Getting below the surface: Oracy Down Under

Image: Wikipedia Commons

by Alan Howe

It’s mid morning in early October in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales. After a chilly start the sun is up and the air is warming. There is news of bush fires on the north side of the ranges but as this is the start of the bushfire season, nobody seems too concerned. Period 2 at Korowal School is just beginning, and I walk along the primary phase corridor to join a year 5/6 class. They are working on a class story, sitting in a large circle, passing the narrative around, inventing the next episode, listening intently to each other. Elise, their teacher, intervenes mainly to settle minor disputes about who should have the next turn, and to keep the story roughly on track, helping to avoid strange diversions, unnecessary deaths or moments of gratuitous magic. I’ve had an initial coaching conversation with Elise, during which we’ve discussed how she might enhance the oracy education component of what she’s already planned. She’s decided to periodically break the class into pairs or threes for some exploratory talk to consider what might be a good next element in the unfolding story, in order to see if this increases both the quality and range of the pupils’ contributions.

As an additional experiment, we have agreed to ‘stop the clock’ at an opportune moment and invite the class to listen to Elise and me discuss publically how the lesson is going and what she might need to adjust or do a little differently. In our follow-up coaching conversation, Elise decides to call these moments ‘intercepts’ – describing how we catch the flow of the lesson in mid-flight and suspend it for a few moments while we take stock of what we’ve noticed. The story is stalling, running down the same narrative lines, stuck in a pattern of problems that are then resolved through unlikely events. We talk together about the number of pupils who haven’t contributed yet, and how Elise might intervene to improve the overall quality of the story, for example by asking the class to see if they can come up with either a twist or change of direction. The group of 10 and 11 year olds are obviously intrigued: they have never been privy to the professional dialogue about how a lesson is going between two adults before. We are interested to see if listening in like this can have an influence on what the students say and do as a result.

This pattern of a developing professional dialogue  – a series of focused coaching conversations followed by joint work in the classroom and follow-up feedback and further joint planning – is repeated with the group of 13 teachers over the month-long period that I’ve been invited to work in the school. All have volunteered to take part, some a little more sceptically than others.

Korowal School is an all-through (K-12) independent school whose Principal and senior team decided, on the strength of a visit to School 21 and contact with Oracy Cambridge, that they wanted to transform the school into one where oracy is central to everything that the school stands for. In the course of Skype discussions with the Principal and Oracy Lead teacher to help them shape how to go about realising their aim, I am invited to support them by travelling to Australia, and establish an intensive programme of whole staff CPD and 1-1 coaching sessions for the group of 13.

During my time with the school, I coach a range of teachers, from reception to senior secondary, and across a range of subject disciplines. But as the example above illustrates, the coaching process is itself an example of oracy in action – a two-way process in which I offer guidance and ideas but only after the teachers have made decisions themselves about what aspect of dialogic teaching and oracy education they wish to focus on.

A short extract from the diary/log that I kept during the process  illustrates how my thinking was  developing at the time:

‘The coaching conversations are unfolding well. The hour with me offers a dedicated time to step back and reflect…to develop ‘noticing’, a more conscious focus on how they plan for classroom talk and how they manage/orchestrate it. Turning their interest and ideas into an ‘oracy focus question’ requires the thinking to be crystallised, something we can return to periodically and ask: what does success look like?  We are getting down to the micro level – the specificity of what you actually do and say to make the biggest difference.’

And here are Elise’s reflections:

 ‘I feel that these lessons have taught the students to listen to each other and be active participants, where they feel that they want their voices to be heard, but also have the maturity to listen to other students, draw upon their ideas and expand on their own thinking’.

Barb Fitzgerald, the school Principal, in a reflective report written after the long summer break, comments:

‘Part of the success we experienced through this residency was that our teachers released their fear of relaxing their hold on a class. The oracy exercises provided the framework for establishing ground rules, pair, small group and large group discussions. ‘Talking points’ assisted to generate meaningful classroom discussion and shared responsibility for learning. Communications and expectations changed. We moved from ‘me’ to ‘we’, both as individual teachers and as individual students. It strengthened the relationships we have with each other as well as the relationship we have to studentship. Together we are creating the difference we want to see. ‘

The school’s approach is bold, and obviously not cheap! But the benefits of enabling a critical mass of teachers (13 out of a staff of around 30) to engage with the classroom business of embedding oracy in teaching and learning, in the company of a coach, and with each other, may well prove very cost effective.  As I write this, the new term has begun and the initial group of 13 are busy co-coaching each other. Later in the year a new group of staff will be invited to participate.

During one of our coaching conversations, one teacher comments that the participating teachers are becoming ‘architects of oracy.’ This sets me thinking. What seems to be happening is that, through the coaching process, the teachers at Korowal are actively:

  • building the foundations for oracy development in the students; setting up sufficient scaffolding, but also knowing when to let it drop away;
  • constructing safe spaces for student talk, light spaces where thinking is evident, and corridors to other interesting rooms where talk supports curriculum learning;
  • ensuring that the classroom talk is energy efficient;
  • making oracy visible.

Oracy Cambridge provided the school with a framework for thinking about effective implementation; written guidance materials and classroom resources to support oracy education; a series of conversations with senior leaders to co-design the programme of support; a distance-learning seminar via Skype with the school’s volunteer group of participating teachers; and a month-long training and coaching programme at the school.

Korowal School plans to continue through 2020 to use coaching methodology to further deepen and embed oracy throughout the school, involving more of the staff.

Image: Wikipedia Commons

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