A review of two articles about the development of social skills in young children.
This paper provides a review of two articles that focus on the development of social skills that will arguably enhance a child’s social capital. Porath’s (2009) research paper appears to have provided evidence that a teacher’s instructions during pre-school education can act as a pathway from one stage of child development to the following stage of development, and in so doing, building social skills and presumably enhancing social capital. Anderson’s (2008) article seemed to suggest that the classroom can be used as an area in which to develop social skills, thereby enhancing a child’s social capital. ‘Social capital’ is concerned with the development of ‘trust between people’ to generate ‘strong social networks’ (Hargreaves, 2001). Both articles will be analysed to assess how they relate to one another and various elements of each, including their approach, assumptions, research tasks and findings will be compared and contrasted. Prior to this analysis, there will be a brief discussion of the research process, detailing the focus, rationale and search procedures for this paper.
The research focus and rationale
The two papers were specifically chosen for this review because they deal with a similar research area, the development of social skills in young children, which arguably enhances social capital and academic achievement. The topic of the development of social skills was chosen as the main focus of this review as a result of my belief that social capital is a vital component of a young child’s development, particularly primary school children, and it is improved with particular social skills. Interestingly, most papers have been written by male researchers. The two papers selected for review are based in countries that do not share the same educational system, and were written almost at the same time, in 2008 and 2009.They have been written by female researchers; many papers have commonly been written by male researchers. The two papers were also chosen because they had contrasting paradigms and contrasting methodologies. Anderson’s (2008) research derived from an educational economics perspective, whereas Porath came from a developmental psychological perspective. Anderson (2008) applied a quantitative research method and used statistics to produce her results and Porath (2009) used a rather more qualitative research approach, although she applied a standard deviation test to the measures of the children’s narratives.
Time was spent initially refining the review’s focus, including a definition of boundaries. Various key words, such as social skills, social capital, primary school instruction, pre-school and academic achievements were identified in order to use various means of electronic searching. As Evans and Benefield (2001) and the Open University (2007) discovered, some relevant papers were unavailable as a result of copyright/publishing issues but time did not permit a hand-search, which would have been the practice if writing a complete review. After extensive electronic searching, no articles with an identical focus of social capital, using two different research approaches were found. Consequently two papers were chosen that discussed the development of social skills, in the belief that social skills, as mentioned above are essential for developing social capital. Anderson (2008) linked the development of social skills in the classroom to the enhancement of social capital. Porath (2009) implied that social skills tend to enhance social capital. The influence of political agendas was prevalent and reflected in a large proportion of the papers. A lot of the USA and UK papers were responses to intervention programmes, often government sponsored. Indeed, Anderson’s (2008) paper is based on a series of intervention initiatives. Much research has concentrated on examining the outcome of specific intervention methods funded partly by various governments, for example, the SEAL project, (Hallam, 2009; Humphrey et al., 2009, 2010a, 2010b; Lendrum, et al., 2009 and Thompson and Smith, 2011). Politically sensitive issues, such as truancy, Thompson (2011), delinquent behaviour and mental health, Wells et al., (2003).
Over the past decade, world-wide concern has emerged over the social capital of young people. It is reflected in a growing number of research papers in this area. This is partly in response to civil order issues (Petrides, et al., 2004). As recently as the summer of 2011, riots occurred in three major cities in the UK during one week. Mainly young people looted and destroyed property. As a result, a wide-ranging dearth of social skills was identified together with a general lack of empathy.
The need to give attention to moral and ethical values is now a fast growing issue. Some of these concepts are explored in Anderson’s article, for example ‘respect, trustworthiness, honesty, empathy’ (2008: 448). This paper will now turn to an analysis of both research papers, commencing with Porath (2009) article.
Fostering social expertise in early childhood
Coming from a developmental psychological perspective, Porath (2009) made the following assumptions before she commenced her research (See Appendix 1, for a copy of the article). Studying expertise is an important strategy for building knowledge of children’s development and for designing appropriate instructional support for children that can optimise successful development (Porath, 2009: 94). She viewed social expertise as set out in the definition provided by Gardner (1983). It is the ability to perceive and make distinctions in the intentions, motivations, points of view and emotions of other people (2009: 94). By knowing children’s current level of conceptual understanding and the next step in the developmental sequence, a conceptual bridge can be constructed from the current to the following developmental stage (2009: 96). Drawing on the work of Bereiter and Scardamalia (1986), Porath argued that bridging can be perceived as a transition from novice to expert understanding (2009: 96). Thus, a conceptual bridging approach to instruction may be useful for developing social expertise in early childhood (2009: 96).
