‘Sounding people out’: talk and acupuncture

by Alan Howe

Image: Pixabay

As a contribution to Oracy Cambridge’s exploration of spoken communication in the world of work, I discussed the value and role of workplace talk with Janice Booth, a traditional Chinese acupuncturist. Janice has been practising acupuncture for over thirty years, and also lectures in Chinese medicine training would-be acupuncturists.

When Janice sees a patient she allows up to 90 minutes for an initial consultation, with successive treatments lasting between 45 minutes to an hour. Whilst a significant proportion of this time is taken up with the range of treatment approaches that she uses – for example: taking pulses, scrutinising physical aspects such as tongue, eyes, skin tone, inserting and manipulating needles – consultations are also characterised by a particular kind of dialogue. We talked about how she uses oracy skills to carry out her consultations and to take a patient through a course of treatment. In so doing we touched on some interesting aspects of the relationship between talk, professional decision-making, and patient self-awareness. I have reproduced the bulk of our discussion largely as it unfolded.

How important is oracy to you in your work as an acupuncturist?

If I don’t listen then I’m not a receptor of what comes to me at all levels. My listening skills involve picking up the nuances of someone’s complaint and that also entail me being perceptive enough to ask the right questions to narrow down into the details of someone’s problem, whether it be physical, mental, emotional or even spiritual…and the only way to find that is to take the patient to another level either with the specificity of words I use or picking up on anything emotive in what the patient says that is inviting me to ask another question. It could be that someone repeats something or that they seem to skirt around something so that there’s no disclosure, or something that they emphasise. It’s in the initial diagnostic discussion where the most narrative happens, where the ‘I don’t know you and I’m getting to know you and establishing the roles’ occurs and there’s a certain weight to getting facts and then for me to interpret them. My mission is to diagnose and that’s what the patient comes for and so clearly close listening is vital because that’s when I am at my best for observing. Someone coming for the first time is totally new so in that sense the dialogue is really key.

And as the treatment progresses?

Probably the most interesting therapeutic dialogue isn’t in the first session even though that is really important. Where it becomes more interesting and more critical is probably from the second treatment onwards when you have embarked on a journey with someone. In many ways it’s a verbal/linguistic journey. I might kick off with some leading questions and prompts that pick up on the first session – things that I need to know more about if I am to work wholistically, where I have felt there’s something there that has or hasn’t been said or in the way that its been said that I want to allow the patient time and space to look at themselves a little bit more.

Do you always start with dialogue?

In the first session most people come in and they sit there and wait for me to lead so I might say “OK, so tell me a bit about why you’ve come”. In the next session my prompts depend so much on the patient and what they ‘ve already said to me. There’s a whole spectrum of people. Some are very matter of fact and they model their coming to see me on a typical GP appointment although they know they’re paying me and they expect it to take a bit longer but they still model it on a biomedical model so it almost like, ‘OK so what do you want to know?’ or before I’ve even started they’re already rolling up their trousers to show me their bad knee! There are other people, quite rare…but they might say, ‘There’s kind of nothing wrong but I’ve heard that acupuncture is good for well being,’ and that’s a whole different starting point of course.

I’m interested in the relationship between the dialogue, the talking and listening, and how that relates to the treatment?

I think that’s really interesting because I’m not a counsellor or a psycotherapist, where the talk is all and that’s all that is done, what people call ‘talking therapy’ – talk and silence, talk and silence – I do that but not fully. There’s a point where I take a more proactive role because I have to wrap up what people have told me towards a diagnostic decision and subsequent use of needles.   Where there hasn’t been much talk – for example where a patient doesn’t want to say much, or where there might be issues with English as a second language – I sometimes struggle to be really clear about the depth of treatment I’m going to offer. I obviously have other skills I use to make a diagnosis – taking the pulse, looking at the tongue, taking the temperature, observing colour on the face – all of that which can give some clues but without getting to know someone it’s so much more difficult. It’s almost like the chit-chat at the start that goes further and then I turn to my use. It’s building the rapport, so that there’s a working relationship. It is a relationship, there’s no doubt about it, and that’s so different to what a lot of people usually experience in a typical ten minute consultation with their GP. There is time for talk between two people to take you to a very creative place of understanding on both sides and it is a gift to me as a practitioner because of the insight into how someone has put or is putting their life’s meaning together: I am facilitating that. And that potentially has a profound impact on someone’s well-being.

So you partly use talk to help you to a clearer diagnosis? 


But you just started to talk about how getting the patient to talk could be seen as part of the treatment itself – as having an impact itself.

Well, I think that’s the most interesting area and many patients eventually realise that too. They bring to me all their disparate ailments, memories, all the disparate aspects of their lives and sometimes they come to ‘see’ themselves differently. Through a prompt such as, ‘Tell me a bit more about that…’ or, ‘I’m really interested in…’ or, ‘Have you ever thought there’s a connection between this and that..?’ you know, for example, ‘Might there be something between your fear of failure and how your immune system is so compromised?’ I might nudge someone towards that or even better if they start to do this themselves. For example a patient might say, ‘You know it’s odd isn’t it, but I’ve just been wondering the reason why I seem to get ill every Autumn is because that’s the time of year when my parents died, that’s twenty years ago, do you think that’s possible?’ and I might just say, ‘Well it is interesting isn’t it, that’s worth thinking about…’ You kind of leave it hanging but it’s language that’s taken the patient and me on that little route to looking at something a bit more deeply.

What is it about that, helping the patient to talk that through, to find the words themselves, that’s part of the work that you do?

Because as a traditional acupuncturist, one of the key tenets is that nothing is unintegrated, nothing happens – OK trauma, car accident, whiplash, they are random issues, yes – but once something’s become chronic, we have a world view that’s become established, we’re grown ups, then the narrative that we tell ourselves, it’s complex and sometimes it’s helpful to unravel it a bit…

And is that part of the cure…if that’s the right word?

And that’s not a word to ever use, I agree (OK, so what…?) I wouldn’t use ‘cure’, I wouldn’t use ‘healing’, although I’ve touched on taking someone into deeper places of themselves. I think ultimately the patient does the work. I think the needles… I think they’re great actually, because they create an end point to the discussion and once the treatment starts there isn’t much talk.

Do some patients ‘get it’ in the sense that they come not just for the needles but to have a chance to talk things through in a way they never normally do?

Yes, people say things like, ‘Gosh, I’ve never spoken as much’ or, ‘I’ve never told anybody this,’ or, ‘How interesting, I’ve never thought there might be a link between this and this…’ I often talk about ‘the artistry of practice’ and there are times when I almost don’t want to start needling because I think the work is being done at the level of talk, of listening and responding, of being there. You’re just holding onto that very delicate web that’s being woven where words come out, they evaporate but they’re being held by the practitioner, being held just long enough to explore them further. I do write stuff down, however!

But do you also revoice…?

Yeah, I do revoice. I’ll sometimes say, ‘Can we just pause a minute because you’ve said some really useful things there,’ and then I might say, ‘Can I just read something back to you that you said to me,’ or ‘You said to me and I don’t quite understand ‘ or ‘Can you just tell me more…?’. But sometimes I’ll just use the pause, especially with some patients who are talking so much they can’t hear themselves….

What’s going on in your head while the dialogue is unfolding?

This is where I’ll hold what I feel is most significant. But I’m making the whole thing sound very esoteric; often I do really need to know whether a pain is for example: stabbing or sharp, bruisey, achy, dull, easy, heavy, impedes movement, better in the summer, better in the winter, after a bath; and that takes up a long time because you want the exact word. And people go, ‘Oh, yeah’, or ‘I don’t know how to describe it, goodness, it’s just pain…’ and I’ll probe with words: ‘Is it…?’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh yes, it’s a bit like that‘ and we’ve established a word. There’s something useful because two treatments down the line you return to that description and ask again…’’Two treatments ago you told me that your pain was…is it still like that?’

In your professional practice you have specific acupuncture skills…but in addition, in terms of talk, what skills do you also have to use? (You mean what would I tell a practitioner in training?) Yes, what do you have to be good at?

