Original Research Paper
Children as Teachers: Creating Opportunities for Children to Share Expertise with their Peers
By Penny Smith
Smith, P. (2012). Children as teachers: Creating opportunities for children to share expertise with their peers. NZ Research in Early Childhood Education Journal, 15, 84 -101. Retrieved from http://www.childforum.com/research/2012-nzrece-journal-articles/887-children-as-teachers-peer-tutoring.html
In early childhood centres young children have the opportunity to interact with their peers in a play based environment. Play takes a central role and is a way by which children may challenge and extend each other’s thinking. Current accounts of how children learn and develop recognise the importance of peer interactions in this process. The study presented here explores how children worked together collaboratively and as peer tutors in two early childhood centres. The study investigated the strategies children adopted when teaching their peers and examined the role of the teacher and the learning environment in supporting collaborative endeavour. The key factors which impacted on the types of experiences children had with their peers are identified in this paper along with suggestions for how teachers can support collaborative endeavour and provide meaningful opportunities for children to teach their peers.
Key words: Peer tutoring, peer collabouration, learning, tuakana teina.
This paper reports on peer learning which took place in two early childhood centres. The study centred on peer tutoring and peer collaboration as related processes which are central to children’s learning. It explored how peer tutoring and peer collaboration takes place in a play based environment. In this paper, I share findings from the case studies and implications for teacher practice. Initially an overview of some of the key theoretical concepts related to peer learning and a rationale for the study is presented. An explanation of the methods and data analysis process follows, before the paper outlines the main findings and concludes with implications for practice.
There are many explanations of cognitive development and learning. Social constructivism provides one such explanation which is relevant to this study on peer learning. Social constructivism is underpinned by Vygotsky’s cultural historical approach in which learning and understanding are regarded as a social endeavour. This approach has resulted in the increasing recognition of learning and thinking as a social act rather than an individual activity (Daniels, 2005; Wertsch, 2002). The terms peer tutoring and peer collaboration are central to the current study and the literature on peer learning clearly distinguishes between the two terms. Tudge (2000) explains the difference in terms, distinguishing between peer collaboration which occurs between peers of equal status and peer tutoring which happens between children who have different levels of competence. For the purposes of this study, the following definitions are used:
- ‘Peer tutoring’ “involves an experienced peer assisting an inexperienced peer in completing a task” (Johnson-Pynn & Nisbet, 2002, p. 241).
- ‘Peer collaboration’ occurs when “everyone has a more or less equal role in constructing knowledge. All members of the group, whether a whole class group or a small one, have equal value although their contributions are various. Collaborative learners complement and build on each other’s views to construct shared knowledge” (Hargreaves, 2007, p. 188).
The ideas of Barbara Rogoff (1990, 1998) have contributed to social constructivism and are significant here. Rogoff (1990) emphasised the importance of the collaborative aspect of cognition, as leading to a level of understanding which children working alone are unable to achieve. As children move towards this new level of understanding, they are involved in a process which Rogoff (1998, p. 690) terms a “transformation of participation”, in which individuals develop knowledge through involvement in shared endeavours. As they participate in learning experiences with their peers, their knowledge is transformed. This process sits within a “community of learners” model, in which learning is a result of on-going involvement in sociocultural activities (Rogoff, 1998, p. 715; Brown, 1994). Within a community of learners model, children learn in an apprenticeship process as less experienced individuals are guided and supported by more capable peers. In order to better understand this apprenticeship process, Rogoff (1998) proposes the use of different planes of observation and analysis to consider learning through three different foci. These are termed the intrapersonal, the interpersonal and the institutional planes of analysis. The focus of analysis can be on individuals, their interactions with others or on the institutional or community context which learning occurs in. Any one of these planes can be in focus while the others remain in the background.
The New Zealand early childhood curriculum Te Whāriki, (Ministry of Education, 1996) emphasises social constructivism. There is acknowledgement of the importance of relationships and this includes the collaborative interactions that children engage in with their peers. The document also reinforces the notion of learning occurring through individual exploration of the surrounding environment. This reference to children learning through exploration is one aspect of the document which reveals the presence of a cognitive constructivist paradigm which sits alongside the strong sociocultural base underpinning Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education, 1996). The presence of both sociocultural and cognitive constructivist and other developmental theories has created a tension in the document for teachers as they seek to interpret and define their role in children’s learning (Cullen, 2001).
