09 Dec 2017

Walking the talk

It’s odd that high quality talk in classrooms is often regarded as an optional extra, something quite nice to do, rather than an entitlement for all pupils. Why, as a sector, do we privilege writing over talking? High quality talk, and its twin, listening, underpins reading and writing. And yet in too many classrooms, it’s something that is just assumed will happen, without being explicitly taught. It’s a pity that the range of talk identified by Robin Alexander - rote, recitation, instruction, discussion and dialogue – is, in too many cases, casually, rather than explicitly planned.

School21 however, takes a different view. Its curriculum is underpinned by the conviction that they should prepare young people properly for the world they are going into – the school’s philosophy is that we need to rebalance head (academic success), heart (character and well-being) and hand (generating ideas, problem solving, making a difference). And at the heart of this work is oracy -the expectation that pupils will ‘find their voice, develop deep knowledge and understanding and create beautiful work that has real value beyond the classroom’.

Some examples of how they make this happen:

  • Children in Year 4 give a three minute talk without notes in front of an audience
  • Assemblies are a place for discussion and debate
  • Tutor groups in the sixth form have discussions on themes from Sapiens
  • Children of all ages are expected to rehearse their ideas, discuss, debate and recognise others’ points of view
  • Children in every year group, starting in Year 1 learn parts of Shakespeare off by heart
  • Attention is paid to the processes that support this – from Socratic dialogue to Harkness groups.

An important strand of this philosophy is the creation of large projects as vehicles for deep scholarship to emerge. One example of this interdisciplinary work is the artwork of chess players representing key figures from the cold war. Each student researched the profile, background, contribution and the character flaws the main protagonists of the cold war. This involved an in-depth survey and deep analysis, followed by debates about the roles and controversies. And in these wider discussions, disagreements, debates pupils extend and deepen their knowledge of the overall picture of the cold war.

Now this is particularly interesting, as I have long argued that since it is not possible to cover everything in the curriculum, it is important to do fewer things in greater depth. When this happens as in the case of the chess project, pupils are developing the intellectual architecture of a key concept/big idea. They know a great deal about one aspect exemplified by their research. This means that when they hear the accounts of the other characters, they have a context in which to place this new knowledge. And as they created the remarkable chest busts, their insights will have deepened as they entered into the psychological space and motives, which informed their careers. This is work and research of the deepest order, and tested at the end using exam papers – results showing that they all understood this aspect of Europe’s history at a sophisticated level. It’s curriculum planning like this, which is creating deep knowledge. It provides the space for pupils to learn about history and to wrestle with the past and its implications for the present and future.

The exhibition of pupils’ work is the school’s commitment to honouring the endeavours of every child. As the school says ‘If there is one practice that lifts the ceiling on classroom practice it is exhibition. Exhibitions usually happen at the end of term and involve pupils showcasing the beautiful work they have created that term in front of an authentic audience.’ There are authentic ‘products’ in the form of books, exceptional artwork, photography and elegant prose on the walls and around the school – all produced and displayed to exceptional production values.

This way of working gets results – twice as many students take the EBacc and achieve C or above, compared to national. The school’s attainment 8 and progress 8 place them in the top 6% of the country. This is great, but it’s actually a much bigger vision, which produces this – a school whose values of expertise, professionalism, eloquence, grit, spark and craftsmanship are truly lived, not just laminated.

To find out more about the work of this remarkable school and its wider contribution to developing oracy across the sector, more information here:

http://www.school21.org.uk/ https://www.voice21.org/

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