These two studies set out to examine emergent leadership in children’s learning groups. Based on prior research, it was hypothesized that leadership would be distributed within the groups, as has been identified by Li et al. (2007) and Gressick and Derry (2010). Building on this, we examined if there were patterns within this distribution. In study one, findings indicated that the leadership moves were distributed among group members. The five leadership categories aligned with the concepts of intellectual and organizational leadership. However, leadership moves in general, and the two types of leadership specifically, did not appear to be consistent across task types. In study two, again, a distribution of leadership moves was identified, and the moves were classified into the two categories from study one: intellectual and organizational leadership. In the history task, seven groups have one student holding both these roles, while eight groups had two different leaders in these roles. A similar pattern as found in the math task, with nine groups showing one single leader and seven showing two students taking these different roles.
Taken together, studies one and two provide further support for the findings reported by Li et al. (2007) and Gressick and Derry (2010) that emergent leadership is distributed within groups, with more than one student making leadership moves that are accepted by the group members during the collaborative activities. Our analysis also builds on this earlier work to provide evidence for two leadership constructs – intellectual and organizational leadership. In both studies, we found as many cases of two people taking different leadership roles as cases of one person taking both roles. This indicates that while it is possible for the roles to be held by one person, they emerge as different roles, and should be considered as such. By looking across the two studies, it is possible to see that these different forms of leadership emerge in both an experimental situation, where just one group is working in the room with a teacher, and in a larger groups setting, more similar to a classroom environment, where the groups have to regulate their own actions without as much attention from the teacher.
By looking at the same groups across different content areas, our results provide further evidence for the distributed nature of emergent leadership, and also indicate that leadership does not emerge in the same way when groups are working on different tasks. Our findings also indicate that intellectual leadership moves, in particular Idea Management and Development, are most associated with task success, while organizational leadership seems to have a more complex relationship with task outcomes.
Leadership across content areas
Both studies found differences between the content areas – with more of both types of leadership in the math tasks in study one, and significantly more intellectual leadership moves in the math task than the history task in study two. These differences in leadership across content areas may be explained in a number of ways. One possibility is that the nature of the tasks influenced the emergent leadership. The history task was designed to foster divergent thinking, with no single correct answer, while the math tasks all had correct solutions. We may see more leadership in tasks with a clear answer, where members of the group feel more confident in directing the group, than they do when the group is meant to be discussing possible explanations for the problem. Additionally, the history task was a single activity, while the math task consisted of three different tasks, which may affect the need for leadership, and should be examined, in detail in further studies.
Another possible reason for the differences is the children’s experiences with the content areas. Solving math problems is a common experience for the children in both studies, and they are aware of who is ‘good at math’ in their class. Historical thinking tasks are not as familiar to the students, nor is expertise in this domain as well recognized in the primary classroom. This may result in the children who are recognized as being good at math to take or be given the role of intellectual leader during the math task, while there was no such prior knowledge to base roles on during the history task, leading to less or more fluid leadership in the history task. Alternatively, the differences in the task types may be the cause of these differences, with students emerging as leaders differentially when the tasks are open-ended rather than closed tasks. Further research that separates task type from content area is necessary to understand this more completely. This finding reflects the findings by Yamaguchi (2001), who found differences in emergent leadership based on the task goals. These suggest that leadership will not emerge in every learning situation, but that it is dependent on the task that the group is engaged in. Further research is necessary to explore what types of tasks promote leadership, and where that leadership is necessary for task completion and learning.
In both studies, there was a change in leadership across the content areas, and in the second study, it was clear that the intellectual or organizational (or both) leaders changed. While management literature has argued for the stable nature of leadership (Kirkpatrick and Locke 1991), the changes that we see in our sample suggest that, at least for 10 year old children, emergent leadership in collaborative learning groups is not stable, even within the same group. Instead, leadership appears to be influenced by the content, echoing Yamaguchi’s (2001) study that found task demands influenced the emergence of leadership. This suggests that the design of collaborative learning activities should take into account how the task may influence emergent leadership, and the impact that would have on the learning that will occur.
Leadership and task outcomes
Looking at outcome data in study two provides a complex picture of the relationship between leadership moves and group success. In the math tasks, there is a relationship between number of intellectual leadership moves and the groups’ progress on the tasks, with increasing amounts of intellectual leadership being associated with increasing task success. When examined in detail, Idea Management and Development moves were most associated with positive outcomes, with all 12 groups who solved two or three of the tasks falling into the high category for this move. This suggests that this leadership move may be a key feature to solving constrained mathematical problems.
