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
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…
S: 35. And this maybe 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
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.
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:
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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).
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.
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.
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?
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 …
It’s difficult when you don’t know something that you feel you should, or if you find yourself unable to remember what you thought you knew yesterday. It’s hard to be obviously confused or muddled in your thinking, or uncertain about what you remember. For a child, such problems are almost inevitable given the range of unrelated topics that may be covered in a school day and the intensity of the input they receive in their classroom. Yet this is the very place where they may feel most vulnerable and in the spotlight, amongst friends and others that they are less certain about, and with the constant likelihood of being asked to state what they know, or don’t know.
Children in pairs or groups can help one another as listeners. In parallel with the crucial skill of attentive listening, we can enhance their conversations by teaching children how to elaborate. By this I mean that we can directly teach children how and why to add detail to what they have said and to explain their ideas further – and to ask questions which will encourage others to do the same.
As a first step, we can talk about elaboration, and give examples. We can display, model in practice, and explain some talk tools which encourage others to elaborate:
Elaborate – Talk Tools
Can you say more about….
Say that word again please…tell me a bit more about it…
Do you remember anything else about…
Could you explain again…
What do you mean by….
Can you help me by drawing/describing that idea…
What other words could we use…
How do you know about…
What you said about [-] was interesting – can you add some details…
I don’t remember about [-], do you?
What came next/what happened before that
Does this remind you of anything else you know?
Children taught to ask one another, ‘Can you say more about…?’ are being given a straightforward way in to each other’s thinking. They are also being provided with a way of questioning their own thoughts; saying to themselves, ‘Can I say more about….?’, gives them a useful chance to recall, think laterally, link ideas, or simply reflect for a little longer.
The transfer of knowledge and understanding from one day to the next is a fragile thing. If we are to ensure that every child is able to make sense of the day’s activities, to assimilate ideas, and to be able to put their new learning to use, we must help them by providing the talk skills they require to share what they recall, and to embroider new thinking into a meaningful pattern. Elaborating is a life skill, very necessary for effective group work. As group talk expert Douglas Barnes pointed out:
‘If it can be shown that groups can learn to elaborate, this would be an important educational finding’ (Barnes 1992).
Individual children can certainly learn to elaborate. Jerome Bruner (1960) says that ‘any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development’. Knowing our children, we can teach them to elaborate. Elaboration is not really a complicated feature of talk, but it is unusual for a child to do so, or to ask another to do so. It can be a terrific thing to hear a pair or group of children asking one another to say a bit more, explain, or keep talking about what they were trying to think about together.
We can carry out a thought experiment to evaluate if children really do benefit both from being taught how to elaborate, and being given the opportunity to do so. Imagine that you are attending a lecture at which some of the audience are your friends, and some are strangers. The lecture is on a topic quite unfamiliar to you, let’s say, ‘The problem of quantum mechanics applied to everyday objects’. Immediately after the lecture, the audience disperses. You go home to your usual busy evening. The next day you all reassemble and the lecturer asks you personally a direct, closed question about the topic: ‘What is quantum superposition?’ You must answer. Everyone is waiting. How confident would you feel to respond (even if you did know)?
Now imagine that before this terrible question session, you are given a little time to ask your neighbour in the lecture theatre two questions ‘Could you explain…?’ And, ‘Do you remember anything about….?’. They must ask you the same questions. How do you imagine that this opportunity would influence your confidence? Would it work to discuss understanding as well as knowledge?
Of course, if your neighbour refused to help you think, you would be dismayed. Unless children become familiar with such requests, and the reasons for them, they may well refuse too; they may not wish to share their ideas. They may not know how, and why. But in a talk-focused classroom where children are aware that their thoughts are a very valuable resource for one another, there is a willingness to think aloud, and pride in doing so. Elaboration is a great way in, and children enjoy using the word to provoke one another to think a bit more deeply, or to just keep on talking to them in an interesting way.
Bruner J. (1960) The Processes of Education. Cambridge: MA.
Barnes, D & Todd, F (1995) Communication and Learning Revisited: Making Meaning Through Talk. Portsmouth, NH; Heinemann.
I’ve been thinking about conversation. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines ‘conversation’ as: ‘informal exchange of ideas by spoken words’ from the Latin ‘conversari: to keep company with’ and ‘companio ‘, one who eats bread [pane] with you’. Interesting: conversations as food for the mind.
