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The case for a more oracybased primary curriculum
John Smith
Manchester Metropolitan University
Institute of Education.
[email protected]
NATE Conference
April 5th 2009
The Structure of this Presentation
1.
A (very)
brief history
of UK oracy initiatives
in recent decades.
4.
Feedback and
discussion.
2.
Arguments for change
and the current
situation.
3.
Some alternatives:
“dialogic teaching” and
“Philosophy for Children”.
Uneven development of “oracy” over many years in UK primary
schools. Key points (some with rough dates) include:
1960s: Work of Barnes, Bernstein/Labov, Halliday,
Chomsky and many others.
1970s: Joan Tough’s work for the Schools Council.
1975: The Bullock Report (“A Language for Life”)
1987-93: National Oracy Project.
TALK
ORACLE
This decade: “Dialogic teaching” (eg Alexander, 2008.)
Why should we encourage greater oracy in
our primary classrooms?
Literacy skills make up a vital aspect of children’s
language resources but oral skills are vital too.
 We are likely to improve children’s literacy skills if we take
a more holistic approach to their language development.
 We will encourage weak writers who are constantly
reminded of their lack of skill in this area.
 We will move the UK primary classroom culture closer to
more successful models seen elsewhere in the world.
 In doing so we will develop better thinking in groups (see
for example Mercer’s Vygotskyan idea of the “IDZ”) and
by individuals.

Some encouraging signs.
I asked teachers and trainee
teachers about the balance
between speaking and writing in
their classrooms.
I asked them to indicate on a line
the balance they would like to have
in their classroom between children
speaking and children writing and I
coded their responses 1 – 5 from
“Entirely Speaking” (1) to “Entirely
writing” (5) with 3 as the mid-point
or exact balance between speaking
and listening.
The average trainee response (90 in
total) was approx 2.43.
The average teacher response (18 in
total) was approx. 2.94
Both groups appeared to favour a
greater weighting on oracy than literacy,
the trainees even more strongly than the
teachers.
Various current initiatives
to use/stimulate
oracy eg
“Talk(ing) partners”
“Talking Maths”
“Talk for writing”
Moves
towards
“dialogic
teaching”
(more about
this later)
What is classroom talk like at present?
Evidence has consistently shown that teachers dominate
classroom talk. Children typically have few opportunities to talk
and their contributions are often “low-level” in terms of
intellectual demand.
 A very common pattern of classroom interaction has been
described as I-R-F (first identified by Sinclair and Coulthard,
1975), which stands for:
 Initiation (Teacher) eg “What is the capital of France?”
 Response (Child)
eg “Paris”
 Feedback (Teacher) eg “Good boy.”

References in this slide and the next:
 Nystrand, M et al (1997) Opening dialogue: understanding the dynamics of
language and learning in the English classroom. New York: Teachers’
College Press.
 Sinclair, J. McH. & Coulthard, R.M. (1975) Towards an analysis of discourse:
the English used by teachers and pupils. London: Oxford University Press.
 Smith, F et al (2004) “Interactive whole class teaching in the National Literacy
and Numeracy Strategies”, British Educational Research Journal 30 (3)
From monologue to dialogue: looking more
closely at “interactive” lessons
The USA seems very similar to the UK. Nystrand and
colleagues found that in many classrooms, talk was:
“…overwhelmingly monologic. When teachers were not
lecturing, students were either answering questions or
completing seatwork. The teacher asked nearly all the
questions, few questions were authentic, and few teachers
followed up student responses.” (Nystrand et al, 1997, p 33)
Further research suggests that this is a global problem.
• A major piece of research into the “interactive whole class
teaching” promoted by the Strategies over the last decade has
found that:
“In the whole class section of literacy and numeracy lessons,
teachers spent the majority of their time either explaining or
using highly structured question and answer sequences. Far
from encouraging and extending pupil contributions to promote
high levels of interaction and cognitive engagement, most of
the questions asked were of a low cognitive level designed to
funnel pupils ‘ response towards a required answer.” Smith et
al (2004) p 408

Mercer and Dawes suggest that implicit rules exist
to underpin this state of affairs:
 ‘Only a teacher can nominate who can speak.’