At one level there’s a role that involves totally engaging with the patient through the session to listen fully, to develop rapport and create an environment of trust and safety.

Then there’s the constructive use of language to scrutinise the issue: ways of asking questions that take the patient further in their understanding of themselves. And often that involves echoing back a patient’s words.

There’s a being there with someone at an emotional level, at an empathetic level (not sympathetic because I think sympathy can be quite destructive) – the heart level.

There’s the creative level – I have to take stock of where I am, that I am who I am and beware of not letting my own stuff get in the way: why do I go off in directions, why am I interested in certain things? The creative level is not knowing: not knowing where a patient’s narrative is going to take them…and not knowing because although someone comes in with a main complaint (‘I’ve come to see you because’), down the line you find out that you’ve gone a long way from that initial starting point. You’re on another level of discourse, which is about self, connecting the threads, asking for understanding rather than just on a functional level or mechanical need.

Language at the transition point between the initial dialogue and the treatment – that’s an area that really interests me. If I allow best part of an hour, usually after about twenty minutes I have to move us towards the treatment, so each session involves a certain amount of wrapping up.

It has the trappings of friendly conversation, of chat, but it’s not like that at all really is it? You’re controlling it to some purpose…

Well it’s also about power. I’m the practitioner, they’re the patient. It’s professional. Ultimately you have to step back, have a clear mind, a clear intention, wisely use everything you’ve heard and seen and perceived and then formulate a treatment. I suspect that the needling may be more powerful if the patient is receptive to it, which is linked to all of what’s gone before: the narrative, the understanding, the trust. Though sceptics do also get better!

Can you sum up? How important is oracy to you as a therapeutic practitioner?

Well…it’s obviously important but not essential, because you can do a treatment, for example on a child, without all the talk. But then there is something really important missing that supports the treatment, that becomes part of the treatment. The best treatment session is often one between two people where you have a backlog of really close understanding, a patient having felt totally heard (not intimately, not everyone wants to tell you everything). Some people come for the long haul, patients who I know very well, who I’ve been seeing periodically for years. Some people don’t want to stop having treatment. Undoubtedly the actual treatment I’ve formulated for them has to be the right one, but I do have a sense that it’s not just about the treatment: it’s about the dialogue, it’s about a real sense of having been heard. In my filing cabinet I have narratives from all the people I’ve seen over the past thirty years. And it’s also all there in my head, all of the endless conversations towards something fruitful…

It’s interesting, isn’t it?

Alan Howe was in conversation with Janice Booth, Lic Ac FBAcC.

Oracy education and dialogic teaching: what’s the difference?

by Neil Mercer

I am going to distinguish here between oracy education and dialogic teaching, because – as I will explain – I think that confusion between them has created problems. Oracy is becoming recognised, internationally, as both a potential curriculum subject and an important set of life skills. There is a growing interest amongst teachers (and occupational trainers) in how spoken language skills can be developed and exactly what this means for classroom practice. There is also an increasing recognition by politicians and policy makers that oracy should figure amongst the ‘21st Century skills’ that education systems should promote. This recognition seems to be taking place now, somewhat belatedly, in England (with other places such as Wales and Singapore already being well ahead in this respect) if we can take the statements of new Secretary of State for Education Damien Hinds as an indication [1].

At the same time, and perhaps at a similar pace, an interest has been growing in the value of ‘dialogic teaching’ in the classroom. Strongly associated in the UK with the work of Professor Robin Alexander, and in the USA with researchers such as Professor Martin Nystrand, this is essentially a pedagogic approach which emphasises the importance of talk being used effectively in the classroom. Its proponents use research evidence to argue that students, as well as teachers, need to be using talk actively to construct an understanding of curriculum content, rather than teachers only transmitting curriculum content and instruction through talk to an attentive, and largely silent, class. That this needs to be argued may seem strange to some, but in fact there has been a great resistance to dialogic teaching by those attached to more traditional pedagogies, who use the apparent effectiveness of didactic teaching methods employed in other countries such as China, and the reliance of the advocates of dialogic teaching on evidence from small-scale studies, to support their opposition. However, recent research by Robin Alexander and Frank and Jan Hardman at the University of York [2], and by Christine Howe, Sara Hennessy, myself and other colleagues at Cambridge [3] has provided evidence from the analysis of substantially larger sets of classroom data than used in previous studies to swing the argument more strongly in favour of the dialogic position. For example, in our research we found that teachers of Year 6 (children aged 11) who ensure that many members of their class participate in dialogue and encourage children to elaborate their ideas through talk gain better SATs results in Maths and English for their classes than teachers whose classroom interactions have fewer of those features. The York study showed similar and other benefits for children’s attainment in Year 5 when their teachers were trained to be more ‘dialogic’. In contrast, there have been no systematic studies of teaching, either small or large scale, which support the view that maintaining a traditional, didactic, instructional approach gets the best results in British primary schools.

However, my main aim here is not to explain or justify dialogic teaching. Instead, I want to achieve something more specific, which is to distinguish it clearly from the other topic with which I began this blog; the teaching of oracy. I feel that confusion between them may be hindering some potentially valuable educational reforms, as I can explain from my own experience. When I was part of a lobbying group trying to influence the outcome of the most recent rewrites of the National Curriculum for English primary schools, we met with significant opposition from Conservative politicians and others in our attempts to maintain and enhance the place of Speaking and Listening in the curriculum for English (i.e., we were arguing that talk skills should be required to be taught, as well as those for reading and writing). Although in the end we were reasonably successful, it was only with hindsight that I realised that a substantial aspect of the opposition arose from the misconception that we were arguing for dialogic teaching rather than oracy education. This became apparent when I remembered that our opponents had repeatedly claimed that we were talking about pedagogy (which is not covered by the National Curriculum) rather than curriculum content. They thought we were arguing for certain ways of teaching, not for what should be taught. This was perhaps understandable, given that some oracy advocates like myself also argue for dialogic teaching. But we should be clear: they are not the same thing. Oracy education is the direct, explicit teaching of speaking and listening skills as part of the language and literacy curriculum, comparable to the direct, explicit teaching of algebra as part of maths. Dialogic teaching is a set of talk-based strategies for teaching any subject, whether it be maths, history, English or whatever. Of course, the case for each gives a special emphasis to the educational importance of talk which is lacking in both traditional English curricula and traditional pedagogies; and dialogic teaching certainly requires teachers to have good oracy skills. It may be that they go well together. But the case for each depends on a different evidence base and expects different changes in policy and practice. Promoting either may be less likely to be successful if they are confused.

[1] schoolsweek.co.uk/damian-hinds-gives-first-speech-as-education-secretary

[2] educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/projects-and-evaluation/projects/dialogic-teaching

[3] educ.cam.ac.uk/research/projects/classroomdialogue

How inclusive is Oracy?

| by Wendy Lee |

I recently had a discussion with a fellow speech and language therapist about Oracy. They were worried that a focus on Oracy is hugely challenging for children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). And on those grounds, they felt a focus on Oracy disadvantaged children with SLCN.

Food for thought…

Clearly, children with SLCN struggle with the underlying skills needed for Oracy – they may have unclear speech, an inability to construct a sentence, poor vocabulary or difficulties understanding language. They may struggle to verbally structure a narrative or understand inference. They may have a stammer, or maybe social interaction difficulties. The list goes on.

On the surface, I guess it does seem that children with SLCN could be excluded from activities if there is a focus on Oracy, maybe it would make their lives more difficult – but, here’s the thing!

Their lives are already difficult.

For some children, just listening to the amount of language used in the school day can be exhausting, never mind processing it, understanding it and responding to it. I genuinely don’t know how some children get through the day…

Often, they are surrounded by a sea of words overwhelmingly difficult for them to follow. And of course, if they struggle to talk and understand, reading and writing is often even more challenging. Recent research has found the most important factor in reaching the expected levels in English and maths at age seven was children’s language skills at age five, greater than the link to poverty or parental education. (1) Still, the current education system doesn’t prioritise these crucial skills… baffling!

So, can a focus on Oracy help?