The word ‘conversation’ itself is ubiquitous and used variously. Is conversation the same as chat, gossip, tête-à-tête, heart-to-heart, head-to-head, exchange, parley, consultation, conference? Are ‘conversation’ and ‘dialogue’ (about which much has already been written in previous blogs on this site) synonymous? Can you ‘converse’ only through talk, or does it also include written exchanges? Where do online ‘conversations’ via, for example, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp or WeChat fit in? Some would argue that the ‘heads down, thumbs up’ nature of online chat is destroying the art of face-to-face conversation (a question for another time).
If ‘oracy’ is a flexible toolkit of skills, strategies and choices that enable a person to use talk to make sense of and get things done in the world, then ‘conversations’ must be at the very centre of this activity.
A friend recently gave me a copy of Theodore Zeldon’s little book: ‘Conversation: how talk can change your life’Sometimes you read something that isn’t a revelation because it introduces completely new ideas, but by clarifying something you kind of already knew without knowing it precisely. That’s what this book did for me. It gave my vague thinking about conversations clarity and focus and led to a new train of thought. Here are a couple of quotations (the book is full of quotable gems):
‘Conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits. When minds meet, they don’t just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought.’
‘Real conversation catches fire…you emerge from a good conversation, or a series of conversations a slightly different person.’
As I read the book I found I was having a conversation with myself about the case Zeldin makes for ‘what conversation can do to your life’. I started to see how the different strands of activity that I am professionally caught up in could all be woven together as examples of ‘good conversations’:
Making the case for oracy (again!)
Arguing for the value of dialogic teaching and learning.
Promoting professional development that leads to lasting change.
Training teachers to be coaches with other teachers (and doing this in a culture and education system that is very different to where I have spent nearly all of my working life).
Paul Warwick makes a powerful case for the importance of dialogue in teaching and learning in his recent blog:
‘…if there is a ‘holy grail’ of developing learners’ 21st Century skills – particularly collaboration and critical thinking skills, such as evaluating and integrating information, forming ideas, and justifying and communicating in and across knowledge domains – then dialogue lies at its heart. It seems that dialogue is therefore one central core to the development of wider oracy skills and capability, and it may be a good place for schools to start.’
Paul also cites ‘Lesson Study’ as a powerful way of supporting professional dialogue about effective teaching and learning. At the core of Lesson Study is the conversation that participating teachers have about the evidence in front of their own eyes.
Recently I have been working in Brunei as part of a team that is helping the Brunei Ministry of Education to start a process of transforming the quality of literacy and mathematics teaching in Brunei state schools. The programme is based on building local capacity to effect and sustain change through training teacher coaches to work in every school with a focus on dialogic teaching and learning. Sixty International coaches started working in schools in January, and there is a parallel programme to train over a hundred local teachers as coaches over the next two years. At the heart of the training is the concept of a ‘coaching conversation’. Coach and coachee (in Brunei we use the title ‘learning partner’) engage in a series of sustained, focused conversations about teaching and learning, as part of a wider programme of support, involving lesson observations, modeling strategies, team teaching and engagement with training materials and resources.
The theory is that as a result positive changes will occur and are more likely to remain in place. Early evidence from the programme indicates that participating teachers have quickly trialled and adopted some core aspects of dialogic teaching. For example, Brunei classrooms typically are often characterised by lots of ‘chorusing’ – pupils responding en masse to a teacher’s question with a single repeated answer. Changing an ingrained habit like this can be frustratingly hard, but many coached teachers are now asking more open questions, with follow-up invitations to pupils to explain their thinking.
Why might this change be the result of good coaching conversations?
A coaching conversation is different to staffroom chat, or department/phase meetings. It is more structured (in Brunei we are using an adapted form of the GROW model: Goal, Reality, Opportunities, What next?).
The participants are colleagues but the coach has the main (not sole) responsibility for the rhythm, flow and practical outcome of the conversation.
The emphasis is always on ‘drawing out’ ideas from the learning partner, based on a belief that teachers are able to identify and solve their own problems, or develop areas for improving their practice.
A coaching conversation is sustained (typically lasting at least 20 minutes, often longer, up to an hour in some instances) and uninterrupted.
A good coaching conversation can liberate a teacher from being stuck with the private interior monologue that many engage in as a way of thinking about what they do. You are no longer isolated in a private way of making sense of what you do; you can be brought to see your teaching, and pupils’ learning in a new light.