Rationale for the study
There exists a large body of research which examines peer tutoring in the classroom context (e.g. Belsham, 2000; Chung & Walsh, 2006; Rowe, 2002; Wood & Frid, 2005). The children in these studies are typically paired together and the environment is configured to specifically support opportunities for children to tutor each other. There is less in-depth study of peer tutoring within the context of play based environments commonly found in New Zealand early childhood settings. When embarking on this study, I wanted to find out what peer tutoring looked like in an early childhood setting where there are numerous opportunities for children to direct their own learning alongside their peers.
The following questions formed the basis for this study and are listed below:
- What specific strategies do children use as they collaborate together and tutor each other in an early childhood setting?
- How do children learn from each other?
- What knowledge do early childhood teachers have about peer learning?
- How do the knowledge, beliefs and skills teachers have inform their practice in this area?
- Does a play based environment provide opportunities for children to work together as peer tutors, and if so how?
Case study approach
A case study approach was used to gain insight into peer tutoring within two full-day early childhood settings catering for children from birth to five years. Case studies investigate the complex, dynamic of relationships and events, providing a rich, detailed description of a particular setting or event (Denscombe, 2007).
The data collection began with a series of familiarisation visits to each centre which provided an opportunity for relationship and trust building. A series of five two-hour written observations were then conducted at each centre and these focused on the children, the teachers and the learning environment. The observations recorded the collaborative interactions children had with their peers, instances of peer tutoring and informal conversations I had with children as they played. In talking with the children I aimed to find out their conception of the teaching and learning process. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with two teachers at each centre with the aim of ascertaining the teachers’ understanding of peer tutoring and to discuss relevant play episodes which were captured in the observations.
The data analysis occurred on two levels. Constant comparative analysis (Mutch, 2005) enabled me to make sense of the complex data and to identify the main themes and patterns as I examined the observations, conversations and interview transcripts. Further analysis of the data was undertaken using Rogoff’s (1998) three planes of analysis. These enabled an examination of the children’s learning on different levels. This included a focus on the participation of individual children (the intrapersonal plane), a focus on the interaction between the child and others (the interpersonal plane) and a focus on the surrounding learning environment (the institutional plane). This analysis included the participation of the teachers across the three planes.
Permission to carry out the research was granted by the Massey University Human Ethics committee. The ethical decisions made in this study were guided by a focus on relationships. Care was taken to establish trust and to ensure open, clear communication with the participants. Cullen, Hedges and Bone (2005, p. 2) term this a “relationships perspective” and they emphasise its importance for small-scale qualitative studies. As this study involved young children, there were particular considerations which needed to be adhered to. As the children being observed were under the age of five, parental permission was sought. When observing the children, on-going consent was sought and any questions which the children had were fully answered. Any unwillingness to be observed was respected. Sensitivity to the needs of young children was a priority, for example privacy and fatigue (Cullen, Hedges & Bone, 2005). In primarily taking the role of a non-participant observer (Mutch, 2005) it was not apparent to the children not being observed that they were not part of the research. Pseudonyms were used for each early childhood centre and for the teachers and children involved.
The findings revealed several factors which impact on the types of experiences children have with their peers. These factors are considered in the following discussion in relation to the framework of Rogoff’s (1998) planes of analysis.
The early childhood centres involved in this study operated different philosophies of practice; the way the daily routines were organised, children were grouped and the arrangement of the physical environment differed between the two centres. Teacher beliefs about their role in children’s learning influenced how they supported opportunities for peer learning.
The nature of the routines became an important focus of the study as routines were found to impact on opportunities for children to engage in sustained play with their peers. The teachers at Centre A were committed to providing long periods of uninterrupted play for children to mix with their peers. Centre A observations showed sustained episodes of collaborative play which were initiated by the children and children were busy in their play but not hurried in their interactions with each other. Wood (2004) supports the value of uninterrupted time for children to play together, stating that it allows time for children to become engrossed and to work in-depth with each other. The data from Centre A contained many more episodes of peer tutoring than the data from Centre B, where in contrast the daily routines were a focus for the morning schedule.