Lots of children with SLCN are being missed or misinterpreted. (2) The focus in schools on reading and writing means when children struggle, the perceived solution is often more literacy – phonics, reading intervention, writing practice – rather than a focus on the spoken language that sits beneath.

I’ve worked in an awful lot of schools – probably thousands if I were to add them all up. It’s very rare to work with a school that is accurately identifying all children with SLCN. These children are difficult to spot – even more so because most teachers don’t have the necessary training in typical language development – how are they expected to identify difficulties when they have no training on what typical development looks like.

If there was a systematic focus on spoken language, with teachers being supported and trained to understand language development, we would be identifying SLCN more accurately.

If Oracy was part of the curriculum, with equal status to the written word, used every day to support learning, we would immediately see the children who were struggling with these skills.

We wouldn’t need to wait for their behaviour to deteriorate or their mental health to suffer. We wouldn’t need to wait until their reading and writing was years behind – we’d see them. A focus on Oracy (with appropriately trained teachers), could therefore mean better identification!

So Oracy can help us identify children with SLCN – but how can it help support them? There’s a pretty long list in my mind, but the top three would be…

  1. Children need to practise to get better – having no opportunity to talk really doesn’t help if you’re not good at talking. Children with SLCN often have lots to say – and often interesting, insightful things to say! They might need more time, careful interaction to ensure they can process information… we might need to make adaptations to give them a voice, but surely this is what we would want as an inclusive society…
  2. Some of the structured approaches of Oracy practice actually support all children, including those with SLCN; group roles for example – it’s much easier to take part in a discussion if you know exactly what your role is. Children with SLCN might need training to take specific roles, or to know how and when to join in, but this is a totally doable feast.
  3. The focus in Oracy on metalinguistic/metacognitive skills – these are also vital skills for pupils with SLCN to identify when they do and do not understand, to support skills in clarifying when they are unsure – explicitly teaching these skills can make a huge difference. Speech and language therapists call this comprehension monitoring – very important skills for children with difficulties understanding language.

Children with SLCN will need more – we need to fill them up with language as well as giving them the practice they can gain through giving Oracy a greater focus. Some will need specific specialist input or targeted approaches to support their acquisition and development of speech, language and communication skills. All will need adaptation of approaches to support their access to the curriculum. All need greater understanding of their needs… and a greater understanding of Oracy could go some way to supporting this.

(1) Finnegan, J., Telfer C., and Warren H. (2015) cited in http://www.eif.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/language-child-wellbeing-indicator_Sep2017.pdf.

(2) More than half when you compare DfE stats with research based prevalence data. See https://www.thecommunicationtrust.org.uk/media/540327/tct_talkingaboutageneration_report_online.pdf for more details.

Assessing collaboration: grasping the nettle…

| by James Mannion |

Image: Pixabay

Last Friday the University of Cambridge and Oracy Cambridge and AQA hosted a conference on Assessing Collaboration at Hughes Hall, Cambridge. Following the recent publication of results from the PISA ‘collaborative problem solving’ test (in which the UK performed pretty well, to not very much fanfare) this was a timely opportunity to reflect on the thorny issue of how to assess collaboration. Here are my potted recollections of the day, bolstered by the insights of Ayesha Ahmed, the conference organiser and host.

The grip of groupthink

I kicked off the day with a short talk on The Importance of Collaboration. One thing that is worth repeating here is the importance of using ground rules to avoid groupthink. The word groupthink was coined by Irving Janis (1972), to describe the fascinating phenomenon whereby a group of people make bad decisions because of weird group dynamics. Janis’s research focused on “policy decisions and fiascos” such as the Bay of Pigs, Pearl Harbour and the Vietnam War. Janis identified a number of practical steps that can be undertaken to prevent groupthink. These include:

  1. Leaders should assign each member the role of “critical evaluator”. This allows each member to freely air objections and doubts.
  2. Leaders should not express an opinion when assigning a task to a group.
  3. Leaders should absent themselves from many of the group meetings to avoid excessively influencing the outcome.
  4. The organization should set up several independent groups, working on the same problem.
  5. All effective alternatives should be examined.
  6. Each member should discuss the group’s ideas with trusted people outside of the group.
  7. The group should invite outside experts into meetings. Group members should be allowed to discuss with and question the outside experts.
  8. At least one group member should be assigned the role of Devil’s advocate. This should be a different person for each meeting. (Janis, 1972)

There are strong parallels here with the use of ground rules for group talk, a methodology developed by the Thinking Together research group here at Cambridge (see here for some excellent resources and links to publications).

99 problems and perfection ain’t one

I then pondered some of the practical problems with assessing collaboration – problems I know well, having wrestled with them for a number of years as a teacher and evaluator of Learning to Learn. Perhaps the most obvious issue is logistics. If you’re a class teacher and you’re assessing a group discussion among 4 students, which takes 5-10 minutes say – what are all your other students doing during that time? Recording group discussions in a busy classroom environment is also not easy, and then you have to have someone filming / recording it, and then you have to find the time to watch it. Another issue is the subjective nature of judgment, and the associated problems of reliability, validity and moderation. These relate to the limitations of attentional capacity: when observing and making notes on a group discussion, it’s not possible to pay attention to everything that is going on, since there are so many aspects to group interactions. None of these problems are easy to overcome, and when it comes to assessment, perhaps perfection is something to strive for, rather than ever really expect to achieve.

I concluded by setting out the case for how this conference might just save the world. The argument runs as follows:

  1. Humanity is faced with a number of existential threats (global warming, artificial intelligence, nuclear war, clash of civilisations, bioterrorism, environmental meltdown, economic meltdown, running out of stuff, topsoil erosion etc)…
  2. Our ability to overcome many of these threats depends on our ability to:
    1. Communicate with one another
    2. Consider others
    3. Collaborate in determining and executing solutions
  3. Humans are pretty amazing, and there are loads of examples of us being really good at collaborative problem solving. However, a glance at your average news bulletin would suggest that there is also some room for improvement in this area.
  4. We need to explicitly teach people
    1. How to speak and listen effectively
    2. How to get along with one another, and resolve conflict where it arises
    3. How to collaborate effectively – internalising and culturally embedding the kinds of rules for productive collaboration outlined by Janis and the Thinking Together team
    4. How to interthink and interact in productive ways
  5. Research suggests:
    1. that this can be done in schools, to a very significant degree; and
    2. that this does not happen in schools to the extent that it should.
  6. The word oracy has been around for 50 years. However:
    1. Many teachers haven’t heard of it
    2. Even those that have – and who value oracy – often don’t make time for it, for a range of reasons.
  7. That which is assessed is that which gets done. For examples, league tables incentivise schools to “game the system”.
  8. We need to come up with reliable ways to assess collaboration. The survival of our species – and others – depends on it!

When I first wrote this argument, I intended it as a kind of joke – “no pressure, but the survival of the species depends on what we come up with today”. But as I read it back now, it doesn’t strike me as particularly funny – only pressing.

The internet of things is watching you…

Several of the talks focused on ways to use technology to overcome some of the problems outlined above. For example, Dr Mutlu Cukurova from the UCL IoE Knowledge Lab shared some findings from his fascinating research, which focuses on assessing collaboration using the Internet of Things. Essentially, Mutlu’s research seeks to automate some aspects of assessing collaboration using cameras embedded in objects to assess nonverbal behaviours, and provide real-time visual metrics as to how well students are collaborating. You can read a recent article on the topic by Mutlu and colleagues here (no paywall!).

One task, multiple uses…

Fazilat Siddiq from the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education, Oslo spoke about the development of a novel task for collaborative problem solving in a digital environment. Students read a poem and did an open and creative task in which they drew their interpretations of the poem on screens by collaborating digitally using chat boxes to communicate. Fazilat collected scores and also Think Aloud Protocol data to understand more about the collaborative problem solving processes in this task. A selection of Fazilat’s recent publications can be found here.

