightforward way in which collaborations may be less successful:

the setting does not motivate the construction of mutual knowledge.

In the case of Pair 2, both partners contributed to the development of

a story: that is, the constructions written can be traced about

equally to each person's contribution. All of what was written was

publically declared before any typing started. However, these

contributions were not refined and enriched within the talk. On only

three occasions was there any challenge or elaboration of a proposal.

In one case this was to maintain consistency with narrative events

that had been established earlier. Much of the talk was about the

mechanics of writing the story. Thus, 52% of the dialogue concerned

the keyboard, spelling, checking how much had been typed, or reciting

words in synchrony with the typing. We can not claim that these

pupils were not engaged with the task (they talked continuously and

rarely referred to off-task concerns) and we can not claim that they

did not each make contributions to the overall activity. However,

their contributions were not oriented towards the construction of a

social resource that that might empower the story-telling. It is not

reasonable to speculate here as to what their primary goal might have

been. It seemed to be more related to the delivery of a product that

was too narrowly defined - understood only in terms of being a certain

length, grammatically accurate and so on. Thus, the creative

possibilities of a collaborative orientation to shared understanding

was poorly motivated in this pair.

In Pair 4, the shortfall had more to do with *competing* goal

structures among the participants. During the first half of the

session, they developed shared understanding of the story much as Pair

5. However, partner B increasingly presses contributions that would

bring the story to a quicker end. At the start of the extracts

below, A refers to the fact that B is anxious to finish and do

something else ('your animal thing'):

4B: That can be the end // we got out of the hole

4A: No / just because you want to do your

animal thing

4B: But what can we put?

4A: We can put we went down caves / we left the

people in a safe cave

4B: But we already got them out



4B: We are not going to put them in caves //

They are not dosey you know

4A: No / we are going to put them


4B: They could walk home

or jump in the bus

4A: We put them in a safe cave / right?

4B: Thats going to make it a funny story


The dialogue proceeds in the manner illustrated above. The challenges

from B entail alternatives, the effect of which seems to be to make

the story come to a speedier conclusion. Evidently, the prospects for

creating a resource of shared knowledge do depend upon both partners

framing the goals of the exercise in similar terms. Where this has

not happened and where there is some incompatibility of the goals that

have been set (as here), then the experience of collaborating may be

less positive.



Summary comments on joint story composition


Compared to the Anagram task discussed earlier, composing a story

involves a more elaborate investment in creating common ground. The

task provides a rich opportunity to achieve some intimacy and scope

of shared knowledge. One suggestion has been that this achievement is

emotionally gratifying. However, we have also considered obstacles to

satisfactory building of shared knowledge, and they may generate more

negative experiences among the collaborators. For example, some

partners may work to claim greater ownership over the knowledge that

is shared. Others pairs may fail to end up working from a rich common

knowledge, because they differ in their understanding of the purposes

driving their joint activity.

In all, the close consideration of these interactions highlight three

important points. (1) Collaboration is clearly seen to involve an

active concern for the construction of mutual understandings. The

extent to which collaborators are engaged in this has been overlooked

in more traditional psychological analyses. (2) The object of shared

understanding that can emerge within a collaboration needs to be

properly understood. For example, the case a shared *narrative*

understanding can be problematic because partners may have to deal

with an uncertainty as to how a new narrative proposal is properly

legitimatised in reference to the existing structure. (3) There are

various obstacles to the construction of shared understanding that is

endorsed and respected by both partners. Such obstacles may be

inevitable but they may also be more effectively anticipated with

suitable attention to task design, task description, the clarification

of purposes and, perhaps, social knowledge about the partners


The present account highlights the importance of collaboration as

involving a concern for shared objects for reference. In Anagram, the

screen display furnished such an object: an external stimulus that

could serve to organise the distribution of partners' attention. In

telling a story the shared object becomes something less visible -

certainly, something beyond the screen display. However, some caution

is needed in pursuing an analysis of this sort. It might not be

helpful to reify what it is that can get created within a

collaborative interaction. It might not be helpful to cast this

achievement in terms that inevitably suggest a slightly mysterious

sort of "object", suspended somewhere between the collaborators. Such

language may be of some shorthand use - as long as it is not developed

in too literal a spirit. It certainly helps keep in mind one

important idea: that effective collaborators are able to coordinate

the focus of their interest or attention - that they have available a

distinctively shared point for reference in their deliberations.