The teachers at Centre B worked hard to maintain a consistent plan for the day so that the same things happened at the same time during the day. However, this resulted in interruptions to group play. The children were called together for morning tea and lunch times. This meant that play stopped and children would have to hurry to complete their activity. For example:
Beverley comes over to the table and gives the boys a two minute warning for lunch. Harry responds by saying to Martin “oh no, so we need to build our pretend house quickly”. They keep sawing and Mark and Ollie are busy hammering alongside them. The bell rings and Harry and Martin reluctantly down tools. (Ob, p. 6, 21-24).
Taking children to the toilet on a regular schedule was another example of a routine which changed the direction of the play. These interruptions often altered the children’s position or role as a player. Both Pohio (2006) and Claxton and Carr (2004) warn about the restrictions which routines can place on children’s ability to spontaneously engage with their peers.
(b) Mixed age grouping
Children’s experiences with their peers were found to be enriched if they could interact with children across a range of ages. The results showed that the younger children observed and then imitated their older peers; language was an important aspect of this imitation. These results provide support for mixed age groups as these provide important opportunities for younger children to work with their more capable peers who are an important source of language and knowledge (Vygotsky, 1978). It is important to note that the literature does provide some evidence which suggests that the benefits of mixed age groupings may be less obvious and possibly negative for older children (Brownwell, 1990; Goldman, 1981). Bailey, Burchinal and McWilliam’s (1993) study of mixed age groups with children aged between two and five found that in fact teachers need to provide flexible scheduling so that children can experience the benefits of both same age and mixed age groupings.
Both centres catered for mixed age groups of children but there were differences in how the children were grouped during the morning (the time of day when the observations were conducted). At Centre A, the children were placed in mixed age groups for small group activities. They also ate their morning tea and lunch with peers of varying ages as they could choose when they had their food. This recognition of opportunities for tuakana teina (older children supporting younger children) is noted by Haworth, Cullen, Simmons, Schimanski, McGrava and Woodhead (2006) who emphasise that these opportunities mean that the tuakana (older child) can scaffold the teina’s (younger child) learning, “providing active teaching of skills and knowledge” (p. 41). In contrast, the children in Centre B were often grouped according to their age for morning tea and for the morning mat time. At morning tea, there were up to four different tables with similar age children at each table. This meant that opportunities for the older children to take on an active role and assist their younger peers were missed, because the teachers took on this role.
(c) The role of the physical environment
The provision of enclosed spaces in both centres encouraged sustained role play and the careful addition of props was found to further provoke children’s thinking and increase the complexity of their play. All of the teachers interviewed emphasised the need to provide children with spaces out of traffic areas where children can direct their play. Rachel (teacher at Centre A) suggested that children like enclosed spaces because it gives them privacy away from adults to carry on with their play in an uninterrupted manner. Her belief in this was reflected in the way she consistently extended children’s collaborative play by changing the environment to build on the children’s developing ideas; for example one morning she constructed a house under the fort outside. This led to sustained play as a families game developed over the course of the morning. Support for this finding comes from previous research into collaborative play by Arthur, Bochner and Butterfield (1999) and Pohio (2006). These previous studies highlight the importance of deliberately configuring the environment with cooperative play in mind. An environment that promotes collective activity does not just happen by chance, but is promoted by teachers who recognise opportunities where they can support and extend children’s ideas (Pohio, 2006).
In addition to enclosed spaces there were some particular features of Centre A which encouraged the children to initiate play with their peers. One such feature were the kai (food) tables which were set up in a quiet area and the children could come and go as they wished, the atmosphere was unhurried and relaxed. The children could choose who they sat with and this supported friendships amongst children of different ages. As a result, children lingered and engaged in many conversations which became a catalyst for the group play that followed. The social benefits of peer interactions are well documented in the literature (Chung & Walsh, 2006; Goncu, 1993; Katz, 1989) and the organisation of the kai tables in Centre A provided a physical space where children could cultivate friendships which were further developed in the play that followed.
