Leading Oracy in School – Part 1: the enduring potential and the wicked issues.

 

by Pete Dudley

Image: Pixabay

I was privileged to be asked to do some work recently with the first national cohort of ‘Oracy Leaders’ as they neared the end of their second term on this one year Voice 21-led course.

We spent an interesting session exploring the challenges and successes so far of leading oracy in school.

In this blog I will explore the successes and some specific challenges these Oracy Leaders are currently experiencing. They are in the vanguard of many to follow.

In the two blogs that will follow between now and the National Oracy Leaders Conference in July, I will look at some of the approaches that can help Oracy Leaders and their colleagues to begin to address some of these challenges.

Early successes

I was impressed by successes these Oracy Leaders had already achieved after less than two terms in their role. Most were well on the way to gaining a not easily won, peer-bestowed permission from their colleagues: permission to lead on oracy with them, for them and on their behalf. Many had already led successful sessions with staff – with the whole school even – sowing the seeds that make the case for developing oracy as a tool that can for pupils unlock their ‘growth mindsets’ and ‘self-as-learner’ beliefs. These are pre-requisites for communicative confidence and sustainable achievement.

They gave vivid examples of oracy’s rapid impact on pupils’ abilities to think and reason aloud articulately when contributing in class; of how this was creating a hunger amongst teachers to build more oracy into their lessons and a desire to manage-down teacher-talk to free up space for this to happen.

I heard how their Action Research enquiries were revealing facets of talk, thought, curriculum and pedagogy that were opening the eyes and ears of adults and pupils alike. And I sensed how these changes in culture and confidence were beginning to hook senior leaders, parents and governors into the power and potential of an oracy-rich school. Pupils were loving their new found voices; both the voice we can all hear and the voice inside their heads that only they can hear; the one that gives them the power over thought and communication.

I was both grateful for and impressed by the Oracy Leaders’ candour, their honest analysis of the oracy leader role, and their reflections on what I believe are demands that are probably unique to leading oracy in a school.

Oracy Across the School

Forty five years ago the ‘Bullock’ report ‘A Language for Life,’ (DES, 1973) broke new ground in conceiving of language, in educational terms, as a whole-school phenomenon: language across the curriculum, and of leading it as a whole-school responsibility. The report’s recommendations were powerful and groundbreaking but also (in retrospect) blindingly clear, common sense. Yet many schools struggled then to bring the concept of language across the curriculum into practice successfully. And quite a number still do.

For reasons I will elaborate upon now, I believe leading talk across the curriculum is arguably one of the hardest aspects of leading ‘language’ across the curriculum – which has tended the past to focus in on reading and writing.

Currents below the surface

Spoken language is omnipresent in schools, classrooms, playgrounds and lessons, so much so that we are blinded to it by familiarity.

It is hard to know where or how to start to turn talk into something which we need to become conscious of, sensitised to, something which we constantly notice, tune into, and upon which we increasingly reflect in relation to the learning it promotes. The prospect of starting out on such an endeavour can be as daunting as hearing for the first time long, lilting, unbroken sequences of talk in an unknown language and trying to work out where individual words begin and end. Oracy is slippery and difficult to grasp.

This is one reason why I believe that oracy can be particularly challenging to lead. It may be a reason why it has failed so many times, despite efforts, to find its rightful place in and across the curriculum. We must not let it again evade such efforts which are to be felt in the momentum now building behind the current oracy ‘movement’.

So lets look at the issues that were providing most challenges to the oracy leaders.

Wicked Oracy issues

There are two distinct faces of oracy in school: (i) oracy as an overt skill set and (ii) oracy as an integrated pedagogy. The vast majority of what I will focus on here concerns the second, because this is the face that in school carries the power of oracy right across the curriculum and deep into subject expertise.

I want to examine three wicked issues that were experienced to some extent by most of the oracy leaders, despite their evident successes. I will explore them here and then in my next two blogs blog offer some ideas for addressing each of them in turn.

Many aspects of the three issues will I am sure be familiar to anyone who has had a whole school leadership responsibility. But the combination of all three creates a unique set of challenges for leaders of oracy.

Issue 1 is the existence of an invisible barrier that makes it difficult for some to grasp how oracy can be a powerful, pedagogical ‘means’ to almost any subject-knowledge ‘end’. It is sometimes hard for people to imagine or to accept how something as simple and commonplace as talk can be the tool that is essential for all wondering, hypothesising, struggling, re-thinking, and realising; and as such the ‘means’ that enables understanding to grow, knowledge to form, and learning to take place.

Issue 2 (a likely consequence of theme 1) is a view held by some that focusing on oracy in different subjects ‘waters down’a lesson in terms of its prime purpose – teaching the subject knowledge that is the object of that lesson’s learning. This view can even lead to oracy across the curriculum being seen as an ‘indulgence’ for which there is no time.

Issue 3 emerges as an impatient pressure from ‘on high’ for the oracy leader to demonstrate measurable pupil progress in order to provide evidence to senior managers that the oracy is having ‘impact’ and so justify continued investment. The need for such immediate organisational gratification leaves little room for teachers to experiment in their classrooms together developing the practices needed to overcome wicked issues 1 and 2 above, and so can quickly choke off development before it has had a chance to take root.

