Out with a group of children looking at a local pond, one of them was watching rooks who had made nests and were evidently incubating eggs – a noisy process. He said that that they didn’t come down very often to breathe. When asked to explain, he said that he knew that there was less air as you got higher, and the trees were very high; he knew whales could go for an hour or so without coming up to breathe, so maybe rooks could go for an hour up in the trees without coming down to breathe. The creativity and imagination involved in this idea was a little breathtaking in itself; and it was only the chance to talk that allowed the child to make his thoughts clear to himself, and the rest of us.
Each child holds an individual conception of the world around them; the child’s imagination has worked on the raw material of experience and helped them to make sense of things. Children can generate informal explanations for what they notice without ever putting such concepts into words, because usually it isn’t necessary. The sun – or at least the daylight – appears in the morning and disappears at night; a ball rolling on grass will stop eventually, in the same way that they themselves stop when they run out of energy; caterpillars are a kind of worm, and butterflies a kind of fly.
A child may never have considered that there are other points of view or other explanations. We may only gain insight into creative thinking – or misconceptions – when a child tells you that a rainbow is a ribbon, or describes how waves bring the tide up the shore, or says that ducks have four legs; and it seems wrong to challenge such charming explanations. But the history of human endeavour in science has led us to a set of increasingly robust explanations of how things work, and it is our responsibility to help children to see this more scientific point of view (and it’s reassuring to remember that it remains perfectly possible to hold on to the idea that rainbows are ribbons even when you have learned about the spectrum of visible light.)
Most learning is social, and classroom activities can offer the chance to talk about a range of ideas with classmates. Talk fosters curiosity and prepares a child to open their mind to new information and evidence. Talking about marking the day’s succession of shadows in the playground, coupled with discussing simulations of the earth in space, can help the child’s thinking and understanding to develop. Talking about, looking at, and trying to touch rainbows made by crystal sun-catchers helps the child to see that they are light and to say what they notice. The authoritative scientific idea is really no less wonderful than what they imagined.
Both the opportunity to talk, and the type of talk, influence learning. A child playing alone with a wet sand and dry sand will have an important sensory experience. A group of children talking about types of sand, their textures, behaviour and uses, will extend their vocabulary and hear new ideas to think about. A group of children talking with a teacher who is modelling the use of exploratory questions, and adding in some helpful vocabulary, have more to think about when they are left to play alone. Children need all of these experiences. A session where children play with sand and argue over who is next with the sieve is another sort of learning altogether. In classrooms, planning talk for learning and teaching both oracy skills and curriculum knowledge can ensure the sort of conversations that keep moving children’s thinking on.
Children talking sometimes don’t know what they are going to say until they’ve said it. What children think they know is what they try to say. There is no other way that this thinking will become so clearly apparent to you, or to them. The language they use and what they know are almost the same thing, and are precipitated by talk with their classmates. Talk with and between children allows them to see where their understanding stops and raise questions that they are interested in answering. But we know that a child may feel they are tight-rope walking socially if they admit that they don’t understand or if they offer a tentative idea. A collaborative classroom ethos with explicit talk rules can provide a secure safety net, enabling the child to express ideas with no fear of judgement. Learning by interthinking becomes possible if every child feels that they have a voice.
One advantage of learning how to explain ideas and negotiate them with others is that the child is gaining experience which prepares them for future team work – and future life generally. But the need to learn the most powerful genres of talk is really pressing for the child as they go through their everyday life. They need an oracy education for the here and now. Children directly taught how to talk to others are better able to access the education on offer in class, and better able to listen to and shape their own thoughts. Knowing some simple talk tools: What do you think? Why do you think that? I agree, because – I disagree, because – Can you explain please? Can you say a bit more about that? Can you repeat that? What do you mean? – knowing what ‘listen’ really means, and knowing that others are prepared to listen to you as you do to them – this education in oracy is essential for every moment of the child’s present. Communication is what children thrive on. And deferring or avoiding the teaching of talk skills limits a child to a smaller and much less comprehensible world.
The idea that birds in tall trees must come down to breathe is poetry really. The child dreams up such ideas when they notice things that their curious minds want to explain. Ideas that we teach as science have become currency through conversations over time and space, to enable us all to understand the world. Exploratory talk is integral to science. Teaching science through talk and vice versa is what the child of today deserves.
Loxley, P. Dawes, L. Nicholls, L. and Dore, B. (2017) 3rd Edition. Teaching Primary Science: Promoting Enjoyment and Developing Understanding. London: Routledge.
Dawes, L & Sams, C. (2017) 2nd Edition. Talk Box: Activities for Teaching Oracy with Children Aged 4–8. London: Routledge.
Dawes, L & Foster, J. (2016) Jumpstart! Talk for Learning: Games and Activities for Ages 7-12. London: Routledge/David Foster.