Perhaps this is why a metaphor is useful here. It helps us keep in

mind some key feature of what we are trying to understand. That

feature may offer helpful implications for how we organise research:

in this case, towards clarifying the discursive management of joint

attention. By the same token, Edwards and Mercer can usefully invoke

a variant of their own on the basic metaphor:

Overt messages, things actually said, are only a small part of the

total communication. They are only the tips of icebergs, in which the

great hidden mass beneath is essential to the nature of what is

openly visible above the waterline. (1987, p.160)

Perhaps 'icebergs' serve to distract us from the coding and counting

of utterances. The metaphor encourages, instead, the framing of what

is said at a particular moment in terms of a more extended discursive

effort: a context that is not adequately specified in terms of events

visible only at the moment of interaction. This is a helpful


Referring to 'objects' (including those of Artic proportions) can,

therefore, be productive. However, as observers, our access to what

has been achieved remains located in whatever discourse and action we

are able to witness. Analysis should not become preoccupied with

abstracting from such events some independent cognitive 'object' of

social origin. One way in which what is typically achieved during

collaboration can be expressed more precisely is by incorporating

reference to an essential mutuality. Partner 'A' knows things

relevant to the problem at hand and arising from previous

collaborative action; 'A' also knows that partner 'B' knows that 'A'

knows these things; moreover, 'B' knows that 'A' knows that 'B' knows

them also....and so on. Thus, what they have achieved is based upon

the possibility of such intersubjective understanding. However, the

achievement is still not an inventory of social actions to be

comprehensively reproduced by researchers: talking of cognitive

objects here does not take us that much further forward. We may make

most progress if, as researchers, we concentrate our attention on how

language and action is deployed (i) in the interests of elaborating

and refining this common understanding and (ii) in ways that take such

understanding for granted and, thereby, help focus more precisely what

gets done next.



The first task (Anagram) described in this chapter illustrated a

rather poor structure for collaboration. The program did not readily

offer pupils a resource of mutual knowledge. It provided no

opportunity for the *accumulation* of shared experience. If such an

achievement was possible at all, it was through orchestrating joint

attention towards the modest events that defined a particular anagram

problem. However, the cycling pattern of *self-contained* trials

provided no strong motive for such coordination and, instead, pupils

often adopted an attitude of alternating "goes". In contrast, the

story-telling of the task discussed above provided a more effective

vehicle for this co-construction of understandings. The final

achievement in this case is richer, but also more subtle. It is not

some stimulus array located between the collaborators. The object of

joint attention - the narrative knowledge - is something more private.

Fortunately, preschool children's experience with socio-dramatic play

will equip them very well to coordinate their interests towards

creating such a resource.

Yet, the familiarity and appeal of narrative formats does not mean

that creating shared knowledge around a story is going to be

unproblematic. Appropriating story-making to become an activity for

the classroom requires the imposition of certain extra demands that

might not arise in more playful arenas. In particular, there is a

pressure for closure: a pressure on the story-writers to persist

towards the production of a single object. Tension may then arise

because of a looseness to the authority that any developing narrative

can claim over the individual collaborators who are constructing it.

So, if their individual contributions diverge, there may be no easy

appeal to the *necessity* of a particular narrative route.