All three of these together suggest to me that there is something bigger at play here. And my belief is that this has to do with the invisible nature of what makes oracy powerful. This is the elision of thought and talk, and one’s ability as an oracy leader to imagine that elision vividly enough to model it and to shape it. This needs to happen firstly in one’s own mind and teaching, and then you need to engineer opportunities for the pupils of your colleagues to encounter that elision themselves in the mathematics-talk or music-talk or science-talk that one’s colleagues orchestrate for them in their lessons.

I am referring to the elision of talk and thought that an oracy leader needs to pinpoint, capture and bring to life in lessons, and to encourage and help colleagues do so too, in their classrooms and subjects. (My next blog will focus on this).

For many, leading oracy means, with one’s colleagues, breaking new ground.

Figure 1. Leading on something new and from the middle

We discussed the extent to which the wicked issues might have arisen as a result of the ‘novel’ nature of oracy as a curricular and pedagogical phenomenon, compared with what might have been the case had oracy been a more established, traditional curriculum subject or pedagogical approach.

We also discussed whether– whatever the degree of ‘SLT support’ – oracy leaders are often working amidst their colleagues. While they are doing a lot of ‘coordinating’, these oracy leaders were very clear they were ‘Leading’ oracy with a capital ‘L’.

While this complexity of innovation and role explains some of the challenges facing oracy leaders, it does not explain how to help them and their colleagues to get a handle on the invisible elision of thought and talk, or how then to place all this in the confident hands of fellow professionals.

Meta-thinking

It is hard to think about language and thought (a concept let’s say) because when we try to do so we are inevitably using language (the voice in our heads) to have the thoughts and so do the thinking.

Think about the words in the box below for a few seconds.

Is it?…. Or is it not?

This shows how difficult it is difficult for an item of language to refer to itself. It is similarly difficult for us to use our thoughts to refer to themselves. But to discuss talk and thought, one has to find ways of doing so. And to lead oracy one has to find ways of helping others to do so too.

Language, thoughts, concepts, utterances, all come out of our mouths as one and also go into the ears of our interlocutors – as one; and all unconsciously. We are conscious of the meanings we want to convey and of the meanings we make of what we hear. But we are oblivious to the mechanics of it all – mental and physical. (If we weren’t, we’d probably go mad after only a few sentences).

In addition to all this, is the almost impossible separation for some, of word from concept.

I remember a friend relating a conversation she’d had with a well-educated and professionally successful colleague who had expressed a view that the French word ‘eau’ was a crazy word to use for ‘water’.

If you can stop cringing for just a second, you can sort of understand what she meant. It is a very simple and clear illustration of the double difficulty of leading oracy in school. Most people who are not bilingual or who are not used to thinking about language as an entity, find it hard to process thoughts about language and to separate words from meaning, for long enough to do any serious moulding, shaping or ‘engineering’ of that thought and talk to enable it to facilitate learning.

So oracy as a pedagogy is a doubly difficult thing to lead because it is both intangible and difficult, even to think about. But it needs to be made tangible and visible and less difficult to think about by the oracy leader.

How are oracy leaders overcoming these wicked issues?

This is why I am interested in leadership of oracy and particularly in the leadership of oracy by people who are not in the highest echelons of power in their organisations. I believe that it is really only with the permission of peers that the agency of people in this kind of leadership role is given true licence. This agency extends to a range of very different roles and it needs to do so if it is to bring about truly transformational change.

Winning the trust and respect of one’s peers to gain such permission from one’s colleagues is therefore vital for the would-be oracy leader.

Our national oracy leaders saw themselves as fulfilling multiple roles with their colleagues. These roles included:

  • Cross-Curriculum innovator?
  • Whole school coach
  • Pedagogical demonstrator and modeler
  • Resident expert
  • Chief organiser of oracy events, days,
  • Initiator, writer of subject embedded oracy ‘units’
  • Talk champion
  • Leader of professional enquiry and learning
  • Team-builder of oracy enthusiasts
  • CPD leader
  • Project manager
  • Updater of SLT and governors.

These are twelve distinct roles and carrying them out demands very different sets of skills and knowledge. The National Oracy Leaders course was helping them to anticipate and research many of them. But when it comes to exploring and surfacing deeper conceptual knowledge and beliefs around relationships between thought, language, words and meanings in lessons, and about specific ‘subject knowledge,’ there is a need also to formatively assess the starting points of one’s colleagues.

Making a necessity out of virtue

It is when they see the impact that a focus on oracy has on children’s self-confidence and achievement, that practitioners start to believe that it may be something in which it is worth such an investment of effort and such a risk of change. Earlier I made a distinction between oracy as a skill-set and oracy as a pedagogy and said I would focus mostly on the latter – which I have. This is partly because people can consciously see and immediately grasp the oracy as a skill, conscious oracy, as effective in all these ways. But it is harder for them to do so where they perceive talk activities invading subject teaching as a dilution, rather than as an accelerant to learning.

Usually, it is changed-beliefs that change behaviours. Sometimes it is changed-behaviours that can change beliefs. Rarely do both happen simultaneously. But I am pretty sure this was what was beginning to happen for some of the oracy leaders who were so skilfully combining their multi-faceted role.

I believe that (in this particular strand of professional knowledge and know-how), being a trusted and informed peer-professional in the very midst of the fellow professionals that one is leading, is a vital key to achieving lasting, sustainable change in practice and in belief and in creating a community of practice in an organisation.

In my next two blogs (between now and July) I will examine a few practical professional devices that can help crack some of the conceptual, linguistic, cognitive, affective and cultural challenges that confront Oracy Leaders in developing professional capacity for improving oracy in school.

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