These conversations, if they start to ‘catch fire’, also have another outcome: they help to develop, for both coach and learning partner, a better professional language for describing the practical business of teaching and learning. They result in more precise and concrete ways of noticing, analyzing and explaining what happens in classrooms.
They are cumulative: building up over time both for the coach and learning partner, but also in the way that the ideas and accounts of lessons can spread across a school. They create a conversational momentum.
A good coaching conversation exemplifies another of Zeldin’s ground rules for conversations that ‘change how you see the world’:
‘There can be no satisfactory conversation without mutual respect.’
I have had many professional guises – teacher, teacher trainer, examiner, researcher – stretched over more years than I now care to contemplate. The central spine of each of these roles has been a concern with enabling children, and adults, to both acquire the tools for learning and to develop the ability to express their learning in various ways. As a teacher I initially had little idea how to do this, beyond trying to ensure that the facts underpinning the subjects I was teaching were communicated in as ‘effective’ a manner as possible. For me, good teaching was about my ability to instruct and explain, and little to do with the learners in front of me. I was concerned for their development, of course, but I paid little attention to ‘the other side of the coin’ in learning – the fact that all information, opinion, reasoning, speculation and debate that a learner encounters is filtered through their existing understandings, perspectives and prejudices, and accepted, rejected or modified as a result. I knew this about myself of course!, but hadn’t quite translated this interior understanding to an understanding of others.
Time and space to reflect and digest
As I read and thought more, it became blindingly obvious that my students needed more than just well-presented (I hoped!) information and practice in using it. They needed time and space to digest experience, to consider their existing perspectives in the light of the views of others, to present their understandings, justify their reasoning and present the evidence that supported their ideas. Most importantly, they needed time to talk; in broad terms they needed to acquire and develop the skill set associated with oracy, so that their talk might be productive for learning. These skills include the physical, linguistic, cognitive and social skills associated with the various contexts in which talk may be required, which might be expressed as follows :
These skills can perhaps best be thought of as a toolkit, which people who are ‘good at talking’ draw upon, as needed, in the different circumstances in which they find themselves. In a presentation, for example, attention to voice projection, gesture and posture, and the structure and organisation of talk (to pick just three) are likely to be very important; when engaging in a group problem-solving task, building on the views of others, summarising and listening actively (again to pick just three) are likely to be more important. How do we come to know this, and become more adept in unconsciously selecting ‘the right tools for the job?’ We do so by being made aware of the myriad contexts in which talk is different, by being given time to practice different types of talk in different contexts, and by being given the time to reflect on how effective we have been in deploying the skills at our disposal to suit the context. In others words we need to be taught oracy skills in the same way that we need to be taught how best to develop and use literacy or numeracy skills. It will not have escaped your notice that other bloggers on this site have referred variously to the social equity issues surrounding this imperative, and to the fact that it is far from co-incidental that those schooled in the public sector in the UK seem to have been taught such skills and have, in the main, a clear ability to use them appropriately to different contexts.
What’s dialogue got to do with it?
One substantial element of all of this is how learners come to develop the skills of dialogue, which might be thought of a sub-set of broader oracy skills. The intention of learning how to be ‘dialogic’ in classrooms, usually when working in pairs or small groups, is that learners become tolerant of the differing perspectives of others, able to probe their views sensitively, and able to express and justify their own ideas clearly; the ultimate purpose is that people should be able to genuinely co-construct knowledge with others, an ability that employers say is desperately needed in the C21st. workplace. In order to achieve this, developing dialogue requires that learners experience the sharing and evaluation of ideas, and situations where there is a requirement to build ideas collectively, reason, provide justifications and elaborations, and employ evidence to support arguments. This can be done within the parameters of the existing curriculum content, but it takes conviction on the part of teachers, at any level, that the gains in understanding, confidence and engagement are worth the effort. Hopefully the argument so far is convincing you that it is, but we shouldn’t underestimate the fact that commitment to an education framed in this way requires effort.