There is a popular category of early educational software that seems

to exploit some of the potency of narrative understanding, while

creating for decision-making a clearer source of authority: one that

collaborators might productively refer to in their discussions. Such

software uses the metaphor of an "adventure". Normally, this involves

programming a problem-solving activity to be represented in some

narrative format. Thus, pupils follow through a story, becoming

participants by responding to various challenges or puzzles that are

arranged to occur. Their responses may determine the course of the

story, or their own fate within it. The example to be discussed here

is the program "Granny's Garden". This has been an extremely popular

activity within British primary schools (Bleach, 1986) and there are

numerous accounts of classroom practice that claim the program can be

a good stimulus for collaborative work (eg., Farish, 1989; Hill and

Browne, 1988). Pupils move though a sequence of text-and-graphics

displays by making various keyboard responses. Sometimes these

responses will be the answer to puzzles that have been posed in the

current display. These puzzles usually involve reasoning or

remembering in relation to events or objects in the story. This

particular story entails searching for a number of royal children

kidnapped and hidden by a wicked witch. The pupils' journey starts in

Granny's Garden and goes through four distinct sections with their own

motifs and themes. Each section concludes, hopefully, with the

discovery of one of the four missing children - or, where things go

wrong, with the witch sending pupils back to the start of that


The same pupils who worked on the Anagram task (described earlier)

were subjects for the observations made here. Twelve pairs of 7-year

old children used the program on five separate sessions. The final

two of these sessions provided material for the analysis reported

below. Their speech was preserved on a video recorder along with the

corresponding computer screen displays. This talk was transcribed and

annotated with material recorded by an observer present in the

background of these sessions.

In carrying out such a task collaboratively, what possibilities exist

for pupils to create shared knowledge, and how may it then be called

upon to support collaborative reasoning? As claimed for the

story-writers above, the knowledge that collaborators share within

this activity goes beyond their joint access to the transient events

portrayed on screen displays at a particular moment. It is knowledge

that has accumulated during the course of coordinating activity

towards such events, but over some period of time. It is narrative

knowledge but, unlike that of the story-*writers*, it is less of the

collaborators' own making. Yet, this knowledge is not imposed either:

not to be defined merely in terms of the story designed by the

programmer. In other words, a particular pair of pupils will know

about their own circumscribed experiences of engaging with this story.

They will know about particular decisions they themselves made in the

narrative sequence; they will know about particular consequences and

their reactions to them. Here are two pupils calling upon such shared



3A: Where shall we go? (Of four locations)

3B: The stairs?

3A: No / 'cos the snake remember

3B: We've never been in the backroom (An untried location)

3A: I know // if there's anything like you have to

pick up / we won't // in case we get caught

Certainly, there are constraints to what is understood; they arise

from contingencies programmed in the adventure. However, there is

also an open-endedness. These pupils have had a *particular* set of

encounters with that narrative and, from such experience, they now

share distinctive memories and concerns. In the example above, this

is reflected in apprehensions they have about snakes appearing, and in

projections they make that any objects accidentally encountered might be

usefully avoided.

For purposes of appreciating more of where this joint knowledge was

constructed, the talk of these pairs was separated according to its

relation to the contingencies of the task. Distinct sections of talk

were marked on the transcripts and, across the pairs, the mean

percentage of the conversational investment at each point was noted.

So, on the average, 19% of talk was concerned with input matters

(i.e., reading from the screen) and 14% was concerned with output

matters (keying-in responses). 6% of talk made very general

references to the activity or its execution (i.e., evaluative comments

or comments not relevant to the current problem). Remaining were

remarks about the current problem or the question currently posed (44%

of talk) and, finally, remarks about the outcome or consequences of

decisions (17% of talk).

Mutuality was most clearly created within the discourse making up

these last two categories. For example, "outcome" talk is

particularly effective in establishing overlapping versions of the

events comprising the adventure. There was a great deal of evaluative

and emotive reaction in this talk. In the example below, the children

are reacting to a character in the story who asks for the children's

favourite food and then (invariably, it seems) comments that the food

makes him sneeze:

9A: I know why he sneezes at every food we mention

9B: Why?

