by Rupert Wegerif
Recently I read a blog by a primary teacher unhappy that her class had all received personal iPads and so that now they worked individually instead of in groups or as a class. She appreciated that the iPads could be used for exciting projects, but she thought her children needed more time to develop their oracy skills before they entered the world of screens. In her blog she explicitly contrasted ‘talking together’ to ‘scratching away at screens’.
This blog was written before the COVID crisis. Under lock-down conditions tablets and other Internet connected devices often became the only way that children and teachers could ‘talk together’.
Treating oracy as a contrast to working with computers is not necessary. When I first began researching the use of computers in primary classrooms with Lyn Dawes and Neil Mercer back in the early 1990s many teachers saw computers precisely as a good way to develop communication skills. There were not so many machines in those days so the best way to use the few that they had was for children to work around them in groups. Three children could sit comfortably around a screen and talk about the questions and tasks it offered them. We found that the way that they talked together around computers when the teachers were not listening was not always very productive and so we designed and taught a more productive way of talking together. That is how the Thinking Together ground rules, which are quite widely used for oracy, were first developed.
I think that we discovered a general principle. This is that the effective use of computers in education requires education for oracy. Not just the effective use of stand-alone devices but more especially the effective use of the Internet.
In a recent interview on the BBC Barack Obama referred to what he called ‘truth decay’ as one of the biggest problems of our times. He was referring to how the quality of political debate has declined in recent years with falsehoods and ‘fake news’ spreading more rapidly and gaining more impact. The Internet has been blamed for this. But the Internet does not have an effect all on its own – it depends very much on how people use it. To combat truth decay and to turn the internet into a tool to support democracy requires educational intervention.
Literacy is a communications technology that does not work without education. Perhaps the same is true of the Internet. The Internet without education could lead to stupidity and tribalism. The Internet with education might be the beginning of a new age: not so much a ‘post truth’ age as a ‘new truth’ age or an ‘everyone involved in creating our shared truths together’ age.
Education for oracy in the Internet Age
For the Internet Age to work for human flourishing we need more oracy education, not less. We need to teach children how to talk together effectively and productively so that views are explained clearly, reasons are asked for and given and all views are listened to with respect. This is partly about critical thinking, but it is also about empathy and citizenship. It is only in the context of group talk that individual children can learn the excitement of becoming more than themselves as they join together with others to make joint decisions and create joint projects. In other words, it is only through oracy that students can learn democracy. Democracy is much more than voting it is about learning how to talk together with others in order to reach an unforced agreement, how to participate effectively in a collective process of decision making and, in the process, to participate in forging a collective identity.
An example of how to design for better ‘oracy’ online
How difficult would it be to create an educational version of facebook or twitter that supported children and young people in learning how to dialogue with others across the Internet? Not really that hard. There are many experiments in this direction that we can learn from. One example is Generation Global. This project has worked to support over 200,000 students in web-based dialogue with the aim of helping to prevent extremism. The results of an evaluation by me and a team at Exeter University showed that it works pretty well in promoting more open-minded attitudes and a more inclusive sense of self that recognises and respects the variety of voices.
Thinking together face to face and then online
For GenG, an ‘introduction to dialogue’ programme is an essential first step before blogging. This teaches ground rules for effective online dialogue. The content of the face-to-face dialogue teaching programme is very similar to the Thinking Together lessons Lyn Dawes, Neil Mercer and I developed for work with computers in the 1990s. The practical outcome of these activities can be summed up in four prompts that are then repeated throughout the online website:
Experience: ‘give readers in insight into your life, explain why things are important for you.’
Clarity: ‘will your post be clear to someone from another country?’
Questioning: ‘Ask good questions that prompt the writer to explain their ideas more deeply’
Reflecting: ‘Make connections between your post and others’ and show that you are thinking about what you read’
As well as the pedagogy, the success of the Generation Global platform depends on technology design. Like Twitter the interface enforces a certain length of message, not too long so that they overwhelm the dialogue (no more than 800 characters) but also (unlike Twitter) not too short (not less than 30) so people can’t just pile in with unreflective likes or dislikes but have to say something. The moderation algorithms have to be powerful to pick up abuse. A culture of reporting is encouraged, and any post reported as suspect is instantly suspended until moderated. Students’ blog together in small groups automatically assigned from varied locations and maintained for long enough to create a sense of community and trust. As well as prompts to support ground rules, openings can be suggested in case students are not sure how to break the ice or how to phrase what they want to say. Awareness tools reflect back to each student how they are communicating, how much reflection, how many questions and so on. In short, we are talking here about education as design, building on decades of experience of how to design for collaborative learning on the Internet.
