Oracy changing practice in the workplace: a dialogblogue

| by Pete Dudley |

Let’s introduce ourselves. I am an ex-teacher – and someone who wants the best from education for all children and young people – and I think there is a lot to gained from paying more attention to ‘oracy’.

And I am a social worker. I guess I also want the best outcomes for all – from my own professional perspective. And I don’t know that much about oracy yet. It’s not been part of the social care curriculum. So tell me, why do you believe so firmly that oracy is going to be the thing that has that kind of effect on people?

In part, it is because ‘talk’ is the operating system of choice for the conscious human brain; talk is no.1 for receiving, thinking and communicating ideas. Reading and writing come way down the list. Our thought is brought to our consciousness by a voice in our head that tells us our thoughts in a way that we can become conscious of and understand them. We then give our thoughts voice – we make them public. We talk. And our talk is the most accurate expression of ourselves – of us.

And the process reverses…

Yes. People listen to talk and their brains use the common organ of spoken language to build and understand these ideas in their own minds – occasionally checking for meaning.

But that hard-wiring for talk makes us acutely susceptible to talk – much more so than writing. Talk is persuasive, evocative, compelling and at best powerful. People who talk effectively get their way, become leaders and influencers.

And that’s only ‘part’ of the importance of oracy?!!

Yes. There’s a big down side to all this. Our own talk is mostly invisible to us. Talk forms much of how our consciousness operates. And it’s hard for a person to be consciously aware of their own operations and still keep operating effectively. Producing talk is almost beyond our comprehension. Even thinking about what we are saying as we speak gets us tongue-tied. So, talk is great for getting thoughts into the open but it’s hard to manage and edit one’s talk to get the point across with the greatest effect.

And of course we feel vulnerable making our ‘selves’ public by voicing our thought. Especially once we’ve hit puberty when how our talk sounds becomes a fixed facet of the ’us’ that’s becoming an adult.

So ‘talk’, while magically delivering the gift of transmittable thought, cruelly hobbles it as well.

So how does oracy help? This sounds more like personality differences than communication.

Oracy is a set of understandings and skills that make our talk ‘visible’ to us as we use it. And helps us hear it with the ears of our listeners so we can consciously intervene in order to adjust its meaning and improve its effect. Oracy gives you rear view mirrors with which to see your talk, and instruments to examine how it is affecting your listeners; without causing you to ‘crash’ mid-sentence. It gives you tools to plan your talk well in advance, and to manipulate it seconds in advance. Rather than just coming out with… stuff, you can self-regulate your talk, as you talk.

I’ve seen children as young as six confidently using structures like ‘I agree with X and would like to add Y…’ or ‘I would like to disagree with X because ….and suggest…’. At first it’s like speaking a foreign language. But when you use it and it works, you find that you soon stop trying to be like ‘it’ and suddenly, ‘it’ becomes part of you. You become a more effective communicator – and thinker – because you have the oracy tools to think, speak and be fully understood: ‘Accountable Talk’ as they say in the States.

Right – we’ve started doing something at work when we are discussing complex family situations, where we agree to ‘step out of’ the ‘professional’ conversation in order to test out whether we are making the right decisions and not missing any important angles. It makes it okay to check out simple things and even okay to sound inexperienced or stupid, because that way we know we will make better decisions collectively as a result. Then we ‘step back in’ to the professional conversation and make our professional judgements.

We can step in and out of the formal professional dialogue (in and out of role really) whenever we want. It takes some getting used to – and you have to trust the people you are working with. But it really helps to get things right. And it also helps to build trust.

And you know, teachers are beginning to do something similar. Because classrooms are so fast, busy and unpredictable, teachers have to learn very quickly how to use their instinctive ‘tacit knowledge’ not just to control their talk – but 90% of everything they do in the classroom as well. They might be consciously involved in an intense conversation with one pupil, while dealing with numerous other occurences completely obliviously.

So now when teachers decide to find out how to improve their pupils’ learning, they frequently get together in groups: research, plan, teach and discuss lessons together – to try out techniques or understand what’s holding some children back. In these discussions, teachers discover they’ve all ‘meant’ different things by the same words. They’ve seen and interpreted pupils’ learning differently from each other. As they struggle to resolve what they’ve seen and to improve what they will do next, they can become so absorbed in their jointly imagined lesson that they begin to try bits out in their ‘teacher’ voice and listen with the imagined ears of their pupils. BUT… when they are talking and listening ‘in role’ in their teacher personas, they frequently come up with radically different interpretations of what had previously seemed familiar, day-to-day situations. These revelations can transform the way they subsequently help the same children to learn. They’ve actually been doing this in countries like Japan for hundreds of years.

It seems easier somehow for teachers to forge a link between their conscious thinking and their vast reserves of invisible tacit knowledge, by going into role collectively and imagining the classroom together – ‘interthinking’ as Neil Mercer calls it.

It sounds a bit like those simulations where groups of military leaders role-play how to deal with rapidly developing international situations – in role, in uniform, and for sustained periods of time. They’re supposed to generate radically new ideas.

I agree. And I’ll bet the generals also step in and out of role and talk about what they’ve been discussing before resuming their simulation again.

Yes. It’s almost as if collaborative, oracy-informed discussions, where professionals deliberately go in and out of role in a collectively imagined context, can freeze-frame (for nanoseconds) what group members actually do and think when they are using their tacit ‘field’ knowledge. And somehow, as a result, they subliminally glimpse that tacit knowledge in-action for an instant or two before it fades. And the group is then able to capture and socialise that knowledge amongst its members – then act upon it.

The thought fox [© Amy Liao]
Tacit knowledge is certainly known to be amazing for generating innovative, insightful solutions to familiar issues. But as you say, only when, in role, you tempt it out of your subconscious by pretending ‘you’ can’t see it! It’s like Ted Hughes’s Thought Fox. But being in a group with trusted colleagues, struggling to solve jointly owned problems together, is exactly the kind of ‘trust’ situation where this happens best.

In fact trying to reward tacit knowledge proves counterproductive. It recedes from you.

Like when Andy Murray serves perfectly all afternoon until match point, when he double faults?


And all this is connected to oracy?

Well. Yes. From a young age an oracy-informed education helps you to become conscious of your own spoken language and of how you interpret and respond to the talk of others.

It gives you tools to detect, select and change the range of meanings, genres, and registers that you use in your talk.

So you can edit your conversation in real time – and, as you get used to it, you internalise these processes, no longer needing to think about them consciously.

It comes to you?

..and gives you the means not only to step in and out of a conversation to improve it’s effectiveness. It also gives you the confident means to step in and out of your ‘self,’ (your ‘You Persona’,) and to empathise with your listener, improving your impact. For anyone not educated at a top public school (where oracy is drilled in), to be able to do this really is a liberation.

So oracy also enables you to edit the talk of the voice in your head. And this is how you can become an increasingly critical, reflective thinker. And this I guess helps you compose more effective talk (and writing) and read text with a more critical ear? It’s a virtuous circle!

You can always be yourself. But with oracy you can step outside yourself and achieve more. And with oracy + community, you can develop collective solutions to shared problems using exploratory talk to build ‘intermental zones’ in which everyone is ‘interthinking’ so that the group achieves more than its most capable member. You can even harness your collective, tacit knowledge through role-play, rehearsal or simulation and suddenly see the everyday and familiar: completely anew. And that can bring about previously unimaginable transformation.

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