9A: 'Cos he sneezes wherever he is / he sneezes

whatever he's doing or wherever he is

9b: What if we put pepper so he really would sneeze?


Their spontaneous commentary on the narrative serves to increment

their joint understanding of events, contexts and characters. This is

similarly illustrated in the further examples below:

10A: Here's the Raven coming

10B: He's flying down to see what we are up to


2B: I don't like bees // they sting you

2A: But this one is our friend

2B: I know but


2B: but this one is our friend

4A: Hey // it looks like Brian from the

Magic Roundabout

In the above, Pair 10 are watching a bird that crosses their screen

and who is introduced early in the adventure as a creature that will

help them: the children's talk serves to personalise further their own

participation in the story. Pair 2 are reacting to a bee who has

appeared with the possible intention of helping them in relation to a

particular problem. Again, they seem to be establishing their

attitude to this character: locating him in relation to their joint

engagement with the story. 4A is forging a particular link to a

popular character known to them both through video tapes.

From encountering the narrative events, from developing an

interpretative commentary about them, and from a history of deciding

about how choices are to be made, these pairs will construct their

distinctive version of the narrative. Moreover, it will be mutually

understood: each member of a pair can project this understanding into

their partner and exploit the mutual knowledge when they come to

reason about decisions to be taken at any particular juncture in the

adventure. This is very similar to the analysis of story composition

offered earlier in this chapter. Except that, here, the format

involves pre-established relationships and contingencies in the story

and these carry a certain authority in terms of decisions that have to

be made. This is particularly felt where children are re-tracing a

section of the narrative (perhaps having been returned by the witch to

an earlier starting point - by way of penalty). More simply, it will

be felt where options for a current decision are constrained by what

has most recently been done, and this will have to be jointly



6A: Where do we go now?

6B: Not the cupboard 'cos we been there

// not some stairs / no way (Acts scared)

6A: Only got three left then // kitchen?

6B: If you want to (Not hopeful)

6A: No I think the witch is there // let's go

upstairs / 'cos we got an apple remember

6B: What will that do / because the snakes upstairs

6A: And we throw the apple at it

6B: And what will that do?

// the witch will come wont it?

6A: Yeah (Sounds deflated)

If the children are to reason about the problem in the adventure,

then part of what must be achieved is an agreement about what has

already happened to them. So, as in the example above, the talk will

sometimes be deployed in the service of a collective remembering

(Middleton and Edwards, 1990). The above example also illustrates how

*inferred* aspects of shared memory may inform the reasoning that

takes place. Thus, the remark "'cos we got an apple" leaves a lot

unstated. Partner A's assumption is that B knows that apples promise

a kind of insurance because - from past experience that they have

shared and know to have shared - throwing apples at threatening agents

can get you out of trouble. (B, however, also recalls that the witch

will sometimes appear on these occasions and successfully reminds A of

this possibility as being more likely - at this point.)

There is a significant general point within that last example. If we

study discourse in order to clarify that shared knowledge is in place

and that it is informing the present solution of problems, then we

face a curious difficulty. For, where there is a well-developed

shared knowledge, an important consequence will be an economy in what

does then need to be said. This collaborative achievement allows

participants to assume that the context or background to their remarks

is known; so they need say less. Thus, our difficulty as observers,

is that this knowledge-building achievement must be traced by us more

in terms of what is *not* said. This may be felt as an awkward

challenge by researchers whose training encourages them to index the

social purposes of talk by coding and counting distinctive kinds of


As an exercise in building and reasoning from shared knowledge, the

adventure game format has a lot to recommend it. The appeal and

accessibility of the narrative structure effectively motivates mutual

engagement in the task. Moreover, the pre-set nature of the

underlying adventure provides an external authority for evaluating the

decisions that collaborators make. Under these circumstances, it

seems less likely that asymmetries in the working arrangements will

arise. The following passage is relevant to these observations. The

children are deciding which of a number of foods they should throw, in

order to tame a particular dragon:


