To be clear from the outset, the title is no click-bait: I genuinely believe this to be true. It’s not that I consider written forms of literacy and numeracy unimportant; far from it, I agree with the prevailing consensus that they are really, really important. I just happen to think that oracy – defined simply as the project to help young people develop effective speaking and listening skills – is really, really, really important. To explain how I came to believe this, I need to take you back to the beginning.
An odyssey into oracy
In 2004 I had a kind of mild early-to-mid-life crisis. Stuck in a rut and unable to see a way out, finally one day I quit the job I hated and cycled to Morocco. Traveling to “find oneself” may be clichéd, but in terms of personal development it’s the best thing I ever did. As I was leaving, I grabbed 3 books for the journey: Bob Geldof’s autobiography Is this it?; ‘Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life’; and ‘Bad Samaritans’, a book about third world debt written by my cousin. Each had been written either by or about someone whose life had been shaped by their exposure to injustice; each had tried to “do something about it”; and each had met with only limited success. My cousin’s book, though well written, was not widely read; the Live Aid money, though well intentioned, had a questionable impact in Ethiopia; and Che Guevara – as a friend once memorably described him – was a beautiful, selfless soul who wanted to bring about world peace through nuclear Armageddon.
As I sat on Essaouira beach reflecting on all of this, it became clear to me that if you really want to change the world – and as Ken Loach says, if you aren’t angry then you aren’t paying attention – charity fundraising, investigative journalism and indeed armed struggle will only get you so far. It was then that an idea first occurred to me that has returned with increasing frequency, clarity and conviction ever since. To be precise: whenever I contemplate any of life’s many and varied problems, invariably I find myself returned to education’s doorstep. It’s not that I think our education system causes the world’s problems directly; however, I do strongly suspect that if we had a different education system, the world would not be in quite such a mess. And so, like many before me, my decision to become a teacher was accompanied by some naïve and ill-defined intentions about making the world a better place. In particular, having previously worked for the Probation Service I was interested in the idea of helping create an education system that prepares young people for how to deal with the vicissitudes of life; an education system that produces young people who are both knowledgeable and able to view the world with a critical eye; an education system that works for all young people, and not just those who ‘make the grade’ within a system that insists on failure for some. I returned to the UK and enrolled to become a Science teacher.
I am genuinely passionate about the idea of helping the world become more scientifically literate, and following the usual teething difficulties I embraced my new vocation with gusto. However, there was a fly in the ointment: a significant minority of my students – perhaps as many as half – just did not seem interested in Science at all. If I spoke to them in another context – in PSHE lessons say, or during tutor time or over lunch – they would come alive in discussions about current affairs, bullying or animal rights: typically, any topic with a moral dimension. By contrast, conversations about bio-fuel generators, electromagnetism and the reactivity of the halogens were, for many students, a non-starter. As time went on, I became increasingly frustrated by my limited scope for talking with my students about things that they really care about.
One day, I went to a Gifted and Talented conference where a local primary headteacher spoke passionately about Philosophy for Children (P4C). In case you aren’t aware, P4C is a teaching method where you sit in a circle and discuss ideas at length in such a way as to develop a broad range of cognitive, social, emotional thinking and reasoning skills. My mind was immediately blown. I got trained in the approach and started using it as soon as I could – in PSHE mainly, but also in the occasional Science lesson.
Once my classes had learned how to interact in this way, the lessons would fly by – and I could see my students growing in confidence and eloquence almost in real time. The better you get at running P4C sessions, the less you have to talk. Observing quietly as my students politely and articulately questioned their own and others’ ideas; looking on as they deconstructed arguments and developed new shared understandings; witnessing the forging of new identities… this was what I came into teaching for! I signed up for an MA in person-centred education, through which I learned that philosophical enquiry is part of a wider tradition within education: the field of oracy.
The bigger picture (of a skewed playing field)
The word ‘oracy’ first entered the literature more than 50 years ago in an attempt to place speaking and listening on an equal footing with written forms of numeracy and literacy (Wilkinson, 1965). Given the history of schooling, where ‘speaking and listening’ has traditionally played second fiddle to written forms of literacy and numeracy – in state schools, at least – this was a welcome development. Since then however, oracy has had a turbulent history in schools, swinging in and out of favour as outlined in this brilliant blog by Alan Howe.
I attended secondary state school from 1987-1992, a period which coincided with the National Oracy Project. However it can’t have been very ‘national’ because speaking and listening was not on the menu at my school. There was no philosophical enquiry; no debating club; no explicit teaching of public speaking skills. Once, I entered a debating competition with some classmates, where we found ourselves in a head-to-head with the neighbouring independent grammar school. Needless to say, we got torn to shreds. It was embarrassing.
It was only this year that I discovered what I think is a staggering fact. In one of the most common forms of competitive debate, the team proposing the motion are referred to as the ‘government’, and the team arguing against are referred to as the ‘opposition’. The individuals opening the debate are referred to as the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, and those opposing are referred to as the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition.
Just take a moment to let this sink in. At schools like Eton, which recently spent £18 million on a new debating chamber, students regularly get to play a game of ‘government versus opposition’. They are literally rehearsing for when they get to run the country. This is a good thing: one should rehearse such things. But they should be being rehearsed in every schol in the land. However, in contrast to schools like Eton, in state schools, ‘stop talking in class’ is a common refrain: the slogan of the pro-oracy organisation Voice21 – ‘get talking in class’ – is well-chosen. And people wonder why so many children from independent schools seem to graduate with unflappable confidence. I wonder where this might come from?