Assessing individual participation in collaborative tasks

Ayesha Ahmed from the University of Cambridge and Ruth Johnson from AQA described their current study investigating the features of good participation in collaborative tasks: what sort of talk happens during episodes of progress and success in the problem-solving, and what sort of talk happens when the group is stuck? Ruth and Ayesha are developing resources to help teachers and learners to assess these skills in a formative way in the classroom – watch this space!

Global Perspectives

Ashley Small from Cambridge Assessment International Education shared the findings from a small-scale study of teacher perceptions of the iGCSE Global Perspectives. This international qualification includes a teacher assessment of a collaborative project in which students are awarded individual marks and team marks. Ashley explored how three of the teachers who assess this make judgements about the quality of collaboration, using hypothetical scenarios to investigate their approaches to difficult assessment decisions. A clear message to emerge from this session was the importance of sharing clear guidance on how to assess collaboration.

Group thinking and mathematical thinking: Japan vs UK

Taro Fujita from the University of Exeter and colleagues have developed a test to assess group thinking skills using non-verbal reasoning questions – these are graphical puzzles requiring logical inferences to solve them. Eleven year olds in both the UK and Japan had a go at these tests individually and in groups. Taro showed us some extracts from the group talk from the UK and Japan which gave us a fascinating insight into the different approaches to the tasks. Interestingly, when tested individually the UK and Japanese students performed similarly on the task. However in the group setting, the Japanese students significantly outperformed their UK counterparts. This was a small-scale study, and further research is needed to determine the reasons as to why this may have been the case.

Summary and final discussion 

Stuart Shaw from Cambridge Assessment International Education rounded off the day with an impressive summary of the day’s talks and left us with some questions to guide our final discussion session.  At the start of the day, I had assumed that collaborative problem solving is something that sits almost entirely within the realm of spoken communication. However, during the conference and in this final discussion, a consensus emerged that there are many unspoken features of collaboration, such as nonverbal cues – and indeed that collaborative problem-solving can be done entirely in the absence, as with Fazilat Siddiq’s work involving collaborations on artwork via the internet, using chat rooms as the basis for communication.  There was a consensus that assessing collaboration:

  • Is never easy
  • Can be done well in a range of ways, and across a range of contexts
  • Is worth pursuing, for the reasons outlined above.

This reminded me of a phrase I read in a recent piece by Lauren Ballaera from the Brilliant Club: “don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good”. When it comes to assessing collaboration, that seems to be a useful adage to bear in mind.


Cukurova, M., Luckin, R., Millán, E., & Mavrikis, M. (2018). The NISPI framework: Analysing collaborative problem-solving from students’ physical interactionsComputers and Education, 116, 93-109.

Janis, I. L. (1972). Victims of Groupthink: a Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Siddiq, Fazilat; Scherer, Ronny; (2017) Revealing the processes of students’ interaction with a novel collaborative problem solving task: An in-depth analysis of think-aloud protocols. Computers in Human Behavior 76, DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2017.08.007

Wegerif, R., Fujita, T., Doney, J., Linares, J. P., Richards, A., & Van Rhyn, C. (2017). Developing and trialing a measure of group thinking. Learning and Instruction, 48, 40-50.

Assessing Collaboration

by Ayesha Ahmed |

Image: Pixabay

A few weeks ago, on publication of the results of the OECD PISA assessment of Collaborative Problem Solving, we discovered that UK students are among those who “score above the OECD average in relative performance in collaborative problem solving.” (OECD, 2017, p. 79). There are pitfalls and nuances in interpreting country rankings, but we should be proud of our 15 year-olds. A great deal of high quality research and design work went into producing these assessments and there is much to be commended in the OECD’s work.  

But let’s consider how we should move forward given what the students were actually doing in this assessment.  

For important operational reasons, mainly the need for standardisation and for individual scoring, students doing the PISA tasks collaborated with computer-simulated agents using pre-defined chat messages. There is nothing wrong with this per se.  Digital collaboration is an important activity, and our 15 year-olds (including my own son) communicate increasingly in these contexts. Digital collaboration tasks can generate large amounts of data, for example process data from log files of key strokes. For assessment purposes, this represents a ground-breaking opportunity. We can analyse response processes in new ways that enable us to understand more about how students interact with assessment tasks; and evidence from these response processes can be used to inform us about how well a construct is being assessed.

However, using tasks that involve scripted messages in a digital setting has important limitations in terms of what we can conclude about collaboration. We mustn’t be lulled by the PISA results into feeling that we have this covered. Collaborations that involve un-scripted conversations with real people in real space and time are the sort that we know can improve learning and are valued by employers.

Young people need to learn the skills involved in this sort of collaboration. They need to learn how to build on the ideas of others, have disagreements and resolve them, invite ideas from others, justify their ideas through reasoning, and so on. We need to teach them these skills and they need to practice using them in situations in which they respond directly to others through talk.

In a current project (with Ruth Johnson of AQA), we have been investigating how 15 year-olds collaborate on a problem-solving task in groups of three. The videos and transcripts from our groups illustrate the kinds of talk that lead to successful collaboration on the task. Results are being analysed at the moment, but here is a taster from one of our groups of the kind of talk we observed. The task is to program a robot car to drive along a ‘road’ between two black lines on a floor mat. This exchange happens when they need to get the robot to change direction when it crosses a green line. They are doing this by changing the speed of the robot’s wheels:

S: Which means we then need to get it to turn

D: The turn um … So once it gets to the green you want it to go?

R: Forward a little bit more

D: Forward two rotations? One rotation?

R: One rotation

S: So I think you just get it to turn right

R: Are you sure?

S: Because if we turn it so it’s still going one wheel maybe 20 and one at 35 that will get it to turn slowly

D: Yes

S: So if we change the start to be 20, just test it with 2 rotations maybe

R: And then …

S: This one needs to be…which way are we? Which one is that?

D: Ooh OK, which port is it? That’s port B.

S: Is port B the right wheel or the left wheel?

D: I’m just seeing…port B is left wheel I believe

S: So do we want that to go faster or slower?

D: Oh! We want that one to go faster

S: So put that up to maybe…

R: 35?

S: 35. And this maybe 15?

R: 15.


S: That should turn a corner but I don’t know how fast it’s going to go

R: And then stop

S: Ah yes good point

What is evident from this extract is that they problem solve together.  A ‘feeling of shared endeavour’ comes through and a sense of pace as they respond to and build on each other’s suggestions and use inclusive language such as ‘we’.  It is tempting to suggest that the whole group is able to produce more than the sum of its parts – that progress is happening in the dialogic space as they think together.

Recent research commissioned by NESTA found that structured collaborative problem solving in schools is rare (Luckin et al, 2017). The researchers attribute this to lack of teacher confidence, experience, training and resources and they recommend that new forms of assessment of these skills should be developed.

Alongside innovative modes of assessment such as those used by the OECD, new approaches must also consider how we can assess collaboration that is not scripted or standardised, in a way that is useful and informative for learners and teachers to use on a small scale in a classroom.

So, while celebrating the achievements of our 15 year-olds, let’s also remember the importance of teaching our children the sort of collaboration that involves talking, working and thinking together.


Luckin, R., Baines, E., Cukurova, M., Holmes, W. & Mann, M. (2017) Solved! Making the case for collaborative problem solving. NESTA.org.uk

OECD (2017), PISA 2015 Results (Volume V): Collaborative Problem Solving, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris. dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264285521-en

Is narrative an endangered species in UK schools?

| a guest post by Catherine Heinemeyer |

The great educationalist Jerome Bruner wrote in 2006 that human minds think and know in two quite different ways. Firstly, there is logico-scientific knowledge, which ‘seeks explications that are context free and universal’ – principles of ‘what generally happens’. For example:

When temperatures drop below zero, water always freezes because. . .

Secondly, there is narrative knowledge, which ‘seeks explications that are context sensitive and particular’ – what has happened, and why it matters:

Well, the winter set in especially hard that year and the lake froze over. . .

Both are essential, says Bruner, but it is narrative that comes both first and last in learning. Stories build up our sense of everything that is possible, and once we have abstracted general principles from them, we return to narrative to make sense of what we have learnt about the world.