5A: Oh / try chips

5B: I don't think we've any chips left

5A: We should have been counting //

We should have a piece of paper

5B: We can't use chips

5A: Try them / and see what happens

5B: Well / it's your fault if we get caught you know

The third person plural references indicate a strong degree of mutual

engagement in the activity. Their problem with choosing chips

indicates how much decision making in this kind of activity relies

upon fairly straightforward remembering: recalling either what

happened on a previous occasion or what they have just done. In this

sense, the activity is very limited - the underlying contingencies in

the narrative are not programmed to vary between occasions of use. On

the other hand, the extract above illustrates how reasoning in this

framework can still sometimes be a potent experience: by encountering

limits in their capacity to jointly remember events, these children

reflect on the value of developing a strategic approach based upon

pencil and paper. Finally, the extract illustrates that a fracturing

of the collaboration can still occur. Where they are forced into

making a sheer guess, the assertive partner faces it being "your fault

if we get caught".

The Adventure format is recognised in early education as a structure

that is engaging and that supports joint work. It illustrates an

ingenious transformation of children's playful interest in narrative -

borrowing it to support the organised presentation of schooled

problems. I have indicated how this format allows pupils to create

shared understandings; this can then serve as a resource for the

management of joint reference during problem solving. In the longer

run, an analyses such as this should contribute to refinements in the

design of classroom materials (eg., educational software) - so as to

make them more effective for collaborators. I will conclude with two

observations relevant to that practical aim. The first concerns how

we may go about further clarifying the nature of the joint knowledge

arising in activities like Granny's Garden. The second concerns the

recurring theme of managing asymmetry in the joint activity.

For any activity of the present kind, it will be important to evaluate

the extent to which the potency of shared understandings depends upon

them having been co-constructed. For example, it would be possible

for two pupils first to use an Adventure program separately. They

might then come together and reason in a lively and effective way,

based upon inferences about what the other *ought* to know. A

collaborator would naturally make assumptions about their partner's

knowledge of this program - in the same manner that they would make

assumptions about a vast array of worldly experience that a partner

might have, some of which might be relevant to the current problem

solving. On the other hand, the dialogue recorded in this study

displayed a good deal of more intimate reference. The partners would

often refer to what happened last time *they* did something, or they

would make idiosyncratic evaluative comments that could not be

be part of knowledge shared with a new partner. An interesting

challenge for research will be to evaluate how important this more

intimate sharing of experience is in sustaining an effective

collaborative effort. Children working with the same partner across a

series of problems may develop more flexible strategies and greater

success than children working with a different partner at each

occasion (Goldberg and Maccoby, 1964). Others studies suggest that

partners can require several sessions to develop an effective problem

solving style (Forman and Cazden, 1985).

My second observation arising from this activity concerns how the

structure of the program affords more or less equable patterns of

engagement. Asymmetries of this kind were less evident than in the

other tasks described in this chapter. The fact that these were the

same children who acted rather un-collaboratively on Anagram reminds

us of how important those structural details are for determining the

dynamic joint work. However, in 7 of these 12 pairs there was a

reliable (occurring on every session) asymmetry in the responsibility

for reading text from the screen. Moreover, the dominance of screen

reading correlated significantly (r = 0.80) with dominance in

controlling the keyboard for moving the adventure sequence forward.

Subsequent to the collaborative sessions described above, individual

children were asked to work through the first part of the activity

alone. The median time to move through each frame of the story was

recorded and correlated with their dominance when collaborating. This

was also significant (r = 0.68), such that the fast individual readers

were those who tended to control the display during collaborations.

In a very straightforward way, this relationship suggests how

computer-based tasks may have structural features that constrain or

facilitate certain patterns of joint activity around them. The

framework of socio-cultural theorising tends to encourage analysing

cognitive practices in terms of these affordances. What is needed is

a more lively empirical interest in exploring them.