Meanwhile back at the odyssey…
My MA dissertation almost broke me. I spent an entire summer bashing away at a keyboard, chipping away at the marble to reveal what turned out to be a fairly ineffectual early attempt at using philosophical enquiry as an approach to teaching Year 8 PSHE. One day, I dragged myself away from my darkened room to attend a friend’s 30th on Hove Lawns. “There’s a homeless guy eating your buffet”, said one guest to the birthday girl. “No that’s just James. He’s doing a Masters.”
By the end of the summer, I was spent. “No more academia for me” I resolved, shaken. “I have scraped the bottom of the barrel, and I don’t like the noise it makes.” I submitted my dissertation and returned to the classroom. When I did however, something was different. Not just something – everything. I planned, taught, spoke differently. The children spoke differently. They behaved differently. And I responded to them in ways that were different again.
The process of writing 20,000 words over the summer – reading, thinking and reflecting deeply on the role of speaking and listening as drivers of thinking, reasoning and learning – had been utterly transformative. Ideas that I had previously grasped only on an intellectual level, I now felt in my bones. Without wanting to overstate the case, it was as though my very professional identity had been disassembled, reconditioned and put back together by people who knew what they were doing.
By coincidence, that year my school introduced a year 7 ‘thinking curriculum’ for 5 lessons a week. I jumped at the chance to help develop what essentially became an oracy-based curriculum. You name it, we did it: riddles, thunks, role-play, philosophy, exploratory talk, paired talk, ground rules for group talk, story-telling, active listening, forum theatre, public speaking, structured debates, problem solving, project-based learning, consensus building, conflict resolution, the explicit teaching of thinking and reasoning skills… this was not pedagogy; this was the curriculum. Our teaching methods were traditional: modelling; explaining; providing regular, scaffolded opportunities for deliberate practice; and plenty of rich, detailed feedback. Progressive ends through traditional means, you might say.
We delighted in witnessing students progress from awkward inaudible mumbling to confident, independent campaigners and leaders of assemblies. The students spoke and wrote about how the course helped them find their voice; find their identity; learn to stick up for themselves; to get along with people they never would have usually spoken with; to make their way in the world. I signed up to do a PhD to study the impact of the Learning Skills curriculum, as it became known. This 5-year impact evaluation revealed some considerable success: there were statistically significant gains in subject learning across all subjects combined, and a significant closing of the Pupil Premium gap from the bottom up (from 25% to 2% within the space of a single school year; see Mannion & Mercer, 2016, for details).
Reasons for levelling the playing field
We humans are alive for the blink of an eye and, since the world is far from perfect, we should probably do everything we can with the time that we have to make it a better place. I remain convinced that teaching is the best way to shape a better world. However, most of the time being a teacher does not feel like you are changing the world. Often it feels more like you’re in an unethical social psychology experiment from the 1950s about obedience to authority, or to see how far people are willing to stretch a reckless disregard for work-life balance.
Within teaching – for me at least – oracy is the thing. Helping young people develop their speaking and listening skills – and seeing their confidence and their sense of self bloom as a consequence – this is the thing that makes me feel like I might just be helping make the world a better place.
In no particular order, here are some reasons why I think teachers should place oracy at the forefront of their practice:
- Standards. When it’s done well, teaching through oracy boosts academic attainment.
- The Pupil Premium gap. It is students from disadvantaged backgrounds who have the most to gain from an education centred around the development of high quality speaking and listening skills.
- Moral purpose. Oral development at a young age is a powerful predictor of many quality of life indicators such as future earnings, mental health or life expectancy. Some people arrive on this planet having been dealt an enviable hand. Many are far less fortunate. Teachers are uniquely positioned to actually do something about this.
- Retention. Teaching through oracy helps teachers find (or relocate) their mojo. And on a related, more practical note for the time-pressed teacher: when you teach a predominantly oracy-based lesson, there is less written marking to do. Why slave away your evenings writing feedback which is far less effective than some well-chosen words, fed back and responded to in real time?
- Participatory democracy / power. People who are in (or vying for) positions of power speak very differently to people who aren’t. Typically, although not always, politicians have greater verbal fluency than members of the general public. This is apparent on Question Time every week. Verbal fluency does not make people more knowledgeable or more moral, and nor does it make them act in the interests of the people they seek to represent. All it does it give them the appearance that they know what they’re talking about – and the confidence to pull it off. Speeches change the world perhaps more than anything else. How can we hope to run a society along the lines of participatory democracy when only a small (wealthy) elite are taught how to speak the language of power?Let’s give the power of verbal fluency to everyone, and not just the privileged few.
- The survival of the species. Let’s be frank: the future of human civilisation (and indeed the present) is looking decidedly dicey. If we are going to avoid some kind of self-inflicted mass extinction event, we really need to learn to get along with one another. As it happens, you can teach that in schools, and you do it through talk – how to establish common ground, how to disagree constructively, or how to resolve conflicts in an equitable manner – to name just a few.
How Oracy Cambridge can help
If you would like to hear more about how to develop oracy skills in your organisation (not just schools), we can help you with that. Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org – we’d love to hear from you.
Mannion, J. & Mercer, N. (2016): Learning to learn: improving attainment, closing the gap at Key Stage 3. The Curriculum Journal 27(2), p246-71.
Wilkinson, A. (1965) The Concept of Oracy. Educational Review, 17 (4), 11–15.