(d) Teachers’ knowledge, beliefs and philosophies
There seemed to be a complex relationship between teachers’ beliefs about how children learn and practices within the centres. The teachers at Centre A stated that it was important to ensure a balance between teacher-led activities and play that was initiated and developed by the children. Rachel for example said:
Children are able to complete their project they have started without routines being a priority. Many a time a child had started an activity and it’s a routine that takes that away. I’ve seen so many times where children’s activity has actually been packed away because the routines take priority. There’s nothing worse, or its time to pack up and they haven’t actually finished or completed (R, p. 1, 32-33, p. 2, 4-5)
This balance was achieved by the provision of long periods of uninterrupted play and a rolling snack and lunch time. Group times were short and infrequent so that play was not consistently interrupted. Many episodes of complex group play taking place in this centre were identified, suggesting that this approach was part of beliefs and practices in this setting.
The teachers at Centre B also emphasised the value of child initiated play for providing valuable opportunities for peer learning; however sustained opportunities for this did not occur during the morning schedule due to the nature of the centre routines. This revealed a mismatch between the teachers’ beliefs and their practice. Nuttall’s (2004) research about curriculum negotiation in a New Zealand childcare centre identified a similar divide between teachers’ beliefs and practices. Nuttall (2004) identified conflict between the teachers’ official definition of curriculum and actual practice which centred around adherence to the daily routines. In the present study, the daily routines at Centre B were found to inhibit the children’s ability to sustain collaborative endeavour with their peers. This was despite the importance that the teachers from this centre placed on the value of uninterrupted time for children to direct their play.
One of the research questions underpinning this study sought to investigate the knowledge that teachers have about peer learning and how this informs their practice. The teachers were asked how the requirements of the national curriculum, Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education, 1996), influenced their role in children’s learning. All of the teachers said that they found this question difficult to respond to for a number of reasons. These ranged from Emma who said it was hard to know how to use the document, to Beverley who said that teachers use it without even realising it. Caitlin described it as a guide for reflecting on practice and Rachel stated that she relied on her own experience and knowledge to guide her involvement in children’s play. Here is Emma’s response –
I think it’s a good overview, but it’s like you need to think how can I sort of use it, um its hard. (E, p. 8, 13-16).
Their responses indicated that Te Whāriki was seen as offering guidelines for practice, but that it was up to the teachers themselves to define and interpret their role in children’s learning.
The interpretive nature of Te Whāriki has been critiqued by New Zealand researchers (Clark, 2005; Cullen, 2001; Nuttall, 2005); and Nuttall (2004) states that its open prescription creates challenges. Nuttall (2005) argues that teachers are required to constantly negotiate the curriculum and their role in children’s learning; they cannot simply enact a curriculum. The sociocultural underpinnings of Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education, 1996) presents numerous challenges for teachers, especially if this theoretical framework was not a part or a strong part of their original teacher education and the evidence from this study, like others (e.g. Alvestad, Duncan & Berge, 2009; Haggerty, 2003) suggests that teachers are still grappling with a deeper understanding of their role in children’s learning using the curriculum document.
The interpersonal plane
The nature of the interactions between children and between the teachers and children are highlighted when viewed through the interpersonal plane. A variety of strategies were adopted by both the teachers and the children to enhance and maintain peer interactions and these are discussed below.
(a) Children’s strategies
Children were observed naturally adopting teaching roles, taking their younger peers to wash their hands before their morning tea, showing them how to saw at the carpentry table, suggesting which piece of the puzzle might go next. The data revealed many examples of children sharing their expertise and knowledge with their peers, particularly in Centre A where the routines allowed more opportunities for sustained play. The following example of peer tutoring occurred in the family corner in Centre B and took place between two girls aged nearly five and three years:
Melanie enters the game with two pretend phones in her hand (these are constructed from mobilo). She gives one to Amy (younger child), telling her “Here, you’ve got to have a phone to text on.” ”But I can’t text,” says Amy. “Ok, I’ll show you then,” says Melanie. She proceeds to explain what the buttons are for and tells Amy how to text her Mum. “I need to text April,” says Melanie as she presses the buttons on her phone. Meanwhile Amy is busy texting, giggling to herself as she presses the buttons (Ob, p. 13, 30-33, p. 14, 1-3).