The examples discussed above illustrate how various circumstances of

collaboration present their own distinctive possibilities for the

creation of shared knowledge. The goals of any given problem-solving

task and the contingencies within it will structure a setting in

terms of such possibilities. Thereby, they will permit a resource of

mutual knowledge to be developed with more or less effectiveness. I

am suggesting that the potency of any setting for the support of

collaborative learning depends upon its potential in this sense. If

partners are able to create a well-articulated object of shared

reference, then they will have equipped themselves with a real

platform for exploratory discussion. In studying such occasions, the

significance of particular instances of rhetorical talk between

collaborators needs to be analysed in respect of its relationship to

this shared knowledge - and not just enumerated into a profile of

utterance categories.

Given our interest here in new educational technology, the relevant

questions must now concern how computer-based tasks can be best

designed to resource this 'common knowledge building' enterprise. I

will conclude this chapter by reporting on an development exercise of

my own that was inspired by this concern. My aim was to take an

existing program of modest effectiveness and refine it for the

specific purpose of better supporting collaborative engagement. The

program (Factor Snake) was described in some detail within Chapter 5.

In that context, it served to illustrate the limitations of a

computer-based experience that was not assimilated into the mainstream

of teacher-class collaborative talk. In the present context, I am

considering more its limitations in respect of supporting another form

of collaborative exchange: that between pupils at the time that they

are using the program.

The program could be regarded as an animated version of Dienes Blocks:

these are familiar classroom materials for visually representing

numbers as rectangular arrangements that illustrate their factor

structure. For example, the number 12 could be represented as various

matrices - 1 x 12, 2 x 6, 3 * 4 etc. (see Figure 5.1). The Factor

Snake program represented a number by continually winding and

unwinding (snake-like) a set of small squares: this sequence covered

all the possible factor matrices for a given number. The speed of

this animation was such as to make it difficult to count more than

about 7 squares in any given line. Guessing the value of larger

numbers therefore depended on attention to the factor structure of a

matrix. The pupils thereby executed some arithmetic calculating (eg,

4+4+4 or 3 x 4).

This program was used periodically across a school year in one

particular top infant class (children aged between 6 and 7 years in

their third year of schooling). The present observations were made

towards the end of that year and involved two groups, each comprising

10 pupils. Group 1 used the program in a standard format throughout.

Group 2 did also, except on the final three sessions of the year, when

these pupils were provided with an extra programmed resource (to be

described below). Comparisons reported here between the groups are

based upon the very last session of each, during which video

recordings were made.

The standard format for the program was as follows. Children had to

estimate a succession of values taken by this animated snake: we may

call these efforts "trials". The set sise for possible snake values

was incremented on each new trial, thus making the task progressively

more difficult. Correct estimates resulted in a screen-based score

being increased by the value of the current snake target. Incorrect

guesses resulted in feedback and a resetting of the score: target set

sise was also reset and a new sequence of trials initiated.

Estimating involved using a mouse-driven screen pointer to select a

number (from a screen bank showing 1-59) corresponding to the current

snake target. During the year, the program had been set to deliver

target numbers only in rectangular matrix form. For these final

sessions, numbers were described by non-rectangular matrices. These,

therefore, would be unfamiliar shapes; they demanded calculating a

matrix value and adding the "extra" number of squares appearing as an

incomplete bottom row. In summary, children had to deploy their

emerging knowledge of factors to make estimates of

visually-represented numbers that could not always be directly


The extra resource provided for Group 2's final sessions might be

called a "workpad". In relation to the building of shared knowledge,

it was designed to provide an external support for such efforts. It

was to be a tool towards which collaborators could direct their

attention and action. By placing their pointer on a particular screen

icon, a 4-cm square writable area appeared on the display. When the

pointer was in this area, clicks on the mouse button caused one small

fixed square to be drawn at that point; these squares were the same

dimension as those making up the snake (that continued to wind and

unwind at all times). Pressing again on a workpad square drawn in

this way would erase it. The net effect is illustrated in Figure 7.1:

it must be imagined that a pupil is aiming to make a (static)

reproduction of one of the factor matrices that constitutes the

current snake. Evidently, the construction of this replica requires

the children to attend directly to the parameters of the target


Initial impressions from recording of the interactions suggested a

noticeable difference between the groups. This is certainly reflected

in the overall amount of talking. While Group 1 were quite lively,

there was 30% more talk among Group 2 children. However, this

difference will not be our main interest: it might be expected, given

that the workpad created more involved contingencies for Group 2 to

talk more about. What is of greater interest is the effect of this

feature on the *distribution* of talk within the pairings.