As a storyteller and researcher, I collaborated for two years with secondary humanities teacher Sally Durham and her three ‘low ability’ Key Stage 3 classes, to try to return narrative to these valuable roles. To appreciate this view of narrative knowledge visually, we imagined the richness of human experience as a metaphorical landscape. A standardised map could never capture all its complexity or guide those who might want to cross it, but we can tell stories (here represented as arrows) to share with others our own past journeys through it. Sally or I would open up a class’ exploration of a historical time period or geographical issue by telling a story (the bold arrow), enabling the pupils to experience at second hand our own explorations of this landscape, which then triggered off their answering stories (thin arrows). Gradually, a more complex picture would start to emerge of what this ‘country’ of human experience is like.


Sally and I observed changes similarly to those seen by numerous educators working with story, and perhaps most articulately expressed by secondary English teacher Betty Rosen in And None Of It Was Nonsense (1988) and Shapers and Polishers (1993). That is, we saw pupils dramatically more engaged than in usual lessons, employing higher levels of language and thinking skills, developing more attentive and respectful relationships, and drawing on enhanced imaginative resources.

Yet such exchanges are scarce in schooling. Over recent decades multiple barriers to them have been erected. The progressive era, with its democratic focus on the child’s voice, experiential learning, play and freedom, undoubtedly, albeit unintentionally, discouraged many teachers from embracing the apparently authoritarian role of storyteller. For example when the 1976 Schools Council History Project established that pupils must “‘do’ history, not merely receive it”, the word ‘merely’ succinctly expressed the prevalent perception that listening to a narrative rendered pupils passive and subservient.

Then the National Curriculum focused teachers’ eyes firmly on closely specified learning outcomes, and subsequent decades have seen teachers steered ever more toward strategies which will demonstrate as clearly as possible that these have been achieved. This is not how narrative works – a story does not tell the listener what to learn from it, but shares an experience for them to make of it what they will. Stories work unpredictably in our minds, returning over the years and layering over each other. Put simply, narrative knowledge, what we might call ‘storyknowing’, is marginalised within the English school system, because it is misunderstood and often not recognised as knowledge.

To explore the value of this ‘endangered species’, Sally and I sought to develop a storytelling practice that responded to the needs of her ‘low-ability’ pupils. We came to see how pupils both acquire and generate knowledge through storytelling. In one lesson, we embarked upon the topic of ‘rainforests’ by telling a story of an indigenous Indonesian chief who was approached by government officials to sell his people’s land for logging, to make space for poor tenant farmers. The pupils, without exception, listened avidly for 15 minutes, until I paused at a crucial point. They then experimented with their own endings to the story (many were by now confident storytellers). As the pupils played out the power dynamics of the interactions between loggers, forest people, tenant farmers, experts and officials, the depressing likelihood of the forest’s destruction hit them. Our response to their dejection was to investigate the work of Survival International, which fights for indigenous people’s rights worldwide. My field notes record that:

They are full of questions about this [. . .] I feel strangely like a university lecturer, pointing the pupils to further references, not a storyteller in an ‘intervention’ class.

We need to challenge the currently dominant perception that pupils listening to a whole narrative are in a passive role. Indeed, reasserting the value of storyknowing may restore aspects of agency, autonomy and knowledge creation to both teachers and pupils which may not be afforded by overtly ‘active’ learning strategies. One of Durham’s pupils told us he was doing his hardest work not during response activities, but when he was apparently inactive and listening:

It’s just – you know when you’re telling a story and some of us put our heads down like that [puts head down on folded arms] – it’s only because some of us do it to, like, picture the images in our heads.

Oracy is back on the agenda in education, and, cheeringly, looking likely to stay. For example, a major upcoming conference addresses oracy’s essential role in closing the educational gap between deprived and privileged young people. This is spot on: it is precisely deprived children, like the ‘bottom set’ classes with whom we worked, whose repertoires of experiential knowledge most benefit from being enriched by narratives, whether these are novels read, stories told, or simply teachers’ accounts of holiday experiences. A lucky child who has conversed, been read to, travelled, has all the resources they need to construct a historical reality in their mind, or understand a different political viewpoint. Too often we ask children from deprived backgrounds to skip this vital, narrative step and go straight to abstraction or generalisation.

However, scanning the agenda of this conference, no workshop or talk mentions story, presumably not because the coordinators are opposed to narrative, but perhaps because they are blind to its role as an irreplaceable container of life experience in a complex and unpredictable world. We need to be very careful that we do not focus all our efforts on diverting children’s talk into certain channels – talk for writing, talk for conceptualisation – denigrating the open-ended, narrative communication by which children stitch their knowledge to their experiences, and enrich their palette of imaginative resources.

Yet storytelling skills should not be excessively instrumentalised as another requirement to be fulfilled within a crowded curriculum. Stories, as Durham’s pupils remind us, move slowly. They need time and space to take shape in pupils’ minds, and like an endangered ‘indicator’ species, they cannot thrive in just any habitat. Rather learning must be shaped around their needs; in Durham’s words:

I give pupils time to listen, to think, to formulate a response. So I would say that yes, storytelling is a metaphor for the way I run my classroom.

That is the greatest challenge stories pose to education, and it is the reason they are vital.

This blog post is based on original research into the changing status of narrative in schools, drawing on the pupils’ observations about storytelling, recently published in the journal Research in Education. To read the whole article, see the journal website or read the anonymised version at the Research at York repository.

A voice from the chasm: “Please sir, can I have some more (oracy)?”

| by James Mannion |

Image: Wikipedia commons


Last month, Hughes Hall College in Cambridge hosted the two-day launch of the inaugural Oracy Cambridge/Voice 21 ‘Oracy Leaders Programme’ (OLP). Cards on the table, this amazing year-long programme has been organised more by the fabulous people at Voice 21 than by us, but we are thrilled to play a role in this exciting development. Avid readers of this blog will be aware that for a whole range of complicated and annoying reasons, spoken language skills are under-represented and under-developed in schools and the wider society, relative to written forms of literacy and numeracy. Nobody denies that written forms of literacy and numeracy are important, but ask yourself: what proportion of your life do you spend reading and writing, compared with speaking, listening and observing? Exactly.

Despite the word oracy having been coined over 50 years ago, most people still don’t know what it means. In my experience, most teachers don’t know what it means. Which is a shame because it’s a really good word, and the ideas and practices it represents are super important to our individual and collective prosperity. What this means is that most of the time, when we talk about oracy we’re preaching to the already converted: who would turn up to listen to a talk about a funny sounding word they’ve never heard of? Either that, or we’re introducing the basic ideas to people. But make no mistake: this situation is changing, and it’s changing fast. At the OLP launch, we were talking to a room full of school leaders (it was over-subscribed, don’t you know) who have not only heard of oracy, they’ve read quite a lot about it and many of them are already leading on exciting initiatives in their schools.

A few months ago, I spoke at the fantastic Northern Rocks conference in Leeds, entitled Why oracy is more important than literacy and numeracy put together. In this talk I discussed the ‘law of diffusion of innovation’, a fancy phrase used to describe how ideas spread, or how products come to gain market share. It looks something like this:

Image: adapted from Wikipedia Commons


Quick disclaimer: What follows is entirely out of my head, and people who know more about these matters (either about the law of diffusion of innovation, or my potted history of oracy) might wish to set me right on the finer details.

The blue bit on the left represents the oracy innovators. While much of the pioneering work around spoken language in schools has been done by classroom practitioners, all too often their names are lost to history. As such, when I think of the innovators I tend to think of the researchers and authors who describe, evaluate, articulate and share their practices. Here, then, we find such pioneering spirits as Andrew Wilkinson (who invented the word ‘oracy’), Douglas Barnes, Robin Alexander, John Holgate, Neil Mercer, Lyn Dawes and Rupert Wegerif in the UK, and people like Gordon Wells, Sarah Michaels, Catherine O’Connor, Noreen Webb and Lauren B. Resnick in the United States. We also find organisations like the English Speaking Union, the Communication Trust, I CAN, the National Literacy Trust and so on.

