Moving, brilliant, transformative: Those are three words that come to the top of my head when I think about the Great Oracy Exhibition at School 21

Moving, brilliant, transformative: Those are three words that come to the top of my head when I think about yesterday’s Great Oracy Exhibition: A showcase of School 21’s (@school21_uk) work in developing oracy skills in their students. The more I find out about oracy skills and how they can be purposefully and relentlessly cultivated (much in the same way that ‘Learning Muscles’ can be purposefully and relentlessly cultivated), the more I realise how deeply fundamental they are to improving children’s life chances and equipping them with the skills they need to deal with the variety of wonderful and difficult situations life might throw at them. This quote, shared by Peter Hyman (@peterhyman21), head of School 21, illustrates the importance of learning to talk and share ideas:

Quote from handout at Great Oracy Exhibition.
Stephen Hawking quote, highlighting the value of developing oracy skills

In our often fragmented and polarised society, what could be more important than learning to articulately, respectfully and empathetically share ideas without flippantly dismissing the feelings and views of others? To find ways to stick with an argument, change our minds, shape our thoughts, think and rethink again, explore nuances of opinions and viewpoints, and have time to reflect and build upon those ideas and arguments. Can you imagine a world where everyone was equipped with such skills? I can. I can begin to imagine that world. And I like it. That vision feels like a much safer, fairer, informed, respectful and stable society. So, I’m in! Next question: How can I do my bit to enable this vision come to fruition?

Get oracy going in your classroom:

“I urge you as teachers not to stand by as the world changes but our teaching does not. I urge you to be leaders in the crusade to transform education, so our students can thrive now and in the future – starting with your own classrooms.” 

Carol Dweck, in Guy Claxton’s, “The Learning Power Approach”

Life can be really difficult as a teacher right now. There is a huge amount of pressure and accountability, which can lead to us losing sight of why we came into the profession in the first place. But, #thereisanotherway; we can take back control, re-empower ourselves and step past the crap. We can do this by staying true to our core, being imaginative and involving children as agents in their learning journeys and experiences. Yes, we need to be brave, but take a second to consider the consequences if we’re not:

  • Do we want to teach children who see a purpose in their education or just go through the motions (or, worse, opt out)?
  • Do we want to teach children who are excited by, invested in and even obsessed with their learning experiences or children who are passive, bored and reluctant to learn?
  • Do we want to create critical, articulate thinkers and doers or children who have just ‘gone through the motions’ and taken their ‘schooling’ on face value?
  • Do we want to truly ‘close the gap’? To give children the chance to be the best version of themselves? To reach their potential and connect with their dreams and what’s important to them? Does that matter? Or not?

At the end of the day, this isn’t about us, as teachers; it’s about the children and what is best for their life chances. So, let’s be brave and start making some of these changes ourselves. Yes, the journey will be a bumpy one, but the results will be worth it – I know this because I constantly take risks to develop learning power with the children in my classroom and it always, with persistence and reflection, pays off – we end up with a class of resilient, social learners who see a purpose in coming to school and love the challenges of learning. So, now it’s time to take some more risks to purposefully and relentlessly cultivate oracy skills in my learners. I warmly invite you to join me. Here goes …

A few ideas to get started:

Here are some ideas to build oracy in your classroom, suggested by Hannah Coles, Year Four teacher at School 21. She focused her talk on how to raise children’s awareness of ‘derailing’ and develop their skills of stay on point and building on one another’s ideas. ‘Derailing’ is when children change the conversation or debate but not in a constructive way. For me, that’s a feature of most conversations in the Reception and Year One classrooms in which I have taught! As Hannah pointed out:

“Children are constantly copying the way people talk around them. We need to use that to think about how children communicate.”

So, we need to find ways to unpick children’s conversations and enable them to reflect on and improve these conversations, just like we’d do in writing or maths. Hannah had developed some really nifty ways to go about this:

1. Use maths cubes.

During a class or group conversation, one child can be the ‘silent summariser’. Whilst the conversation takes place, the silent summariser’s role is to follow the progress of a conversation using Multilink or Unifix. Each coloured block represents a different type of comment. Blue, means the person has built on the point; green is when it’s been challenged and red is a ‘derailment’. At the end of the conversation, the cubes can be shared and the group can reflect on whether they agree or disagree with how the conversation unfolded. What a simple but effective idea! As Hannah pointed out, the children won’t just ‘do’ this. It will take teaching and reteaching, evaluating and tweaking. Will KS1 children be able to do this? Why not? Let’s give it a go, adapt it or find another way to make it work.

2. Use the Harkness model to track conversation

Example of Harkness Model to track conversation in class.
Harkness model to track and reflect on conversation

By using the Harkness model, shown above (my own mock up so as not to use the names of the children in Hannah’s class), you can visually track the progress of the conversation in class. This way, children can see how and how often they have contributed. Hannah commented that using this had raised the bar of the quality of conversation in her classroom- that children strove to take part and could visually see and reflect on how their comments had added to (or not added to!) the debate. Using this and other methods over time, made children more mindful and reflective of what they were saying and how they were expressing themselves.

3. Use I-pads to film and reflect on the quality of conversations

Get children to record themselves debating or developing a talk, then reflect on how they could improve. Once they see themselves speaking, they can notice their physical gestures, posture, body language, intonation and emphasis, pace of speech and much more. They can then use this to reflect on and improve their conversations. If you don’t have I-pads, simply pair the children up and ask them to notice and reflect on these elements of oracy. The day before The Great Oracy exhibition, I saw children at Sandringham School (@sandringhamE7) doing just that – They were developing speeches from Romeo and Juliet and working in small groups to perform and give each other feedback on their performances. The children made astute remarks, like, “Move around to add more emphasis and grab our attention.” “Slow down, you seem hurried.” and “Make more eye contact.”

There were so many other ways the teachers and students at School 21 generously shared to develop oracy. I was blown away by the Year 7 students who modelled Reciprocal Reading to us. Their independence and polished collaboration skills lead to them developing an in-depth understanding of the text they were reading with no input from an adult (although, this level of independence would have been achieved through careful and specific coaching and modelling). My pre-conception of what an assembly ‘should’ look like was tipped on its head when we were taken through a transformative and active 20 minutes collectively reflecting on “When we had used out voice to make a difference”. When I have the chance to hold a Year Group assembly, I’m keen to give that a go. The Year Four speeches, based on the question, “How can my voice chance the world?” moved me to tears. I want to learn how to do that. I want the children I teach to be able to experience moving a crowd of people on that level (I’m hoping School 21 put some of the speeches on their site so I can link them up here. Then you’ll see what I mean!)

Slide introducing Year Four speeches about whether their voices can change the world.

What I have written about is only the tip of the iceburg. If you want to learn more about the ins and outs of The Great Oracy Exhibition, I suggest you read James Mannion’s blog. You can also access loads of useful resources to develop oracy on Voice 21’s resources page – it’s well worth an explore.

It’s a great time to be in education. It’s a time when we can all connect, share ideas and think deeply about how to do create an educational experience that will be meaningful, relevant and inspiring for the children in its care. Developing oracy skills is one way we can go about making that change. I can’t wait to get started and hear about what others are doing – please comment if you’re with me!

Oh, and I just wanted to pop this photo at the end because it made me chuckle!


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