‘Only a teacher may ask a question without seeking
permission.’
‘Only a teacher can evaluate a comment made by a
participant.’
‘Pupils should try to provide answers to teachers’ questions
which are as relevant and brief as possible.’
‘Pupils should not speak freely when a teacher asks a
question, but should raise their hands and wait to be
nominated.’
Mercer, N and Dawes, L: Chapter 4 ‘The value of exploratory
talk’ in Mercer, N and Hodgkinson, S (eds) (2008) Exploring
talk in school. Sage
A movement is developing in this country
which aims to establish a different type of
teaching, one based on dialogue rather
than monologue. It is known as “dialogic
teaching”. Dialogic teaching can involve
teaching the whole class or a group or
just one child. Essential features of
“dialogic teaching” (from Alexander,
2008). It is:
One approach which demonstrates many
of the features of “dialogic teaching” is
“Philosophy for Children” (see eg Fisher,
R. (2003) Teaching Thinking (2nd
Edition), London: Continuum.).
•Collective
Community behaviours consistent
with “Philosophy for Children”
(selected from Lipman, M., 1991.
Thinking in Education. New York:
Cambridge University Press)
•Reciprocal
“Members question one another…
•Supportive
Members build on one another’s ideas
•Cumulative
Members deliberate among themselves
•Purposeful
Members cooperate in the development
of rational problem-solving techniques”
Mortimer and Scott suggest four classes of
communicative approach
Interactive
Dialogic
Nondialogic
Non-interactive
Interactive/dialogic
Interactive/dialogic
Non-interactive/dialogic
Noninteractive/dialogic
Interactive/authoritative
Interactive/authoritative
NonNoninteractive/authoritative
interactive/authoritative
From Mortimer, E F and Scott P H (2003) Meaning-making in
science classrooms. Buckingham: Open University Press
Can this kind of work be creative?
Roy van den Brink-Budgen writes:
“I must now try to define what I mean when I write of creativity in
relation to critical thinking. I do not mean it in the strong sense
of the production of ideas that have not been thought of
before…I do not mean it in the even stronger sense of the
production of historically important insights. The meaning of
creativity I want to defend…follows the work of Margaret Boden
who makes the distinction between historical and psychological
creativity. Thus ideas can be H-creative (as in the example of
Kepler’s thinking of elliptical orbits) and P-creative (in the sense
that each of us might have an idea which we could not have
thought of before). My contention is that critical thinking
requires, encourages and develops creativity in the sense of
Boden’s pyschological creativity.” (van den Brink-Budgen,
2002, p 31)
From van den Brink-Budgen, R (2002) “The creativity of critical
thinking” Teaching Thinking and Creativity, Spring 2002, pages 28-32
The Primary Reviews
Recommendation 7: Primary schools must continue to give priority to
literacy and numeracy, whilst making sure that serious attention is paid
to developing spoken language intensively as an attribute in its own
right and essential for the development of reading and writing.
DCSF, 2004, The Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum: Interim
Report (Available online at Teachernet Online Publications for
Schools, p44).
First, it is a recurrent theme of this Review that in England literacy is too
narrowly conceived and that spoken language has yet to secure the
place in primary education that its centrality to learning, culture and life
requires, or that it enjoys in the curriculum of many other countries. The
current national curriculum formulation, as ‘speaking and listening’, is
conceptually weak and insufficiently demanding in practice, and we
would urge instead that important initiatives like the National Oracy
Project be revisited, along with more recent research on talk in learning
and teaching, as part of the necessary process of defining oracy and
giving it its proper place in the language curriculum.
Alexander, R.J. (2009) Towards a New Primary Curriculum: a report from
the Cambridge Primary Review. Part 2: The Future. Cambridge:
University of Cambridge Faculty of Education (p 47)
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