In the red bit, we find the early adopters. Here we find more recently established organisations like Voice 21 and Oracy Cambridge, and – importantly – teachers like the attendees of the OLP. You will notice that there’s a gap in the red bit, which is referred to in business-speak as “The Chasm”. The Chasm represents the leap that must be made in order for something to “tip” into the green area, where it starts gaining widespread recognition. I would venture that the reason oracy has not yet “tipped” into the realm where it achieves parity with written forms of literacy and numeracy is that the numbers of people involved have not yet been sufficient to make the leap. Instead, over the years, despite the concerted efforts of many, the tide of oracy has gently lapped up and down the blue and red wedge on the left-hand side of the diagram.

Image: memegenerator.net

It is said that predicting the future is a fool’s game. Well, I’ve never been one to shy away from that mantle, and so here it comes: I predict that in the next 5 or 10 years, oracy will “tip” into the green zone, rapidly gaining market share in the -acy market and becoming seen as a bread and butter issue for all teachers, in all schools, and then on into the wider society.

Wait just a doggone minute, I hear the sceptics cry. We had a National Oracy Project in the 1980s and that petered out before it could clear the chasm… And that had the word ‘National’ in the name. What’s so special about 2017? Why should it be any different this time?

Well, that’s a doozy of a question. In no particular order, here are a few answers to those questions:

1. Innovation is happening at a rate of knots. At the OLP weekend, it was great to hear not only that school leaders with a responsibility for oracy now exist in numbers, and not only that they are trialling small scale tweaks to their practice – but that whole-school approaches to developing oracy are kicking off all over the place. As we evaluate the impact of these initiatives over the coming year, share the findings and learn from one another, this flurry of activity is only going to snowball.

2. The evidence is mounting. From evidence relating to oral language interventions like Thinking Together, Philosophy for Children and guided reading, to the recent York EEF and Cambridge ESRC large scale studies into dialogic teaching, to my own research about an oracy-based curriculum that led to significant gains in subject learning at 3 and 5 years – a body of evidence is mounting to suggest that spoken language, when it’s done well, is a powerful driver of learning.

3. An important change in perception. For many people – and among a certain subset of government ministers in particular – oracy has been tangled up with the idea of child-centred pedagogy, characterised by ineffective discovery learning, permissive approaches to behaviour management and the ineffective use of group work. Increasingly, however, people are starting to realise that oracy isn’t about pedagogy at all. Teaching young people how to talk together, to share ideas, to solve problems, to think together, to get along with each other, to participate in structured debates, to deliver a knockout presentation, to participate in democratic processes… this is not about pedagogy. Oracy is a curriculum matter.

4. Social media. I know it’s clichéd to say social media has changed the world, but it’s blindingly obvious that it has. Teaching in particular has benefitted greatly from this unprecedented opportunity to share good practice and to challenge long-cherished ideas, especially through Twitter and blogging. Teachers and education researchers are learning from one another at a rate of knots – and this is only going to get better from here on in. Check out this little nugget of loveliness, for example:

Social media can be a frenzy of hostility, and teaching is no exception. But oracy is unique in being perhaps the only issue in education today that nobody disagrees with. Whatever your political persuasion, and whatever your position in the knowledge / skills debate, it is a rare breed indeed who says out loud that they don’t think all young people should develop the ability to speak and listen with confidence. We’re pushing at a million open doors.

5. The Oracy Network. Recently, organisations such as those listed above – and many others besides – have started meeting up to think about how we can join forces to make oracy into a movement. It’s early days still, but the stage is set.

I could go on, but I’ve got a PhD to write. The point is, these are exciting times and to me at least, it feels like we’re approaching the chasm and we’re building up a head of steam. The OLP launch was concrete evidence that we are further up the ramp than I had previously realised. Who knows, we might even be half-way across the chasm. It can only be a matter of time until we land. Once we do, oracy will ‘tip’: the word will become ubiquitous; high quality spoken language skills will be everywhere, in all manner of forms; and the benefits will be abundant for all to see, in schools, in families and throughout the wider society.

My role in the OLP programme is to help coordinate the ‘Impact project’, whereby participants evaluate the impact of oracy initiatives in their schools through collaborative inquiry. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this develops throughout the year. It also seems that the increasing demand for the OLP (did I mention it was over-subscribed, because it was) means that there will be regional versions launching in the coming months. So, watch this space. In fact, don’t just watch this space – create your own space and get in touch, and we’ll come round and fill that space with OLP goodness.

Hughes Hall alumni conference, and an invitation to guest bloggers

As though all of that isn’t exciting enough, in October Oracy Cambridge hosted a one-day conference for Hughes Hall alumni, entitled ‘Oracy: the importance of spoken language’. I don’t have space to do justice to the conference here, suffice to say it was awesome. You can see some of the best bits on our Twitter feed.

Finally, we are currently looking to invite guest bloggers to share stuff on the Oracy Cambridge site. If there’s something going on in your school that you’d like to share, or if you have an oracy event, programme or service that you’d like to promote – please drop us a line at hello@oracycambridge.org.

Walking and talking with children about place

| by Elsa Lee and Richard Irvine | *

Image: Pixabay

We are walking with a group of Year 6 students in the East Anglian fens to a copse that they call ‘Dead Man’s Wood’. Starting down the lane, one of the girls says to another “I’m actually getting scared now – there might be spooky stuff!”. We ask the girls why it’s called Dead Man’s Wood: “In Roman times they lived there and were buried there and that’s why the ground is raised. There’s actually gold there, but we haven’t found it unfortunately”; the other girl chimes in, “Don’t want to dig up the dead bodies.” Just at that moment, we hear a bang, prompting one of the girls to scream, only for the other to start laughing; “it’s just a bird scarer”.

In what follows we comment on the popular narrative that children do not know where they live (their localities and dwelling places) in the way they used to; and that they have become increasingly disconnected from place. We argue that focusing on the way we enable children to talk about their sense of connection to place elicits data that contradicts some of this sense of a disconnected generation and we suggest that our approach to generating data through ‘walk and talk’ interviews might be used to improve oracy skills in other learning settings, both formal and informal.

Our evidence comes from a recently completed project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council entitled: Pathways to Understanding the Changing Climate: time and place in Cultural Learning about the environment [i] which sought to encourage children to articulate their knowledge of and relationships with their dwelling places. In this Pathways Project, our experience of walking and talking with children in rural East Anglia and other places around the world evinces children’s profound sense of connection to place and embedded, embodied knowledge which is best elicited through dialogue in emplaced motion; talking about the localities that they know and love while walking through those places.

Image: Pixabay

The decision to use a method of guided walking is inspired by inter alia the work of Keith Basso in Wisdom Sits in Places (Basso, 1996) and the work by Ingold and Vergunst (2008) on wayfinding, where walking ethnographies are commonly used to investigate places. Walking ethnographies are carried out singly to understand the way a place functions (Vergunst, 2008), whilst walk and talk interviews often involve an interviewer and interviewee walking together as they discuss an issue such as environmentalism (Anderson, 2004). Our own approach involved walking in teams of up to ten children and four adults for around two miles. We walked in rural areas in Alaska, East Anglia, Mexico and Mongolia with more than 600 children aged seven to eleven years old. Before the walk, children were given maps and invited to plot a route for us to walk that took in some of their ‘favourite places’. We would then try and work out a route that would take in as many of these places as possible along routes that closely matched those suggested by the children. We used audio recorders to capture the conversations between children and between adults and children. In each place moving seemed to give children the inspiration to voice their thoughts. The following is an example from a walk in an East Anglian village which demonstrates how this method elicited rich and detailed articulations of children’s knowledge of their dwelling places. The walk has been written up as a narrative and this is an extract from it:

A group of the children from a combined Year 5-6 class (ages 9-11) took us along a path along a disused railway route which they described as “like a tree tunnel” and in the summer “all flowers everywhere”. Descending into the railway cutting “like going down into a kind of hollow” with the overhanging branches of the trees overhead, the space seemed full of memories and possibilities. Pointing to a bit of frayed blue rope, one boy shows us the remains of a rope swing he had built here with his dad, while a girl tells us “my brother and I used to run all the way up and all the way down”. This memory was followed by a story of a woman who had buried her dog here and then planted the grave with bulbs.