At both centres the more capable children supported peers within their zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978), furthering their language development and mastering new skills. The zone of proximal development is understood as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” Vygotsky (1978, p. 86). These children adopted an expert role using scaffolding to support their peers to successfully complete tasks or participate in play. As the children worked together, they adjusted the level of support they gave their peers and thereby demonstrated the concept of contingency management, which is an important part of successful scaffolding (Tharp & Gallimore, 1991). The observations also showed the presence of a shared purpose amongst the children and the literature identifies the presence of intersubjectivity between children as being necessary if they are to reach new understandings together (Rogoff, 1990).
Language was an important tool in developing and sustaining collaborative play. The children used language to engage in meaningful, sustained peer interactions and to share their ideas with each other, while negotiating roles and props. Language was an important means by which the children expressed their thinking and problem solved, imitating their peers when children wished to sustain their presence in the play. The social constructivist literature identifies language as the primary tool which meditates cognitive development; verbal interaction is necessary for cognitive change to occur (Löfdahl, 2005).
(b) Teachers’ strategies
At both centres the teachers used a variety of strategies to ensure children successfully established and maintained sustained meaningful play with their peers and this made a difference. Peer learning was promoted in three main ways:
- Role modelling group entry, sharing and turn taking, mediating and suggesting possible solutions, and supporting children’s ideas and thinking through questioning.
- Creating enclosed spaces to encourage social group play.
- Pairing older and younger children and encouraging nurturing and caring attitudes amongst children.
The literature suggests that teachers have an important role to play in modelling appropriate peer interactions, encouraging children to try out their ideas and supporting children’s thinking through questioning (Burnard, Craft, Cremin, Duffy, Hansen, Keene, Haynes & Burns, 2006; Wood & Frid, 2005). In this study, when teachers suggested ideas and encouraged children to be active problem solvers, children responded by directing their learning with the support of their peers as resources.
The teachers recognised the value of peer interactions for children’s learning, for example one teacher said:
Children learn through copying, conversing with and sharing ideas and experiences. They learn through scaffolding each other and working in their “zone of proximal development” at their level, like at the child’s level from each other (E, p. 1, 3-5).
The teachers’ recognition of the importance of children learning from their peers was reflected in the range of strategies they were observed using to support group play.
The children’s experiences with their peers are foregrounded in the intrapersonal plane. This section examines the children’s experiences as a result of the routines and structures in place and in relation to the interactions in the interpersonal plane.
(a) Empowering environment
Children’s learning with their peers was helped by the physical environment being such that it enabled collaborative play, provided opportunities for peer tutoring and gave children opportunities to take charge of their play. An example of a physical feature of the environment which allowed children to direct their play was a tap which was set up at the side of the sandpit in Centre A. It was set up so that the children could operate it without adult assistance and older children were observed showing younger children how to operate it and how to control the flow. It became a catalyst for peer tutoring as children showed themselves to be capable peer tutors when assisting other children to master the operation of the tap.
I move over to the tap where Sophie, Nicky and Jamie are filling buckets. Nicky doesn’t have one so Sophie tells her to go and get one. Jamie says “I don’t know how to turn it down Nicky”. “Like this” says Nicky and she shows Jamie which way to turn the tap to control the flow of water. (Ob, p. 4, 25-27).
This was an example of what Burnard et al. (2006, p. 258) call an “enabling context” in which children’s autonomy is supported by the environment.
(b) Responsive teachers
The ability of the teachers to respond to play that children initiated with their peers influenced how successful and sustained the play was. The teachers consciously interpreted their role in response to the children’s play that unfolded in front of them. The teachers interpreted their role in children’s collaborative endeavour and their involvement changed in response to children’s participation in play with their peers.
The adoption of a responsive presence by the teacher is discussed in the literature (Clark, 2005; Siraj-Blatchford, 2004) and Wood (2004) states that the role of adults in interacting with children in play requires a high level of skill and ability. Siraj-Blatchford (2004) highlights the interactive aspects of learning and the need for responsive teaching as this supports the crucial patterns of exchange which are established between children within joint activity.
(c) Children positioned as experts
During informal play conversations the older children at both centres expressed their expertise and this was often voiced in terms of ‘I’m bigger and I know lots’. On one occasion I was told ‘we are the teachers’ in response to my questions about a mat time game the children had initiated (I asked the children whether they were going to wait for the teachers before they began their mat time). In another conversation, a child was able to articulate how he teaches his friend new skills. The children had explicit conceptions about their ability to teach their peers but there was little evidence of the teachers fostering this expertise in a deliberate, thoughtful manner. At most the teachers, for example at Centre B, asked individual children to lead the karakia kai (morning prayer) before morning tea and this took place each morning as a routine.