Developing dialogue through Lesson Study
The time needed, and the constraints apparent in busy schools, lead some to the idea that this is all too difficult, even if they can see the various arguments in favour of promoting dialogue, or developing oracy more broadly. This is understandable with the continuing wave of accountability demands being placed on schools. But there are ways of combining teacher development and the development of teaching and learning that may help. For example, I recently attended a Lesson Study research lesson  as an ‘external expert’, where the focus was on reception children who had been observed not really participating in any lesson discussions, either whole class or in groups. The school was using Lesson Study as a way to examine interventions, and they wanted to look at inclusion aspects of their recent focus on dialogue in lessons. In line with Lesson Study protocols, I was to focus on the involvement of one ‘quiet’ child in the lesson, with other teachers focusing on other children. The questions we were addressing were: to what extent did the focus children actually engage in classroom talk? Was the teacher missing something? Were they more actively engaged than suspected? In devising the lesson, on how to make the best sandcastle (it’s a joy working with younger children), a key point to note is that the teacher had specific talk intentions for the class embedded in his plan (as Lyn Dawes suggests in her practical guides to Thinking Together). He’d thought about getting the children to build on one another’s ideas and provide reasons to explain the order of a sequence of building and testing. He’d considered oral sentence starters – ‘And it would be better if…’ etc. – resources to stimulate talk, and grouping of the children. He hadn’t previously emphasised listening as a key skill, and it became clear that in ‘talking partners’ activities the children in each pair tended to speak at the same time, often to the front of the class. This was one clear finding from all observers. For ‘my’ child, it was clear from detailed observations that she was fully engaged in quite scientific discussions with her partner during practical work, was willing to answer teacher questions, but was reticent in independently offering her ideas in front of others. The subsequent discussion with the teachers was fascinating, raising many issues about how to develop dialogic teaching and learning further.
Personally, I felt that I was watching a lesson that was highly dialogic in character, with the teacher committed to the idea that dialogue improves both thinking and learning outcomes for students. The teachers involved were developing their practice, though each would freely admit that it has taken time and effort to develop a dialogic ethos in their classrooms and to embed dialogic intentions into their practice. A central point here is that, in this school, such developments had the full support of the school management. Several members of staff were released by the head teacher to make classroom observations and to engage in the post-lesson discussion around the quality of observed talk. Management had bought fully into the promotion of dialogue as a generic ‘frame’ for examining and developing learning, both that of students and of teachers. They had understood that if there is a ‘holy grail’ of developing learners’ 21st Century skills – particularly collaboration and critical thinking skills, such as evaluating and integrating information, forming ideas, and justifying and communicating in and across knowledge domains – then dialogue lies at its heart. It seems that dialogue is therefore one central core to the development of wider oracy skills and capability, and it may be a good place for schools to start.
 Mercer, N., et al. (2016) An oracy assessment toolkit: Linking research and development in the assessment of students’ spoken language skills at age 11-12, Learning and Instruction, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2016.10.005.
Please do not cite without permission.
To be clear from the outset, the title is no click-bait: I genuinely believe this to be true. It’s not that I consider written forms of literacy and numeracy unimportant; far from it, I agree with the prevailing consensus that they are really, really important. I just happen to think that oracy – defined simply as the project to help young people develop effective speaking and listening skills – is really, really, really important. To explain how I came to believe this, I need to take you back to the beginning.
An odyssey into oracy
In 2004 I had a kind of mild early-to-mid-life crisis. Stuck in a rut and unable to see a way out, finally one day I quit the job I hated and cycled to Morocco. Traveling to “find oneself” may be clichéd, but in terms of personal development it remains the best thing I ever did. As I was leaving, I grabbed 3 books for the journey: Bob Geldof’s autobiography Is this it?; ‘Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life’; and a book about third world debt written by my cousin, a journalist. Each had been written either by or about someone whose life had been shaped by their exposure to injustice; each had tried to “do something about it”; and each had met with only limited success. My cousin’s book, though well written, was not widely read; the Live Aid money, though well intentioned, had a questionable impact in Ethiopia; and Che Guevara – as a friend once memorably described him – was a beautiful, selfless soul who wanted to bring about world peace through nuclear Armageddon.
As I sat on Essaouira beach reflecting on all of this, it became clear to me that if you really want to change the world – and to paraphrase Ken Loach, if you aren’t angry then you aren’t paying attention – charity fundraising, investigative journalism and indeed armed struggle will only get you so far. It was then that an idea first occurred to me that has returned with increasing frequency, clarity and conviction ever since. To be precise: whenever I contemplate one of life’s many and varied problems, invariably I find myself returned to education’s doorstep. It’s not that I think our education system causes the world’s problems directly; however, I do strongly suspect that if we had a different education system, the world would not be in quite such a mess. And so, like many before me, my decision to become a teacher was accompanied by some naïve and fairly vague intentions about making the world a better place. In particular, having previously worked for the Probation Service I was interested in the idea of helping create an education system that prepares young people for how to deal with the vicissitudes of life; an education system that produces young people who are both knowledgeable and able to view the world with a critical eye; an education system that works for all young people, and not just those who ‘make the grade’ within a system that insists on failure for some. I returned to the UK and enrolled to become a Science teacher.