In another example in a different village in East Anglia, we were struck by the fact that so many of the children in both of the classes we worked with chose a particular route from the recreation ground, to the local catchwater (a drainage ditch); ‘it seems like some kind of ancestral route’ joked one teacher. In advance of walking the routes with the children we scouted them out – but try as we might, we could not find a way to get from the ‘Rec’ to the Catchwater. The route simply seemed impossible, so we reluctantly plotted an alternative, still taking in the destinations the children had chosen, but going a slightly different way. We were keen to solve this mystery though, so during the walks with them, we asked one of the boys who had chosen this route where exactly it was meant to be. “Oh, it’s easy. We all go over the ditch, it’s fun. You just have to crawl through the trees, then go under a wire, it’s not electric or anything, then you get to the ditch and you jump over that.” Thus, it became clear that children had their own ‘routes’ through the fenland terrain that were not always apparent to teachers or other adults.

(Irvine and Lee, 2017)

Both extracts here show how, when children are walking over and through their landscape, they are able to show the ways in which they build a living connection to their dwelling places. Although the children who were able to name trees or birds were the exception (at least in the UK), it was clear that these children living in these rural places were very familiar with the places we passed through and had many memories of spending time there; and feel strongly connected to it. This was evident from their confident and comfortable mobility as well as the way they became articulate and confident speakers as they moved about on foot.

Image: Pixabay

When we set out to gather the children’s understandings we were aware that we would be asking them to express a knowledge that is often more embodied that conceptual. Knowledge of place is commonly held within the way we move around it rather than the way we think and talk about it. Imagine a route that you walk on a regular basis and think about describing that in words. No matter how good your mastery of language is you will never be able to transfer your experience of that route verbally. And if this is a challenge for an adult then for a child the challenge is likely greater.

This problem of language and communication seems to be further exacerbated by the decontextualizing effect of the classroom and the prioritisation of academic knowledge that is present in schools in England and elsewhere in the countries where our research took place. Although classrooms are very important elements of children’s daily experiences of place, their very enclosing nature may have debilitating effects on the capacity to communicate locality; the hierarchical structured protocols for behaviour in classrooms can often influence the freedom of expression of the children. Alongside this, the notion that powerful knowledge (defined by Young (2008) as knowledge gained in specialist educational establishments) seems to many children to be that which is to be found in textbooks, on the internet or issued from the lips of adults in formal educational settings; this has the potential to further inhibit the communicative and expressive behaviour of children. Our status as academic researchers from an institution with a reputation for its contribution to knowledge further compounded their inhibitions about sharing their experiences of place that we observed when we began to talk to them. Therefore, we had to find a way to overcome such potential sources of inhibition. We had to literally take away the boundaries and obstacles by taking the children out of the classroom, and into their neighbourhoods; into the terrain where children are experts, into the places where knowing is playing and being.

We think our research offers some evidence to contradict the narrative of disconnection from place recently reiterated by Robert MacFarlane, author of the celebrated and influential Landmarks and a new book called The Lost Words, in a recent Guardian article [ii]. He focuses on the issue of knowing the names of species around us, and he links this to connection with nature: ‘Without names to give it detail, the natural world can quickly blur into a generalised wash of green – a disposable backdrop or wallpaper. The right names, well used, can act as portals… into the more-than-human world of bird, animal, tree and insect. Good names open on to mystery, grow knowledge and summon wonder. And wonder is an essential survival skill for the Anthropocene.’

It would be disingenuous to argue that children today are as well informed about the names of the species in the environment around them as rural children were in 1913, or to disagree with the finding that children are better at naming Pokemon Go characters than species of wildlife in their locality, as the research and anecdotes MacFarlane discusses. But perhaps we can argue that if you give children cards in a classroom they are unlikely to be inspired to demonstrate their familiarity with their localities or their love for their dwelling places. We suggest that the perception of disconnection is not so much about knowing (or indeed naming) but about communicating: about being willing and able to talk about familiarity with and love for dwelling places.

Image: Pixabay

Our data suggest that whilst children were not very confident in naming the organisms they encountered, they were not completely ‘nature illiterate’ and the majority of them were very able to move confidently through their localities, could sometimes show us routes we had not been able to find on maps, and were very keen to share oral stories and memories about their experiences of moving around their villages and dwelling places. We were left with the strong impression that these children did still know and indeed love the localities of their homes. And so it seems to us that naming matters, but it is not the same as knowing, which matters more; and children still know and love where they live.

Whilst not all the same inhibitors of talk discussed here apply to other contexts in which oracy skills are important, the sense that movement may enable children to talk more freely has implications for children’s academic achievement in relation to being able to communicate with confidence. Perhaps a way to encourage children who struggle to articulate their thoughts and develop their oracy skills can be through providing opportunities to talk on foot. Perhaps by loosening their limbs, walking around the school playground or local parks, these children will find their words flowing from their thoughts, enunciating their thoughts and imaginative capacity confidently. This might then positively affect not only their oracy skills but also their writing and reading skills, and their sense of confidence and self-worth.


[i] https://www.cire.group.cam.ac.uk/PathwaysProject

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/30/robert-macfarlane-lost-words-children-nature


Anderson, J. (2004). Talking whilst walking: A geographical archaeology of knowledge. Area, 36(3), 254-261.

Basso, Keith H. 1996. Wisdom Sits in Places: Notes on a Western Apache Landscape. In Senses of Place. Steven Feld and Keith H. Basso, eds. Pp. 53-90. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press

Ingold, T., & J. Vergunst (2008). Ways of walking: Ethnography and practice on foot. London: Ashgate.

Irvine, R, & E Lee (published online) Over and under: children navigating terrain in the East Anglian fenlands. Children’s Geographies: Special Issue

Vergunst, Jo Lee. 2008. Taking a trip and taking care in everyday life. In Ways of Walking: Ethnography and Practice on Foot. Tim Ingold and Jo Lee Vergunst, eds. Pp. 105-121. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Young, M. 2008. What are schools for? In Knowledge, Values, and Educational Policy: A Critical Perspective. Harry Daniels, Hugh Lauder, and Jill Porter, eds. Pp. 10-18. London: Routledge.

Biographies *

Elsa Lee is an educationalist with expertise in environmental issues. She has worked as a researcher at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge since 2013. Currently she is working on the AHRC funded project: Healthy Waterways: Connecting Communities locally and globally. Elsa is a founding member of EERA’s Environmental and Sustainability Education Research network and a National Association of Environmental Education fellow. She holds a doctorate from the University of Bath and taught secondary school science for ten years in the UK and abroad.

Richard Irvine is an anthropologist and is currently a research fellow in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at The Open University. He is interested in the moral and temporal dimensions of human relationships with their environment, and carries out fieldwork across three sites: Orkney and East Anglia in the UK, and Tuv aimag, Mongolia.

Talk your way out of NQT exhaustion and into better long-term practice

| by Pete Dudley |

If you are an NQT and you are currently exhausted, or if you are a school leader who is responsible for NQTs, then you should read this…

Image: Pixabay

Before I trained to teach in my mid twenties I’d experienced several years of physically and mentally tiring jobs. I’d worked 11 hour days labouring in heavy construction building a road bridge high over the Menai Straits. I’d run an organic food warehouse ‘handballing’ 50kg sacks of produce on and off the prongs of my fork lift. I’d driven long distance three and four day runs sleeping in the back of the truck to save money, and been a daily delivery driver in central London traffic unloading my three tonner by hand with each drop. So I knew what feeling tired was.

Well I thought I did, until I started my first teaching job!

This blog will provide some explanation for why as an NQT in your first Autumn term you feel permanently exhausted, and some reassurance that it does get better. It will also suggest how, by engaging in some collaborative classroom enquiries with colleagues, you can minimise the time this fatigue endures and even begin to accelerate your development as a teacher.