During the recent wave of strike action by University staff to defend our pensions, many of us have been standing huddled against the cold weather, in groups outside our workplaces. On the first day of strike action, I had no idea what to expect. A handful of us arrived and discussed where we should stand, then held up our signs and chatted fairly randomly about the pension valuation and the weather. We began to discuss the tensions involved in striking, and not doing the jobs we love. And we began to discuss some of the theories and ideas behind what was happening at Universities around the country.
By week 2, our numbers had grown significantly. We were a group that spanned different research groups, teaching programmes, roles and responsibilities, ages, stages and backgrounds. We were joined by students and by some local sixth-formers who brought us tea during their morning break. And we began to realise that something unique was happening. Whereas inside the building roles were fairly fixed and discussion happened within certain groups and followed certain conventions, outside the building there were no such rules. Instead of the more formal learning that takes place during teaching sessions or research seminars, discussion was more open and collaborative, and the learning was palpable.
For week 3, we decided to formalise this to some extent and hold teach-outs. Each day had a theme, and often someone who had done some work on that topic started things off. But the format was ‘open-mic’ or rather ‘open-megaphone’ out on the street, on one of the busiest routes into Cambridge city. We had a poetry slam, a session on accountability measures, and a session on the critical theorist Theodor Adorno, during which we warmed our frozen fingers at the brazier and jumped on the spot to stay warm.
The informal learning continued during week 4, through discussions, in groups, and without barriers. We realised the power of talk for learning. We realised that We Are The University.
Last year, I attended a fascinating talk by Simon Lancaster, a professional speechwriter. It was a variation on a TEDx talk he did a couple of years ago, which you can see here – it’s well worth 20 minutes of your time.
Ever since, I’ve become kind of obsessed with the way leaders use language to get things done. Simon’s talk covers just six techniques, but there are many more (see here, for example). Once you learn about these rhetorical sleights of hand, you start seeing them everywhere. And once you realise that you can use these techniques to argue just as passionately for something as against it, it makes you suitably suspicious of those with a slick way with words. So not only does learning about rhetoric make you better at speaking and writing, it helps you read the world more critically.
All of which begs the question: why wasn’t I taught this stuff when I was at school? Why am I only learning about this now, in my forties? Regular readers of these pages will know that the teaching of things like ancient rhetoric is currently under-represented in (most) schools, compared with written literacy and numeracy. However, this is quite a recent development.
Throughout the middle ages, rhetoric was a part of the Trivium (alongside logic and grammar), a core curriculum first established in ancient Greece. Indeed, as Simon points out in his TEDx talk, “In London, right the way through to the 19th century, it was possible to get a free education in rhetoric, but not in mathematics, reflecting the importance that was placed on the topic”.
More recently, the teaching of ancient rhetoric has primarily become the preserve of exclusive (also, notably, male) public schools such as Eton, Harrow and Rugby. Take, for example, this short clip of Boris Johnson talking about Churchill’s way with words. There’s a fascinating moment where Johnson says “now that is an ascending tricolon, isn’t it?” Here, he speaks as though an understanding of ancient rhetorical techniques is common knowledge. To which one might lament, “If only it were true”. However, a better response would be, “Let’s prove him right”. Time’s up on this, as well.
The Language of Power: a one-day workshop
Anyway. A few months ago, Oracy Cambridge was contacted by Villiers Park, a fabulous charity that works with hundreds of young people throughout the UK, providing intensive support and outreach for students in years 10 to 13, to help them transition to a successful life beyond the school gates. They asked us to run a series of workshops with their year 13 scholars, to help develop their confidence with public speaking before they leave the school system for good: better late than never, as they say.
So, I put together a workshop to teach students “how to speak like a leader”. Since the new year, I’ve been running these workshops up and down the country, from Hastings to Tyneside, and the feedback from the students has been extraordinary. Here’s a sample of comments from the Villiers Park scholars:
“Needs to be longer. Have it over a weekend with multiple teams debating controversial topics with each other.”
“Really enjoyed it. Personal as we could choose our own topic.”
“The workshop was very well set, I thoroughly enjoyed it and thus no improvement should be made.”
What did you find most useful?
“The presenting along with feedback coupled with the teaching of language devices.”
“The quiz – fun, good for learning.”
“I learnt effective techniques in structuring my speech. To deliver confidently, likewise learning and understanding the terms.”
“Looking at examples of powerful speeches – shows people what to aim for.”
“Learning the different techniques used in language.”
“Analysing and picking out techniques – the quiz.”
“The demo of how the speech can be done by the presenter.”
“The analysis of Oprah and Trump speeches, because it was real-life examples of the techniques we’ve developed.”
Now coming to a town near you… (if you book it)
Oracy Cambridge are now opening up the offer to run these workshops in schools and workplaces around the country. It would work well as a one-day workshop for children (years 5 to 13). If you want to embed high standards of presentational skills across your school, we also offer it as a training event for teachers and support staff. And we’re also offering it to workplaces, because apparently (or so I am reliably informed) there is a world beyond the education system.