The research aimed to study an instructional teaching approach designed to support the acquisition of social competence based on the framework of Case’s neo-Piagetian theory, within developmental psychology. The focus was on how young children understand the intentions of others (Porath, 2009: 93-4).
The research involved two phases, conducted a year apart.. Consequently there were two different classes and two different teachers. The children were chosen in the following way. The teacher nominated 5 children who were socially mature (these were the expert group for the first phase), and 5 children who were having difficulties with social adjustment comprised the novice group, for the second phase of the study. A further 6 children were included in each phase who had an average language ability. Thus, 22 children comprised the total sample population. The children were kindergarteners in a working class parochial school in Canada. Presumably they were from working class homes, although of course they may not have been. The children’s pre-instructional developmental level was ascertained by Porath when she requested the children to ‘tell a story about a birthday party’. They were specifically scripted stories that involved action, without the protagonist’s feelings or thoughts. The children then had a pre-research task of retelling a story with a problem and that problem was resolved, taking into account others feelings within the story (Porath, 2009: 97).
The research tasks
The children received an instructional program based on that developed by McKeough and Sanderson (1996). The instruction involved using visual mnemonics in comic-strip frames with icons to illustrate the mental states of the characters to help the children attain and understand intentional understanding (Porath, 2009: 97). The results of the first phase of the research provided information for the second phase. Children perceived to be ‘socially at risk’ participated in an instructional program created to develop more expert social understanding. In that phase, instruction was designed to increase social capability through the teaching of children’s literature. Sixteen instructional sessions were conducted by Porath in the role of a teacher. The children were gradually encouraged to elaborate their stories (2009: 98-9).
The research produced the following findings. All of the children taking part in the research moved from ‘landscape of action’ stories to stories that connected actions to a ‘landscape of consciousness’. Their stories became more elaborate and their vocabulary increased significantly, furthermore, their use of words describing emotion, that is their psychological vocabulary also increased. When the study ended, the researcher concluded that ‘the children demonstrated the ability to transfer their intentional knowledge to understanding peers’ and teachers’ intentions in classroom situations’ (Porath, 2009: 99-100). Such findings appear to indicate that the children moved from a lower level of social competence when discussing their intentional knowledge to a higher level of social expertise when they transferred such knowledge to the intentions of other children and the teacher.
Social capital and student learning: Empirical results from Latin American primary schools
Joan B. Anderson
Anderson’s (2008) research comes from an educational economics perspective. She made the following assumptions about social capital before she commenced her research (See Appendix 2, for a copy of the article). She drew on work by Putnam (2000) and Hargreaves (2001). She noted that ‘social capital involves mechanisms through which knowledge can be transferred from one person to another’ (Anderson, 2008: 439). She also noted that social capital has various social interaction assets, such as values, norms, honesty, trust, reciprocity and collaboration (Putnam, 2000, cited in Anderson, 2008: 439). Social capital is seen as belonging to the community rather than the individual. It functions within the quality of relationships between the individual parties that form a group (Hargreaves, 2001). If trust is undermined it may destroy social capital (Anderson, 2008: 440). She has found that some research has reported that the effects of developing social capital within the classroom, for example, with co-operative learning techniques, such as ‘Kagan Structures’ (Kagan, 1989) are linked to learning (Anderson, 2008: 440). Anderson’s paper talked specifically about social capital as a value to student learning and academic success.
The paper aimed to empirically test ‘the contention that more social capital is associated with more learning’ (Anderson, 2008: 440). She used statistics to estimate the effects of social capital within the classroom on learning achievement in fourth grade children and the probability of promotion in teachers in four Latin American cities (2008: 440). Furthermore, in line with the majority of quantitative empirical research her research aimed to answer particular research questions, as follows:
(1) … does the level of social capital within the classroom matter for student
learning? (2) How important is social capital between students and their classmates
relative to between students and the teacher for increasing learning? (3) Is social
capital equally effective in poor and non-poor classrooms or is there a difference
in how social capital affects learning between them? (Anderson, 2008: 440).
Participants and data
The participants in Anderson’s research comprised of the parents of 2048 children, the teachers of these children and their school principles or administrators (Anderson, 2008: 440). The data was the result of a previous research project in 1999 (Anderson, 2005). For the 2008 study, the original sample of 2048 fourth grade students was stratified into half from poor and half from non-poor neighbourhoods (Anderson, 2008: 440).
