by Dr Lyn Dawes
On Wednesdays, I sort out and price the non-fiction books donated to my local Oxfam shop. This is of course an ideal opportunity to read lots of bits of things – to be a ‘library cormorant’, as Coleridge described himself. Today, I picked up a 1946 edition of On Liberty by John Stuart Mill, first published in 1859. I read:
‘We have now recognised the necessity to the mental well-being of mankind (on which all their other well-being depends) of freedom of opinion, and freedom of the expression of opinion, on four distinct grounds…’
The capacity for freedom of expression of opinion is central to the teaching and learning of oracy skills. Coupled with the understanding that the current mental health of children is a serious concern, this statement of Mill’s is highly relevant – one hundred and sixty-one years after it was first published.
Mill’s four distinct grounds for fostering freedom of expression of opinion as a necessity can be summarised as follows:
- For all we know, an opinion compulsorily silenced may be true;
- Even if the silenced opinion is in error, it may contain aspects of the truth which we need to hear; ‘it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied’;
- Even if the silenced opinion is the whole truth, unless it is ‘vigorously and earnestly contested’ then we can only assume that it is prejudice, or truth;
- If there is no chance to hear and consider a range of opinions, the development of reasoning is lost along with the essence of whatever truth we are trying to understand. Conviction is created by defending opinions and considering competing ideas.
What you say and how you say it
Mill goes on to say that the manner of asserting an opinion matters. He evidently felt that some speakers harangue their audience rather than engaging them in discussion. He notes that even if opinions are just, the way people talk to one another may be ‘objectionable’, a stance which has the effect of neutralising the benefit of discussion. He identifies some specific ways of talking, such as using invective and sarcasm, as particularly damaging. Such sorts of talk can force an argument through, or seem plausible – ‘can obtain for him who uses them the praise of honest zeal and righteous indignation’ – but ridicule and personal attack lead to the suppression of usefully conflicting ideas. In addition, he notes that to stigmatise those who hold contrary opinions as bad, immoral or stupid is simply a way of disrupting discussion and ensuring that valuable ideas go unheard.
‘The gravest offences are to suppress facts or arguments, to mis-state the elements of the case, or misrepresent the opposite opinion.’
This calls to mind certain politicians, and their blustering style of asserting their case or responding to questions. No doubt rhetorical tricks are taught and learned in some educational establishments as a way of browbeating an opposition seen as ‘lesser’… but this is really a side-issue. More important is the question: What significance do Mill’s astonishingly relevant ideas have for children in classrooms?
Why express opinions?
Revealing your thoughts can attract all sorts of problems. But it is important to remember that both cognitive development and robust mental health depend on a child having the freedom to think through their own ideas, coupled with opportunities to freely share ideas with others. In order to ensure such freedom, teachers have the capacity and the professional expertise to create an environment in which stimulating and important ideas are discussed.
We know that children need direct tuition in the oracy skills necessary for discussion; things like listening, considering, offering opinions with reasons, questioning, elaborating, explaining and creating fresh thinking aloud together. These skills are not innate, but can be taught through a range of curriculum subjects or relevant contexts. Children may have practiced less positive skills which deter discussion and the freedom to think – indeed, children readily learn such defensive attitudes. Whole playgrounds full of children transmit poor discussion skills from the oldest to the youngest, unthinkingly scuppering their own and one another’s chances to develop and learn.
Children need to become aware how important equitable and reasoned talk is for their owndevelopment and that of their classmates. They need to know that their individual ideas are of value, and so are those of their peers; and that there are educationally effective ways to articulate their thinking. The idea that opinions can be silenced by some ways of talking may seem obvious, but it may not be apparent to a child. They may think that those who have the loudest voices, the oldest, the physically strongest or the most unscrupulous, are inevitably right; they may have been told not to speak, or found that the things they say are summarily dismissed or ignored. It is useful to examine the child’s experience of such suppression of their ideas by sarcasm, ridicule, disrespect, and abusive language or attitudes. If encouraged, they may be able to identify examples and talk about the effect this has had on them. In this way, the class or school as a working group can begin to transcend poor practice and learn how to take part in the kinds of discussions that are satisfying, inspiring and move people forward in their thinking and learning.
How best to express opinions?
So, John Stuart Mill was an early proponent of Exploratory Talk. Exploratory Talk takes place when a discussion group is prepared to listen to one another, include everyone, offer reasons for ideas and accept challenges. Its invaluable outcomes are shared understanding and joint negotiation of ideas to reach a reasoned consensus. For children, talk is their first and best medium of communication through the primary years, so finding out how best to express opinions freely is essential. Like everything else, they find out best by being taught.
Using the Oracy Skills Framework, we can select some key skills for group discussion:
- Clarity of pronunciation
- Register (eg use of relevant terms)
- Giving reasons to support views
- Building on others’ contributions
- Critically examining ideas
- Turn taking
- Showing interest and respect
- Listening actively and responding appropriately
- Taking account of audience understanding
Each of these skills is readily teachable. One after the other, or in pairs, as part of everyday class work, they can become the focus for a lesson or series of lessons. They can be made explicit, rehearsed and demonstrated, practiced and evaluated together. The vocabulary for discussion can become generally used. Oracy skills need context – you can’t take turns to talk about nothing – but fortunately the curriculum, and the world generally, provide endless topics for discussion; things that benefit from airing a range of opinions, problems that require new thinking to solve, abstract ideas that can be examined and clarified by talk with others.
A range of opinions
Here is Mill on listening, reflecting and persuasive talk:
‘He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them… he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.’
Children need to hear ideas which are new to them, from one another. Children’s ideas can be fluid, or fixed; sometimes their understanding is based on nothing but what they have been casually told, on misunderstanding, or creative (but maybe erroneous) interpretations of their own experiences. Unless they have chance to say what they think in a supportive environment, these first, tentative attempts to make meaning of the world may become consolidated and settled in very unhelpful ways.
Talk enables a child to see that their ideas are not always the same as everyone else’s. Also that they can change their minds. This is a great step – to understand that learning involves changing how you think in the light of other ideas, other words. It’s a useful thing to learn. Even as adults, we can easily slip into imagining that what we think is what everyone else thinks, generally speaking. Even if we know it’s not true, we may be insulated from others who could provide us with very different opinions and ideas. It is only when you get people to say aloud what they think, when they are prepared to take the risk and be honest with you, that you find out how surprisingly different our ideas can be. Children need to do this sort of talk to help develop their understanding of others and of the world around them. As adults, we also need to talk with children because unless we do, we never know what they think. We have not a clue. Of course, a teacher cannot possibly holding complex conversations with 30 or so children all the time; but children are listeners too, and they can provide each other with an excellent audience, once (crucially) taught how and why to do so.
Silencing opinions is dangerous
One final dip into On Liberty (which in the interests of getting on with the work, I paid £1.99 for and brought home):
‘The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.’
Surely this has been said repeatedly over time and in many ways. Surely we don’t need to go back to 1859 to ferret out such important ideas. Some of these ideas really have been assimilated. But sometimes we need reminders. And sometimes it’s interesting to reflect that as humans, we seem always to want to make life better – we tell one another what we’ve worked out, just as John Stuart Mill did.
For teachers in particular, who invariably aim to make children’s lives better, there are two key ways to help children develop their understanding of the world, of other people and of themselves:
- Teach and use the oracy skills for Exploratory Talk;
- Organise your schools and classrooms to ensure that all children are able to engage regularly in open, reasoned, respectful discussion.
References and further reading
Mill, J.S. (1946) On Liberty; Representative Government; The Subjection of Women. London: Oxford University Press.
(my copy can be borrowed on application)