A brief summary of an inspiring day at the inaugural Great Oracy Exhibition at School 21 in Stratford, London.
Today, I attended what was probably my favourite ever education conference. And for someone who once wrote six blogs about a single #researchED conference, that’s saying something.
I’ve been to a few oracy conferences before, but this was the first one that’s been hosted by a school, where the vast majority of presentations and workshops were run by practising teachers or involved students. I’ve argued on these pages before that oracy is approaching the point at which it ‘tips’ into the collective consciousness and takes its rightful place alongside literacy and numeracy, and today was perhaps the strongest evidence I’ve yet encountered to suggest that this might actually be more than just wishful thinking.
The heart of Harkness
It’s actually kind of difficult to describe the first session. Picture a packed classroom, with around 60 people staring at an oval table around which fifteen A-level politics students conduct a nuanced twenty-minute discussion about the statement ‘Theresa May is not a true conservative’. See what I mean?
In case you aren’t familiar, a Harkness Table is method for having a discussion that’s more open and collaborative than a lecture or a debate. This was a gripping session with students holding their own in the face of some quite challenging questions from the Guardian’s political editor Anushka Asthana. What was noticeable was not just the quality of talk, but the knowledge these students had to back it up. I learnt more about conservatism in these 20 minutes than in all my years as a news junky. Which is pretty crazy when you think about it.
Raising the bar, closing the gap with an oracy-based curriculum
In the next session, I gave a talk to another packed room about the study that’s the focus of my recently-submitted PhD. In a nutshell, it’s an 8-year evaluation of an oracy-based Learning to Learn curriculum that found significant gains in subject learning, with particularly accelerated gains among students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The slides are below; there’s a journal article here and another due out later this year, and a book in the pipeline. We’re really keen to find out whether these positive findings can be replicated in other settings – if you’re interested in finding out more, drop me a line (email@example.com).
Mind-blowing speeches by 8-year olds
Throughout the next session, I sat with fellow Learning to Learn enthusiast Becky Carlzon in open-mouthed incredulity at the quality of the speeches delivered by a group of year 4 students. I have never witnessed such compelling speechwriting and delivery among even A-level students before, let alone among 8-year olds. The quality of the writing, the sophistication of language, the passion, the drama, the delivery – it really was absolutely mind-blowing.
As the School 21 head Peter Hyman said in his opening address, oracy is a really complex and layered thing. It’s certainly about much more than just public speaking. That said, I strongly suspect that if all children were taught and encouraged and supported to speak to this standard throughout their school years, in the space of a generation we would transform society on a tidal wave of confidence and eloquence that we can’t even imagine. So we should probably do that and see what happens.
Adventures in social mobility
The final session was a fascinating conversation between Beccy Earnshaw, Director of Voice 21, and Hashi Mohamed, who came to the UK as an unaccompanied refugee aged nine, and who later became a barrister. Hashi wrote an influential opinion piece for the Guardian last year, and you can hear more about his story, and his take on social mobility, in an excellent programme for Radio 4 that you can listen to here.
One of Hashi’s central messages is that his success is far more down to luck than hard work. He spoke of the countless times as a youngster when he made bad decisions and was ‘shown mercy’ by a teacher or police officer. Food for thought for advocates of zero tolerance and no excuses discipline. He concluded by saying something we don’t hear often enough: that teachers are amazing, and that we are incredibly powerful, and that we need to wield our power wisely.
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.
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 .
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 , and by Christine Howe, Sara Hennessy, myself and other colleagues at Cambridge  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.
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…
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…
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.
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.
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:
Leaders should assign each member the role of “critical evaluator”. This allows each member to freely air objections and doubts.
Leaders should not express an opinion when assigning a task to a group.
Leaders should absent themselves from many of the group meetings to avoid excessively influencing the outcome.
The organization should set up several independent groups, working on the same problem.
All effective alternatives should be examined.
Each member should discuss the group’s ideas with trusted people outside of the group.
The group should invite outside experts into meetings. Group members should be allowed to discuss with and question the outside experts.
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:
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)…
Our ability to overcome many of these threats depends on our ability to:
Communicate with one another
Collaborate in determining and executing solutions
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.
We need to explicitly teach people
How to speak and listen effectively
How to get along with one another, and resolve conflict where it arises
How to collaborate effectively – internalising and culturally embedding the kinds of rules for productive collaboration outlined by Janis and the Thinking Together team
How to interthink and interact in productive ways
that this can be done in schools, to a very significant degree; and
that this does not happen in schools to the extent that it should.
The word oracy has been around for 50 years. However:
Many teachers haven’t heard of it
Even those that have – and who value oracy – often don’t make time for it, for a range of reasons.
That which is assessed is that which gets done. For examples, league tables incentivise schools to “game the system”.
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!
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.
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.