While organizational leadership and overall leadership were not significantly associated with task success, the relationship between turn management and success appears to be important. However the descriptive statistics in Table 8 suggest this should be interpreted with caution due to similarities in outcomes across the high and low categories. Fig. 8 and Table 8 both show high levels of organizational leadership in groups who were not successful, as well as in groups who were successful. This may indicate that organizational leadership is not sufficient for task completion, and that groups who are focused on the process, either because they were struggling to manage their interactions or because they were struggling with the content, were not making the type of progress necessary for solving the problems.
The history task was designed to be open-ended, focusing on the use of historical thinking skills and complex reasoning, rather than being a task with a single correct answer. The highest level of reasoning reached within the group is one way of assessing the outcomes of the groups, which again shows a complex pattern when plotted against the leadership moves. While results were not statistically significant, the descriptive patterns show most leadership moves were made in groups who reached the highest level of reasoning. The second highest level of moves, however, were in groups who did not get beyond the second level, only making comments about the relevance of the clues, but not combining them in any way. This may reflect the same type of issues seen in the math data, with groups struggling to work out how to participate in the task, and so needing more leadership moves, although they do not result in better outcomes. When the leadership moves are examined individually, the pattern remains. One concern that arises from this analysis, however, is that using the highest level of SOLO reasoning is not a sufficiently nuanced measure of success for this task. As SOLO was designed to assess open-ended written questions, it may not be the most precise measure of a group’s progress. Further analysis, which is beyond the scope of this paper, could also use a temporal analysis approach, to provide a deeper understanding about the relationship between the leadership moves and the types of reasoning group members were engaged in.
The case study
By examining the emergent leadership in the green group from Yadstone in study two, the complex nature of the groups’ behavior can be seen as it changes across task type. While Tom and Callum appeared to make the most leadership moves, Callum made very few in the history task, and in both tasks, the majority of his moves were organizational. Tom made most of the intellectual leadership moves during the math task, but very few in the history task. Jack, not clearly a leader when the data is examined without being broken out by task or leadership type, made most of the intellectual leadership moves in the history task, helping the group to make sense of the clues in the history task, but participated as a follower for most of the math task. Thus, this group illustrates the importance of breaking down leadership both by task type, and by type of leadership, to fully understand the type of collaborative engagement seen in this group.
Both studies used a new technology, multi-touch tables, to support the collaborative problem solving process. As prior research indicates that this type of technology can support collaboration, we examined differences between groups working on a paper-based version of the mystery tasks and a multi-touch version of the tasks in study one. As reported elsewhere (Higgins et al. 2012; Mercier et al. 2013) it was not possible to determine differences in success between conditions, as a teacher was present to support groups through the task. When comparing the number of leadership moves across conditions, however, we did not find any differences, suggesting that the technology did not influence the leadership part of the interactions in the same way it appears to have influenced how the students interacted around ideas. These results suggest that the findings about emergent leadership from study two, where all students worked on multi-touch tables, could be generalized to other face-to-face collaborative interactions, regardless of whether technology is being used by the groups.
Limitations and future research
There are a number of limitations to the studies reported here, including the limited task types, the lab environment, the way the teachers engaged with the groups and the non-independence of the data, as is inherent in analysis of group interaction. The mystery tasks were designed to have a similar structure, and full engagement in the task by all group members was facilitated by members taking on the roles of organizational and intellectual leader. If students were engaging in a task that was less collaborative or less cognitively demanding, there may have been less need for the amount of leadership that was seen in these studies, and therefore less evidence for the distribution of leadership moves. Additionally, the first study used a very artificial environment, where each group worked with one teacher and where the data collection tools were evident to the groups. In the second study, although the lab classroom was designed to be as similar to a typical classroom as possible, data collection equipment was discrete and students were drawn from the same classroom, there are still differences between this and a typical classroom. The lab environment also meant that not all students who returned consent forms were selected to participate. While teachers were asked to select randomly, some suggested that they selected the better-behaved students, so we may have had fewer disruptions than would occur in a typical classroom with the full range of students. However, the use of the lab classroom does represent the use of new technologies and tools to examine collaborative learning across groups within the same classroom, allowing us to understand more about the actual nature of collaboration in a setting in which the teacher has to manage multiple groups. The decision to use the same two teachers across studies and schools meant that the level of teacher intervention was not the same as would be expected in a typical classroom environment where the teacher knows the students well, and although the teachers expressed a belief that their students’ behavior didn’t change, this cannot be ruled out, and further studies in traditional classrooms should be conducted to further explore our results. Finally, as with all analysis of group interaction, it should be noted that the individual data is non-independent, with the interactions of members of each group being dependent on those of the rest of their group. Thus the data does not meet the assumption of independence necessary for conducting parametric statistics, and as such, the analysis should be interpreted with caution.