Thus there emerged through the observations and interviews a sense of contradiction between the children’s perceptions of themselves as teachers and teacher recognition of children’s expertise. This indicates a problem in early childhood teaching as teachers and early childhood services are legally required to comply with the national early childhood curriculum Te Whāriki which positions children as competent and capable learners (Ministry of Education, 1996). Current theory and postmodern writings on early childhood education also position children as powerful and active in the learning process (see Dahlberg, Moss & Pence 1999; James & Prout, 2001). Anning (2004, p. 59) draws attention to postmodern conceptions of children in which they are seen “as having power and agency in their own right”. There was little evidence in both centres of planned opportunities for children to express their expertise as peer tutors. One possible explanation could be that the teachers were unable to fully grasp the notion of empowerment and recognise what this means in terms of practice. Nuttall (2004) states that successful implementation of Te Whāriki depends on teacher’s exploration of concepts such as empowerment which she termed a sophisticated, abstract concept. Clearly teachers need to understand the intent of empowerment so that they can embed this key principle of Te Whāriki into their practice and in doing so, allow children to take a more active teaching role.
The study’s findings have implications for teachers’ practice. A lack of clarity around the teachers’ role as expressed within Te Whāriki and as debated in the literature (e.g. Clark, 2005; Haggerty, 2003) was discovered. A number of teaching practices to support and enhance peer learning may be recommended from the findings of this study.
Considering the physical environment
Teachers could ensure that the physical environment contains inviting, enclosed spaces as these promote collaborative activity. Spaces for children to develop friendships across a range of ages are helpful, such as the provision of kai tables in Centre A. Grouping children in mixed age groups promotes tuakana teina and this fosters peer tutoring. Research by Haworth et al. (2006) highlights the important learning opportunities for children which occur when they are grouped in mixed age settings. The addition of props can help to sustain group endeavour and teachers need to capitalise on children’s ideas and suggestions by providing appropriate resources.
Teachers can ensure that daily routines are supporting opportunities for children to engage in meaningful, sustained play, rather than inhibiting and interrupting play. Research by Pohio (2006) and Claxton and Carr (2004) emphasise the importance of ensuring that routines support children’s learning and promote autonomy and unhurried exploration of the learning environment. Claxton and Carr (2004) advocate for environments that not only invite shared involvement but also share the power amongst learners and teachers.
The role of the teacher
Teachers need to adopt a responsive presence in children’s play, interpreting their role in response to the children’s efforts to engage in collective activity. To do this successfully, teachers need to engage in power sharing, positioning children as experts who can successfully direct their own learning. Support for these ideas comes from Siraj-Blatchford (2004) who identifies a responsive teaching presence as an important aspect of quality teaching practice. The notion of empowerment is clearly expressed within Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education, 1996) and teachers need to critically reflect on their practice to ensure that the learning environment that they are providing allows children to develop their own ideas alongside their peers. Finally, teachers could readily provide opportunities for children to share their knowledge with their peers. Promoting relationships between older and younger children is one way to do this and teachers need to create opportunities for this.
This study investigated peer tutoring and peer collaboration in early childhood education settings and found that children’s experiences with their peers could be enhanced in a number of ways. Teachers could do more to ensure children have sustained opportunities to tutor their peers and to engage in collaborative endeavour. In addition, the daily routines need to be reviewed as these can inhibit or support peer tutoring and collaboration opportunities. Teachers need to adopt a responsive presence, balancing the power between learners and teachers. Positioning children as experts who can direct their learning in an enabling environment will ensure that the true intent of empowerment, as expressed in Te Whāriki, is realised. In conclusion, factors as described within all of Rogoff’s (1998) three planes of analysis need to be present if children’s peer learning experiences are to be optimised.
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About the Author
Penny Smith is an experienced kindergarten teacher who teaches in the B.Ed Early Years degree and the Graduate Diploma in Early Childhood at Massey University. She became interested in researching peer tutoring after completing a study in a buddy class in a primary school. Penny is undertaking a PhD study investigating teacher beliefs about peer learning in early childhood settings.
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