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Children's friendships and learning in school: Cognitive enhancement through social interaction?


Correspondence should be addressed to Prof Peter Kutnick, Education Research Centre, University of Brighton, Falmer, Brighton BN1 9PH, UK (e-mail:


Background. Recent literature has identified that children's performance on cognitive (or problem-solving) tasks can be enhanced when undertaken as a joint activity among pairs of pupils. Performance on this ‘social’ activity will require quality relationships between pupils, leading some researchers to argue that friendships are characterized by these quality relationships and, therefore, that friendship grouping should be used more frequently within classrooms.

Aims. Children's friendship grouping may appear to be a reasonable basis for cognitive development in classrooms, although there is only inconsistent evidence to support this argument. The inconsistency may be explained by the various bases for friendship, and how friendship is affected by cultural contexts of gender and schooling. This study questions whether classroom-based friendship pairings will perform consistently better on a cognitive task than acquaintance pairings, taking into account gender, age, and ability level of children. The study also explores the nature of school-based friendship described by young children.

Sample. 72 children were paired to undertake science reasoning tasks (SRTs). Pairings represented friendship (versus acquaintance), sex (male and female pairings), ability (teacher-assessed high, medium, and low), and age (children in Years 1, 3, and 5 in a primary school).

Method. A small-scale quasi-experimental design was used to assess (friendship- or acquaintance-based) paired performance on SRTs. Friendship pairs were later interviewed about qualities and activities that characterized their friendships.

Results. Girls' friendship pairings were found to perform at the highest SRT levels and boys' friendship pairing performed at the lowest levels. Both boy and girl acquaintance pairings performed at mid-SRT levels. These findings were consistent across Year (in school) levels and ability levels. Interviews revealed that male and female friendship pairs were likely to participate in different types of activity, with girls being school-inclusive and boys being school-exclusive.

Conclusion. Recommendations to use friendship as a basis for classroom grouping for cognitive tasks may facilitate performance of some pairings, but may also inhibit the performance of others. This is shown very clearly with regard to gender. Some of the difference in cognitive task performance may be explained by distinct, cultural (and social capital) orientations to friendship activities, with girls integrating school and educational considerations into friendship, and boys excluding school and educational considerations.