As research on collaborative learning focuses more on the group process, and the mechanisms through which groups manage their participation, this study identifies key aspects of managing both the intellectual aspect of the problem space, and the organizational leadership that, while necessary to facilitate the development of a joint problem space, is also necessary to manage the interaction process. The organizational leader manages participation, while the intellectual leader manages the content, and while our data indicates this is done by a single group member in about half of the cases, in half of the groups the roles are held by different people.
As noted in the introduction, emergent leadership is one way in which the emergent management of group engagement has been studied. A parallel line of research considers how group members regulate their participation (Järvelä and Hadwin 2013). Building on ideas of social regulation, Volet et al. (2009) argue for a framework that takes into account both the social and content-based processing that are necessary for successful completion of collaborative work. This distinction echoes our findings, although the co-regulation definitions classify participation and engagement at an individual level, rather than examining the interaction behaviors that attempt to support or manage the interactions of other group members. Thus, we see the work in this area as complementary to the work on emergent leadership, describing how group members manage participation, by regulating their own participation, while the role of emergent leaders appears to be to manage the participation of other group members, and the direction of the content processing.
An increasing need to prepare students to engage in complex collaborations as they enter the workplace is frequently identified (e.g., OECD 2013) and research from management literature shows the importance of leadership in groups, particularly emergent leadership (Gronn 2002). Therefore, helping students to develop leadership moves and to identify the types of leadership that are necessary to complete tasks and recruit the participation of their group members, should go some way in helping prepare students for successful collaboration in the workplace. However, the philosophical roots of collaborative learning are often regarded to be at odds with leadership within groups. With the focus on using collaboration to alter the authority structures in schools, allowing students to view themselves as members of a knowledge community and building on theories that identify the importance of equitable status for learning (e.g., Cohen and Roper 1972), it can be difficult to align with the idea of leadership within groups. One important contribution of this paper, however, is that the emergent leadership described in this and other papers is not grounded in authority granted by the teacher. Also, although leadership may relate to classroom status, dynamics and prior relationships, the data in this paper indicates it is not stable across content areas, suggesting that it is not solely based on a single form of status. Li et al. (2007) also reported changes across time, with more leadership moves being identified in later activities, and more students being identified as leaders as the study progressed. As in both studies, students were peers from the same classrooms these findings indicate that emergent leadership may not be static, but can be learned (or perhaps taught) over time.
While there is currently little evidence that students can be taught leadership moves that transfer to new collaborative tasks, there is plenty of evidence to indicate that the use of scripts, prior instruction, or embedding of prompts or structure can lead to better collaborative interaction in groups. (e.g., Cortez et al. 2009; O’Donnell and Dansereau 1992; Rummel, Spada, and Hauser 2009). This prior work would indicate that students could be taught to take on the different leadership behaviors identified in this and earlier papers. Additionally, more recent research using the Collaborative Reasoning activity described by Li et al. (2007), suggests that leadership moves may be transferred to a new collaborative context (Sun et al. under review), suggesting that there is value to helping students develop these behaviors in one context as they can use them with different peers when working on different problems. Finally, the field of management, where much prior work on leadership exists, places emphasis on leadership training activities, suggesting that leadership can be taught, and there is value in exploring the instruction of leadership, and transfer of leadership moves, in future research work.
A large amount of work in collaborative learning focuses on and recommends the assignment of roles to student groups (O’Donnell 2006), One particular reason for assigning roles is the recognition that equitable participation does not have to mean all students engage in the same behaviors throughout the task, and that valuing the differences across members of a group can support increased equity (Cohen 1994). It should be noted, however, that while leaders are frequently one type of assigned roles, earlier research and the research in this paper shows that leadership moves may be distributed among group members, and there is the potential for different forms of leadership to emerge. Thus, the assignment of the role ‘leader’ may not provide sufficient instruction for students on what type of leadership moves they should be making and should perhaps be broken down into more specific roles both in assigning roles and also in helping students understand the complexity of collaborative engagement. However, as is seen in the vignette at the beginning of this paper, attention should be paid to the level of engagement with the content for those involved in organizational leadership, as such behavior might fulfill the goal of being involved in the activity, without providing a good learning opportunity for the student. In addition, our findings indicate that high levels of organizational leadership might not be associated with positive group outcomes, and so teachers need to be alert to the types of content-related conversation that occur in groups who appear to have high levels of organizational leadership, intervening to ensure that both the organizational and intellectual aspects of the task are attended to by all members of the group. Preparing students to engage in collaborative activities should help them consider the dual space nature of collaboration – the relational and problem spaces – so that they are aware that leadership must take place in both realms, but that task success, and potentially their learning, will depend on intellectual leadership and engagement.