What is being designed for and promoted on global internet education platforms like GenG is a form of oracy. GenG start with face-to-face oracy and move on online mediated dialogue or a kind of talking together sometimes using video links, sometimes blogging which is also a form of talking together by writing together.
From tribalism to a more inclusive ‘we’
As part of the evaluation of GenG we gathered some quantitative data on the blogging which proved interesting. Before taking part in team-blogging, students were asked to reflect on how they “feel about people from those countries, communities, cultures and faiths they expect to meet when team-blogging.” They were also asked to reflect on why they feel this way, and to “write about things in their experience that had shaped their views.” Similar questions were posed after the team-blogging event. 1140 reflections were filled in in total by individual students from more than 100 different schools. Matching pairs of pre- and post-blogging reflections enabled us to explore changes in attitudes through changes in language use. Analysis of this data showed clear patterns of change.
Both the use of ‘we’ and ‘they’ increase significantly between the pre- and the post-reflection while the use of ‘I’ declines. But what is most interesting is the way in which the use of ‘we’ and ‘they’ changes.
Before the blogging experience ‘we’ refers most commonly to the home group. After the team-blogging experience the way in which ‘we’ is used changes to refer to a much more concrete sense of shared identity:
“I got to know that there are some common problems we face and its time we should find a solution to these problems and should stand up for each other.”
“We could easily find common ground and it was good to splash up my views and receive comments of what they think of my thoughts.”
At the same time the use of ‘They’ to refer to the other also changed. Before the team-blogging experience ‘they’ were quite simply ‘the other’. The following statement is typical:
“I feel curious to know about the lifestyle they live, also the kind of problem they face.”
After the team-blogging experience ‘the other’ took on a much more concrete form and were seen as ‘like us’ perhaps even as part of an extended sense of ‘us’.
“After the team blogging I feel that they are also like us. They also enjoy singing, dancing, act, etc.”
“All of them where extremely different. Each has their own opinion and worldview. Some of them differ from me and some are quite similar.”
The change in the use of pronouns to refer to self and other between the pre-team-blogging reflection and the post-team-blogging reflection indicates a shift in identity from a relatively closed sense of ‘us’ defined against an abstract sense of ‘them’ towards a more dialogic identity which can best be described as identification not with ‘us’ against ‘them’ but with the dialogue that unites encompasses the two terms.
Oracy is often opposed to technology in schools as if using smart-phones, tablets and computers to communicate is somehow the opposite of oracy. It is not. Oracy education is part of learning how to use technology effectively together with others and it is especially crucial to learning how to communicate together with others online. Here face to face talking together and thinking together leads directly to online mediated talking and thinking. This kind of education is the potential antidote that we need to the problems of social media. People accuse social media of leading to poor collective thinking processes as people accept and repeat fake news, get trapped in ‘echo chambers’ and become more divided and more tribal. The example of the pedagogy developed by Generation Global shows that this is not necessary. With appropriate education into how to engage in talking together online, people can break out of echo chambers, engage across cultural differences and forge a more global sense of citizenship. Oracy is at the heart of this pedagogy and it is the kind of pedagogy that we need for the Internet Age.
Generation Global has a specific focus on reducing extremist violence but other projects have shown that similar approaches are effective in teaching almost any and every subject: challenge-based science, maths, enterprise and all the many subjects now taught and learnt by working collaboratively with others in groups online. Learning this way, they are also learning how to prepare for a future where knowledge is not just about passing exams but is about working together to overcome real challenges and to build something new.
We are still in the early days of the Internet Age, still learning how best to design ourselves through education so as to avoid the dangers and to make use of the potentials. But one thing that seems to be emerging clearly is that stronger foundations in oracy are essential if we are to be able to survive and perhaps even to flourish together in the Internet Age.