Consideration of this returns us to the issue of turn-taking as

discussed for Anagram above.

It might be thought that the structure of this task mitigated against

a turn-taking pattern: if a partner adopting such a strategy gets a

wrong estimate on their turn, then the scoring is terminated and the

activity is restarted. This is to the disadvantage of both partners.

Accordingly, these pupils did not organise their "goes" on this basis.

Instead most of them exchanged control of the mouse (and most of the

estimating) as soon as an error had been made (and the score,

therefore, reset). Under such a system, it is even in the interests

of turn-taking partners *not* to be helpful: for they may want their

partners to make and error and, thereby, effect the changeover. In

reality, no collaboration was as ruthless as this analysis might

imply. Perhaps the passive partner realised that the activity was

bound, eventually, to go beyond the ability of the currently active

member: goes rarely lasted longer than 5 minutes. In any case seven

out of the ten Group 1 pairs showed concern with respecting turns; as

did nine out of the ten in Group 2.

However, the atmosphere among Group 2 pairs was more in keeping with

what we might expect from "collaborators". While there was this

pervasive concern to distribute responsibility for controlling the

computer, these children's discussion was far less suggestive of a

rigid turn-taking regime. This difference between the groups was

evaluated by considering more closely the final two runs of estimates

made by each pair in each Group. Only comments directed towards

estimating a current target were considered (teasing "I know it" kinds

of comments were omitted). For each run, a partner's contribution can

be expressed as a percentage of this total talk; then the mean of the

higher figure taken from each of the two runs is an indication of the

overall asymmetry of talking within a typical run of estimates. This

was reliably lower for Group 2: indicating a more equable distribution

of constructive talk in the condition where a workpad was made


To the casual observer, this difference is visible in the form of a

more sustained engagement by Group 2 members with *all* the successive

problems they witness. In terms of the concepts of mutual

understanding being developed in this chapter, this difference also

may be expressed by claiming that Group 2 children had possession of a

more potent resource for developing and exploiting shared reference.

Talk within this Group was typically of the form:

6A: Wait 'till it splits up

6B: Is it 12?

6A: Not quite sure

6B: OK try it in the box (Means workpad)

6A: 3 fours and a two // 3 fours and a two

6B: It's 14 / I think

6A: Put another four

6B: Hope this is right

6A: Josie / just do 3 fours and a two

6B: I don't like this (Nervous of making

the estimate)

6A: We did better than this last time anyway


The pair are using 'the box' to replicate one configuration of the

number 14. Superficially, the impression is that they are working at

it "together" - certainly, the third person plural references were

more typical of Group 2 pairings. In this case, the partners refer to

the fact that they 'did better [score] than this last time [sequence

of problems]': so they characterise the overall enterprise in a manner

of joint responsibility, even though there remains a concern to

alternate control of the mouse.