I am genuinely passionate about the idea of helping the world become more scientifically literate, and following the usual teething difficulties I embraced my new vocation with gusto. However, there was a fly in the ointment: a significant minority of my students – perhaps as many as half – just did not seem interested in Science at all. If I spoke to them in another context – in PSHE lessons say, or during tutor time or over lunch – they would come alive in discussions about current affairs, bullying or animal rights: typically, any topic with a moral dimension. By contrast, conversations about bio-fuel generators, electromagnetism and the reactivity series of the halogens were, for many of my students, pretty much a non-starter. As time went on I became increasingly frustrated by my limited scope for talking with my students about things that they really care about.
Then one day, I went to a Gifted and Talented conference where a local primary headteacher spoke passionately about Philosophy for Children (P4C). In case you aren’t aware, P4C is a teaching method where you sit in a circle and discuss ideas at length in such a way as to develop a broad range of cognitive, social, emotional thinking and reasoning skills. My mind was immediately blown. I got trained in the approach and started using it as soon as I could – in PSHE mainly, but also in the occasional Science lesson.
Once my classes had learned how to interact in this way, the lessons would fly by – and I could see my students growing in confidence and eloquence almost in real time. The better you get at running P4C sessions, the less you have to talk. Observing quietly as my students politely and articulately questioned their own and others’ ideas; looking on as they deconstructed arguments and developed new shared understandings; witnessing the forging of new identities… this was what I came into teaching for! I signed up for an MA in person-centred education, through which I learned that philosophical enquiry is part of a wider tradition within education: the field of oracy.
The bigger picture (of a skewed playing field)
The word ‘oracy’ first entered the literature more than 50 years ago in an attempt to place speaking and listening on an equal footing with written forms of numeracy and literacy (Wilkinson, 1965). Given the history of schooling, where ‘speaking and listening’ has traditionally played second fiddle to written forms of literacy and numeracy – in state schools, at least – this was a welcome development. Since then however, oracy has had a turbulent history in schools, swinging in and out of favour as outlined in this blog by Alan Howe.
I attended secondary state school from 1987-1992, a period which coincided with the National Oracy Project. However it can’t have been very ‘national’ because speaking and listening was not on the menu at my school. There was no philosophical enquiry; no debating club; no emphasis on public speaking. Once, I entered a debating competition with some classmates, where we found ourselves in a head-to-head with the neighbouring independent grammar school. Needless to say, we got torn to shreds. It was embarrassing.
It was only this year that I discovered what I think is a staggering fact. In one of the most common forms of competitive debate, the team proposing the motion are referred to as the ‘government’, and the team arguing against are referred to as the ‘opposition’. The individuals opening the debate are referred to as the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, and those opposing are referred to as the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition.
Just take a moment to let this sink in. At schools like Eton, which recently spent £18 million on a new debating chamber, students regularly get to play a game of ‘government versus opposition’. In state schools, children are regularly told to sit down and shut up. This is a sweeping generalisation of course, but I would venture there is more than a grain of truth in it. In state schools, ‘stop talking in class’ is a common refrain: the slogan of the pro-oracy organisation Voice21 – ‘get talking in class’ – is well-chosen. And people wonder why so many children from independent schools seem to graduate with unflappable confidence. I wonder where this might come from?
Meanwhile back at the odyssey…
My MA dissertation almost broke me. I spent an entire summer bashing away at a keyboard, chipping away at the marble to reveal what turned out to be a fairly ineffectual early attempt at using philosophical enquiry as an approach to teaching Year 8 PSHE. One day, I dragged myself away from my darkened room to attend a friend’s 30th on Hove Lawns. “There’s a homeless guy eating your buffet”, said one guest to the birthday girl. “No that’s just James. He’s doing a Masters.”
By the end of the summer, I was spent. “No more academia for me” I resolved, shaken. “I have scraped the bottom of the barrel, and I don’t like the noise it makes.” I submitted my dissertation and returned to the classroom. When I did however, something was different. Not just something – everything. I planned, taught, spoke differently. The children spoke differently. They behaved differently. And I responded to them in ways that were different again.