Methodology and research tasks
Anderson’s used a quantitative research approach for her methodology. She used questionnaires and observation as her research instruments in the following way. Proxy variables using examination results, together with thirteen pre-identified indicators, were used to analyse responses to questionnaires from the parents of 2048 children; the children’s teachers and their school principals or administrators, along with 96 sets of observations by the researchers of the classrooms involved (Anderson, 2008: 440). The questionnaires dealt with ‘cross-city effects of social capital within the classroom on language and math achievement’ (2008: 440) and focused on both poor and non-poor school variants, such as social capital, teachers’ level of experience, equipment, facilities and their affects on academic success (2008: 440).
The research produced the following findings in relation to the three research questions. In response to question (1), social capital between all the groups examined, ‘contributes significantly to language and math achievement and the probability of promotion’ (Anderson, 2008: 447), additionally, a ‘top-down hierarchical school leadership tends to undercut’ and can even destroy social capital (2008: 448). In response to question (2), it was found that ‘the effectiveness of social capital is related to the amount of human and other capital’ (2008: 448), and there is a need for the ‘teacher to create an atmosphere of community in the classroom’ (2008: 448). Finally, question (3) was answered by the findings that ‘social capital between children matters more in non-poor neighbourhoods’ (2008: 447) and poor neighbourhood schools do not attract older, more experienced teachers (2008: 448).
Synthesis of the two papers
Anderson’s (2008) research derived from an educational economics perspective, in contrast to Porath’s (2009) developmental psychological perspective. Each paper used a different methodological approach as noted above. Porath used a qualitative research method to encourage children to provide narratives of stories. The children provided natural accounts in a school classroom. A standard deviation test was applied to the measures of the narratives, whereas, Anderson applied a quantitative method to her research and used statistics to calculate her results. The questionnaires contained the same list of questions covering a set research variables that the research was designed to answer; each teacher had to respond to each question. Anderson’s paper talked specifically about social capital as a value to student learning and academic success. Porath’s paper talked more about the social skills that a child can develop in the classroom and these arguably are an important element for enhancing social capital. Interestingly, Anderson used a range of poor and non-poor children in her research and Porath used working class children.
Critical evaluation of the two papers
Several elements of Anderson’s (2008) research can be challenged. Her research was conducted with children in their fourth grade, but the age range of a fourth grade child or the age at which children are usually admitted to school is not stated. There are additional difficulties in drawing this data together as four different countries are involved where primary school ages vary, as follows, Santiago 5–13 years; Belo Horizonte 6–9 yrs; Leon 6–12 yrs and Buenos Aires 6–14 yrs. A fourth grade child, therefore, could be either 8 or 9. The omission of these important pieces of information leaves assumptions up to the reader, which could jeopardise the validity of findings especially if used as comparison data.
A misunderstanding arises in Anderson’s work. She stated that ‘four questionnaires were developed and administered’ (2008: 440). This is not the case. Three questionnaires were administered in addition to researcher observations in 96 classrooms in her earlier work (2005: 212). This fact would not be apparent unless the reader had accessed the original report of 2005. Although not of major significance, it causes the reader some unnecessary confusion in interpreting the findings.
Porath’s (2009) participants were children in a kinder garden in Canada. However, different countries have different start ages for pre-school education. Consequently they will have different levels of ability when they start school and it is difficult to generalise about her findings.
The Porath research appears to be more tightly focused. Although it had a smaller sample than that of Anderson’s research, Porath as the researcher, in her role as the teacher, was directly involved in the research tasks and she made her assessment of the results based on audio tapes, video recordings and transcriptions of the children’s narratives. She obtained the findings directly after conducting the research. It appears to have been a natural research context. Anderson’s research findings, on the other hand, were obtained from data collected as part of a larger project. She used structured questionnaires with set variables designed to answer the research questions. It was not a natural context. Furthermore, she made assumptions about the participants simply because she had not observed the collection of the data personally, as Porath did in her research. For example, she assumed that ‘children from families with higher economic status and /or more education are able to develop higher levels of social capital in the form of networks’ (2008: 443). Porath’s qualitative research has focused on human interaction and Anderson’s quantitative research has a more economic perspective and less focus on natural human interaction.
It is proposed that basic social skills, as taught in preschool groups, be amplified to include all of primary education. They should not be add-on options, e.g. the SEAL project, but should form the foundations and main supports of the learning framework. This need is amplified due to the fact that ‘skills need to be acquired when people are usually least able to take in new information and learn new habits of response’ (Goleman, 1996: 266). There could be no better stage than the classroom to develop such habits. Social skills need to be second nature to individuals in order to avoid unnecessary conflict situations. The ability to read, write, use and understand basic mathematics should form the basis of primary education, based on a bedrock of social skills. The two are inseparable and arguably should be re-united immediately. As Hargreaves stated ‘high levels of social capital in a school strengthen its intellectual capital’ (2001: 490). Together they should form the basis of primary education today.
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