Research Associate Bethan Brown blogs today on the importance of strong peer relationships in education
Looking back at my time in university as an English Literature student one thought will always spring to mind: the ribbing (mostly light-hearted) we got from other students because of our reduced taught contact hours. Science students would moan that they were working flat-out, with 35 hours of mandatory, face-to-face lectures or seminars each week, while Arts’ students merely had to roll out of bed once or twice a week for the occasional lecture.
An entertaining view perhaps, but it’s a load of rubbish. While the Science students were being spoon-fed by their lecturers, we Arts’ students were working hard learning the secrets of self-motivation, independent thought, and trying to sound like an expert on something we only read a few days ago.
As an Arts’ graduate I am particularly interested in understanding the implications of spending such a significant time period in self-directed study. The reduced time spent in such proximate contact with lecturers meant that ‘study groups’ were valuable. These groups consisted of around four or five fellow students who met up for a couple of hours each week to discuss seminar topics and engage in group activities. They provided an opportunity to bounce ideas off one another and often served to solidify personal thoughts on a particular text. The ability to collaborate on particular issues offered insight that I could never have come to on my own in the library on in front of a laptop screen.
POSITIVE PEER INFLUENCE
Reflecting upon my university career, I can see that the benefits of these study groups went far beyond educational value. My peers offered emotional support and motivation to carry on into the early hours of the morning to meet that essay deadline, for example. Moreover, though study groups were implemented by the course conveners themselves, (and attendance was mandatory) my experience was that time spent with peers was highly sought after, and many of us held impromptu meetings in the library café so that we could read over each other’s work, discuss ideas and generally offer support and be supported. Ultimately I believe that it was precisely this sense of connectedness with my peers that meant I enjoyed my experience, and so ultimately flourished and achieved well at university.
It is perhaps unsurprising that positive peer-to-peer relationships (such as those I have discussed in the context of my own experience) are also vitally important earlier on in education. My own reflections on the positive impact that connectedness and relationships with my peers had on academic achievement is supported in various studies. For example, a longitudinal study on the interactions and relationships between peers in school carried out by Furrer and Skinner (2003) found that a child’s ‘sense of relatedness is vital to their academic motivation.’ Moreover, it was found that ‘children who [were] neglected by their peers, who experience more loneliness and social isolation [are] more likely to become disaffected from academic activities and eventually leave school’.
Influential attachment theorist John Bowlby (1973) said ‘Human beings of all ages are happiest and able to deploy their talents to best advantage…when others are standing behind them’. This offers valuable insight into the need for humans to have the space to build and maintain good relationships, and that means throughout all educational experiences, particularly secondary schooling.
So, what are the implications? Well, we need to invest more time in enabling children to foster good peer relationships across school-life because it is so imperative to their development of self-esteem, happiness and motivation…all things that will feed into their ability (and desire) to succeed. This carries across the school day; from in the classroom, where collaborative group work has been seen to vastly improve academic ability (in line with those like Vygotsky who proposed that higher mental functions such as thinking, learning and problem solving – or the awareness and understanding of self – could only be acquired through social interaction’) to unstructured breaktime or playtime.
Unstructured breaktime is something to be protected (particularly in the wake of recent times that have seen a decline in the amount of time allocated to breaktime). Particularly of interest here is the case of the Thomas Deacon Academy in Peterborough that in 2007 made the decision to take out unstructured breaktime altogether, under the logic that children should be treated as adults, and that breaktime could easily be replaced by PE). Such statistics in decreased break and playtime is most probably due to the negative aspects associated with it, such as bullying. However a Children’s Society national survey revealed that Students say that the best thing about schools is the chance to meet their friends. Further to this, it is breaktime that offers the main forum for social life and well-being at school. Developmentally, pre-school aged children are egocentric, and unable to understand the needs of others. It is through conflict (which may well arise at playtime or breaktime) and resolution, that enables children to appreciate that not everyone shares their point of view – something which will equip them for adult life.
Vass, E and Littleton, K, “Peer Collaboration and Learning in the Classroom” in The International Handbook of Psychology in Education, (Emerald Group Publishing Limited 2010), p.107
 Blatchford, P and Baines, E. “Peer Relations in School” in The International Handbook for Psychology in Education, (Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2010), p.231
http://www.theguardian.com/education/2008/mar/04/newschools.schools (accessed 21/02/14)
 Blatchford, P and Baines, E. “Peer Relations in School” in The International Handbook for Psychology in Education, (Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2010), p.237
 ibid p.237