The process of writing 20,000 words over the summer – reading, thinking and reflecting deeply on the role of speaking and listening as drivers of thinking, reasoning and learning – had been utterly transformative. Ideas that I had previously grasped only on an intellectual level, I now felt in my bones. Without wanting to overstate the case, it was as though my very professional identity had been disassembled, reconditioned and put back together by people who knew what they were doing.
By coincidence, that year my school introduced a year 7 ‘thinking curriculum’ for 5 lessons a week. I jumped at the chance to help develop what essentially became an oracy-based curriculum. You name it, we did it: riddles, thunks, role-play, philosophy, exploratory talk, paired talk, ground rules for group talk, story-telling, active listening, forum theatre, public speaking, structured debates, problem solving, project-based learning, consensus building, conflict resolution, the explicit teaching of thinking and reasoning skills… this was not pedagogy; this was the curriculum. Our teaching methods were traditional: modelling; explaining; providing regular, scaffolded opportunities for deliberate practice; and plenty of rich, detailed feedback. Progressive ends through traditional means, you might say.
We delighted in witnessing students progress from awkward inaudible mumbling to confident, independent campaigners and leaders of assemblies. The students spoke and wrote about how the course helped them find their voice; find their identity; learn to stick up for themselves; to get along with people they never would have usually spoken with; to make their way in the world. I signed up to do a PhD to study the impact of the Learning Skills curriculum, as it became known. This 5-year impact evaluation revealed some considerable success: there were statistically significant gains in subject learning across all subjects combined, and a significant closing of the Pupil Premium gap from the bottom up (from 25% to 2% within the space of a single school year; see Mannion & Mercer, 2016, for details).
Reasons for levelling the playing field
We humans are alive for the blink of an eye and, since the world is far from perfect, we should probably do everything we can with the time that we have to make it a better place. I remain convinced that teaching is the best way to shape a better world. However, most of the time being a teacher does not feel like you are changing the world. Often it feels more like you’re in an unethical social psychology experiment from the 1950s about obedience to authority, or to see how far people are willing to stretch a reckless disregard for work-life balance.
Within teaching – for me at least – oracy is the thing. Helping young people develop their speaking and listening skills – and seeing their confidence and their sense of self bloom as a consequence – this is the thing that makes me feel like I might just be helping make the world a better place.
In no particular order, here are some reasons why I think teachers should place oracy at the forefront of their practice:
Standards. When it’s done well, teaching through oracy boosts academic attainment.
The Pupil Premium gap. It is students from disadvantaged backgrounds who have the most to gain from an education centred around the development of high quality speaking and listening skills.
Moral purpose. Oral development at a young age is a powerful predictor of many quality of life indicators such as future earnings, mental health or life expectancy. Some people arrive on this planet having been dealt an enviable hand. Many are far less fortunate. Teachers are uniquely positioned to actually do something about this.
Retention. Teaching through oracy helps teachers find (or relocate) their mojo. And on a related, more practical note for the time-pressed teacher: when you teach a predominantly oracy-based lesson, there is less written marking to do. Why slave away your evenings writing feedback which is far less effective than some well-chosen words, fed back and responded to in real time?
Participatory democracy / power. People who are in (or vying for) positions of power speak very differently to people who aren’t. Typically, although not always, politicians have greater verbal fluency than members of the general public. This is apparent on Question Time every week. Verbal fluency does not make people more knowledgeable or more moral, and nor does it make them act in the interests of the people they seek to represent. All it does it give them the appearance that they know what they’re talking about – and the confidence to pull it off. Speeches change the world perhaps more than anything else. How can we hope to run a society along the lines of participatory democracy when only a small (wealthy) elite are taught how to speak the language of power?Let’s give the power of verbal fluency to everyone, and not just the privileged few.
The survival of the species. Let’s be frank: the future of human civilisation (and indeed the present) is looking decidedly dicey. If we are going to avoid some kind of self-inflicted mass extinction event, we really need to learn to get along with one another. As it happens, you can teach that in schools, and you do it through talk – how to establish common ground, how to disagree constructively, or how to resolve conflicts in an equitable manner – to name just a few.
How Oracy Cambridge can help
If you would like to hear more about how to develop oracy skills in your organisation (not just schools), we can help you with that. Drop us a line at email@example.com – we’d love to hear from you.