We may say that the workpad has furnished an external point for the

fusing of partners' attention and their action. It is evidently a

more compelling focal point than, say, the display presented by the

program Anagram. This is because the pairs of children are able to

manipulate the workpad and discuss interpretations of what happens

when they do so. The device certainly serves to support shared

reference by effectively coordinating the moment-to-moment actions of

responding to the estimating problems. However, it may also support

the building of a more subtle form of shared understanding: a

mutuality that develops as each particular pair accumulates their own

experience in using it. Consider again the fragment of discourse

reproduced above. Once transcribed, such talk generally reads as

rather sparse. Recurring comments of the form '3 fours and a two'

only make real sense when encountered as situated in relation to the

screen display. Yet, an interactive workpad may be particularly

effective in making concrete and communicable just this kind of sparse

representational talk about numbers. The collaborators have access

to a (shared) device for supporting talk about structural features

of a number. We may suppose that young children's problems in

collaborating around the abstractions of mathematics are partly to do

with them (normally) *not* having a concrete and shared resource for

instantiating the abstract (Turkle and Papert, 1991; Wilenski, 1991).

The workpad here serves to support collaboration by offering a

concrete, shared reference for the "manipulation" of numerical





In introducing this discussion of collaborations *at* computers, I

expressed doubts about the strategy that researchers have favoured for

analysing such interactions. Analyses based only on coding,

categorising and counting utterances fail to do justice to

collaborative encounters as states of social engagement. My

particular concern in this chapter has been to illustrate an approach

to such encounters that would respect this dimension of engagement.

In doing so, I have identified structures of shared reference as

central to what participants may strive to achieve within joint

problem solving.

The nature of this mutual knowledge may be very different for

different kinds of task. Sometimes it may be entirely represented by

an external stimulus array (Anagram). In such a case, attention must

be distributed across it in a coordinated fashion if there is to be

productive collaboration. At other times, it may be expressed in an

abstract structure that is largely created within conversation (the

narrative of story-writers). We may suppose that all such objects of

joint attention will be potent insofar as they readily afford

manipulation and exploration by the collaborators. Narrative formats

work for this purpose - up to a point - but other abstract joint

knowledge may be more volatile. Thus, the trick to successfully

supporting much collaborative work in classrooms may involve

confronting pupils with abstract material within concrete and

manipulable representational formats. Indeed, studies of group work

practices in classrooms already hint that this is significant. For

example, Bennett (1991) reviews studies that grapple with the

correlates of effective group work. He finds that young pupils are

selective about when they are reticent. They do not collaborate

easily around abstract material such as that encountered in maths

work; yet they are quite forthcoming in situations that offer more

exploratory possibilities: 'It seems as if, given the opportunity to

talk about action, the children will take it' (1991, p.591).

Often computers may turn out to be a special resource for creating

such opportunities.

As was discussed in Chapter 3, the design of computers (their

localised input and output devices) demand a narrow focussing of

attention and action. Their interactivity also offers rich

possibilities for exploratory manipulation. In particular, the

powerful graphic capabilities of new technology can render abstract

material manipulable in concrete formats. Emihovich and Miller (1988)

have noted the advantage of such representations for integrating talk

and activity among pupils and *teachers*. Here, we are considering

that the same capabilities can be important in supporting shared

reference among pupils themselves - as they collaborate. My own view

is that computers can be especially effective in this arena. However,

this is not the same as simply noting that computers seem to engage or

animate pupils when they use them in their classrooms. The analyses

in this chapter highlight an underlying variety in this engagement;

the important challenge is to determine when and how the creation of

shared understanding is embedded in these lively interactions.

The studies reported here were conceived to explore the dynamics

of shared knowledge during collaborative computer work: how

collaborators invested in its creation, what form that creation took,

and how it could be exploited as a platform for reasoning. Thus, very

little of the research has conformed to procedures of

*experimentation*. Yet, there is room for experimental work in this

area and such research would be welcome. There is a much-cited study

by Malone (1981) in which a compulsive computer game is dissected to

determine which of its components serve to motivate users so

effectively. The concern of this study is evidently with the solitary

user. But, as reviewed earlier, much educational application of new

technology arranges more peer-based practices of working. So, it may

be useful to apply Malone's analytic approach to the study of

software features relevant to social patterns of use. Thus, we may

come to understand more about how structural details of educational

software support or constrain the possibility of collaborative work.

I am sure such research will have to dwell upon the special potential

of this technology for cultivating rich frameworks of shared