I am not saying that as a teacher you will never feel tired again. Teaching is a demanding and tiring job. But I am suggesting it is possible to lessen this impact on the early stage of your career and I will go on to argue that the approach in question – engaging in collaborative, discursive improvement– will continue to benefit you and your pupils for as long as you continue to teach.

Early teaching fatigue

I vividly remember waking up on the Saturday of my first October half term as a qualified teacher (at midday – as I had every Saturday since term began) and seriously wondering whether I would survive until the end of the year, so deep was my exhaustion. I had fallen asleep on the bus home from school almost every evening, never yet managing to start the pile of marking I had put in my Sainsbury’s bag each day.

But what then happened – and I was not at all clear at the time why – was that the exhaustion perceptively reduced in the spring term. By the summer term I was even able to resume a (limited) social life! My second year of teaching (same school, same timetable) was, by contrast to the first, a breeze.

So what was going on?

The phenomenon of early teaching fatigue can be explained by studies showing that there are few other work environments more fast moving, complex and unpredictable than the classroom. Teachers make at least one third more decisions a day than most professionals (who would have to work nearly two more days a week to catch up.)

We know now (but didn’t when I was an NQT) that when humans regularly need to process information and make decisions quickly, particularly under stress, our tacit knowledge systems kick in, rapidly automating decision we have made that worked, so that we don’t have to think about them again consciously. We take them from then on without conscious thought.

So in the spring term this was what was happening to me. I had internalized habits of practice that seemed to have been successful and was using them again automatically whenever needed. This freed up my working memory to focus on my conscious conversations with pupils or on the best way to take the lesson forward next.

How long does it last?

For most, the initial intense exhaustion seems to ebb away before the end of the first year. We certainly know that the first three years of a teacher’s career are the years when they learn and develop their practice most dramatically. Sadly ‘teacher learning’ then typically begins to tail off.

What can be done?

There are ways. Engaging once or twice a term in collaborative, reflective, discursive practices with teaching colleagues – observing children learning in order to improve it – can equip those new to teaching with vital tools to manage the development and efficacy of their practice. This works best when the process for creating these tools is through collaborative, discursive ‘interthinking’ (Littleton and Mercer, 2014).

Image: Pixabay

Cajkler and Wood (2015) describe how the development rate of trainees accelerates when jointly planning, evaluating and improving learning together through lesson studies (prime opportunities for ‘interthinking’). The approach works especially well when the teachers with whom they collaborate and interthink, are more experienced.

For the benefits this brings to NQTs alone, it would seem a more than worthwhile investment. But the fact is that the more experienced teachers taking part also benefit.

The flip side of tacit knowledge

Once those first few years of intensive teacher development have past, we increasingly rely on our unconscious tacit knowledge beneath the surface to guide our classroom practice. And it guides us so well that, to an extent at least, we become ‘blinded by familiarity’ to our classrooms and to our pupils. This poses a development problem because it is hard to improve what you cannot see. It also explains why teacher learning falls away after the first five years – unless we engage in it deliberately.

Image: Pixabay

Experienced teachers who have opportunities for interthinking in collaborative, reflective enquiry groups, are able to sharpen their abilities to notice their pupils’ learning traits. There is even evidence that the close bonds these teacher learning communities form, enable them to access normally invisible tacit knowledge during the interthinking episodes and use it consciously to improve their pupils’ learning (Dudley, 2013).

So the kinds of activity that benefit and accelerate the development of the new teachers also help experienced teachers to see their classrooms and pupils afresh and to start to develop practice that meets their actual needs rather than those we had assumed they have. Through this we can become active teacher learners again, improving pupil learning even late in our careers.

What to do if you are an NQT

Try and find out whether there are opportunities to engage in lesson studies or other kinds of collaborative classroom enquiry that will immerse you in high quality interthinking about how to improve your pupils’ learning.

What to do if you are a school leader

Ask yourself what opportunities you provide your new and your experienced teachers to engage in these approaches. John Hattie stated this month that in his view school leaders only become truly transformational when they have the courage to abandon high stakes, low yield formal lesson observation (still the default mode of most current teacher performance management and NQT assessment) and to replace it with opportunities for the kinds of classroom based enquiries and lesson studies outlined above.


Cajkler, W. and Wood, P. (2015) Lesson Study in Initial Teacher Education in Lesson Study: Professional learning for our time, Dudley, P. (Ed.), London, Routledge, 2015, 85-103.

Dudley, P. (2013) Teacher learning in Lesson Study, Teaching and Teacher Education, 34, 107-121.

Littleton, K. and Mercer, N. (2014) Interthinking: putting talk to work. London, Routledge.

A different lens

| by Wendy Lee |

Image: Pixabay

We all see the world from our own perspectives. I’m a speech and language therapist down to my bones and most definitely see the world through a speechie lens…I see communication, the highs and the lows, everywhere, so I thought I would share a bit of my week, where communication has revealed itself in its different guises…


I’m in a school, working with two extremely complex children. We’re planning for next year and trying to work out why one of the boys was upset for the whole of transition day. I’m lucky to have the time to explore with him what he is concerned about. Eventually we work out that because his new classroom is on a lower level, he’s worried about what would happen if the school collapsed. “I don’t like my classroom… It’s underground…everyone would land on top of us…we’re at the bottom.”

Lots of talking (but mainly listening) later and the promise of a treasure hunt on the lower ground floor; he is feeling less worried. His top tip for his teacher next year – it helps if they “excribe” things in short sentences – a perfect (made up) word to capture the mixture of explain and describe!


I’m in Leeds, screening Y6 pupils’ language on transition day in preparation for our work in September. We are a temporary team of therapists, teachers, assistants and speech therapy students, talking to pupils, checking how their language is developing.

The pupils are lovely, though it’s devastating to see the very low language levels of far too many of them. They struggle with the most basic elements of understanding; it’s a constant source of surprise to me how they manage to get through the day. Rarely does anyone question their spoken language – often people question their reading and writing, their attainment, their behaviour.

My perspective, my background allows me to see these children a mile away – the gaps in their language, their strategies of avoidance or substitution, the impact on their learning and self-esteem. Without the right training and support, how are teachers able to see these pupils, to support spoken language as well as written?

Image: Pixabay


I’m in London – wandering the streets of Tottenham, completely lost and late! The map on my phone is an enigma to me (I have no spatial awareness). As I try to work out where I am, a group of young people are walking towards me; they talk together, finishing off each other’s sentences, using teenage language I’m not supposed to understand. It’s rich and vibrant with lots of gesture and laughter. I’m obviously looking stressed as they ask if I need some help and explain in language I can understand, exactly where I need to go. Sometimes young people struggle with an understanding of “register” – knowing what type of language to use in different situations, but this group had it completely nailed!


I am travelling to Cambridge and hear Bringing up Britain on Radio 4. The topic is “critical thinking.” The focus is children and young people; how to teach them to negotiate the vast amounts of information available; to analyse information objectively and come to their own conclusions.

Without strong language skills, critical thinking is not possible and throughout the discussion, the importance of spoken language is tacitly present; reasoning skills, “asking why” and “discussions being important, rather than answers.” It would have been great to give the foundation skills of strong language more prominence in the discussions, but as is so often the case, they are taken for granted. Articulate young people talk about how they are negotiating the current deluge of information… “taking in media, social media or on the news or any information, it’s like a diet, you’ve got to watch what you ingest, you’ve have to eat well and you have to be selective of what you eat.” Surely, we want all our young people to be able to talk and think this way.


I’m in Slough, meeting with two teachers passionate about the importance of children’s communication. It’s lovely to meet and share ideas, but the challenges they face and the support available to them is truly shocking. Sadly, it’s a recurring theme in my work with schools. Services cut to the bone, so diluted to be unrecognisable. I am constantly frustrated by the wasted potential for too many of our children.

On my drive back north, I hear radio 2 – Jeremy Vine exploring what makes us human. An essay read by Charles Moore

“Words make us human because they express our infinite possibilities”

“Words are the most important tools of human freedom”

“All of us, not only the great, have stories and it’s really only in words that they can be fully told”

It sums up a lot of what I think about the importance of spoken language …

Image: Pixabay