Lifting the School Mat: An Investigation of Pedagogy and Children's Social Worlds at Mat Time
Primary school teachers’ use of whole-class activity is a well-documented phenomenon. Typically, it is assumed that children’s active participation in group tasks is important for their academic learning and for developing self-concept. However, previous studies have found that children’s participation varies widely. The present research set out to investigate why individual children’s participation differs within the peer group during whole-class activity. Teachers’ pedagogy and children’s social worlds intersect during classroom interactions; it is in this intersecting space that this research is situated. One specific whole-class activity was chosen as a focus, namely mat time. This is a practice whereby the teacher calls the entire class to the mat typically for the purposes of instruction, discussion, or other similar activity. To understand mat time from the perspectives of the people who experience it, two studies were undertaken using a mixed strategy approach for data gathering. The first study investigated teachers’ perspectives (N=296) using a questionnaire. Participants were asked about a variety of themes relating to mat time including pedagogical uses, strategies, and outcomes. Principal components analyses confirmed the approximate uni-dimensionality of the data relating to each theme, which were then calibrated to a measurement variable using Samejima’s (1969, as cited in DeMars, 2010) graded response model. Various correlations and comparisons were conducted pertaining to the pedagogical factors influencing children’s participation, behaviour, and enjoyment. The second study used qualitative semi-structured interviews with children (n=49) from three year two classrooms situated in different schools. The data were analysed and discussed in relation to peer culture and peer-relations theories, which posit that children’s social groups consist of norms and interests that differ to those of adults’, and that such groups consist of internal social hierarchies. Taken together, the findings from the two studies indicated that teachers and children differ in their perception of the social climate at mat time. For instance, whereas teachers tended to report that mat time achieved prosocial objectives, children were more likely to describe socially divisive aspects. Such aspects included certain children’s desire to affiliate with specific peers while excluding others, or promoting their own participation over that of classmates. Seating position and opportunities to take active roles were sources of competition. Children’s differing participation was influenced by their individual strategic understandings of how to secure active roles, social support, and academic confidence. Furthermore, teachers generally reported that children were inattentive during mat time, suggesting that it may be an ineffective context for learning. Nevertheless, when teachers were cognisant of children’s interests, they tended to report better participation across the class. The implications for teaching practice include an onus for teachers to actively protect vulnerable children during mat time, socially and academically, and to ensure that opportunities to take part in activities are equitably distributed.