Fixing the educational divide:  speaking out for a more effective curriculum

This Spring a parliamentary report, ‘’Speak for Change,” made a compelling case for why the ability to articulate ideas confidently, to influence others and to collaborate with peers matters. It also offered practical strategies schools could use to encourage these skills among pupils.

It’s formally known as  ‘oracy,’ a term designed to raise the status of talk in learning by aligning it with literacy and numeracy.  Oracy involves a myriad of skills and attitudes such as listening, structuring ideas, presentation, confidence and the ability to persuade with reason. It enhances pupils’ cognitive skills and social-emotional development as well as civic engagement and empowerment.

But oracy is about more than learning effective speaking and listening skills.  Oracy is also about giving pupils the language tools to navigate the complex world we live in.  It is about developing the confidence to reason collaboratively and to make better-informed judgements about the issues they encounter.   My research with ITE students has shown how learning how to do ‘oracy’ can strengthen critical thinking, reflectiveness, open-mindedness and lead to personal transformation.

Oracy is now widely seen as a form of cultural capital to which many from privileged backgrounds have easy access – less so for those from less privileged backgrounds. Yet except for in the early year’s Oracy has become the Cinderella of school curricula; what is not assessed loses status and importance.

What is the cost of neglecting oracy?  Research suggests that the oracy gap has widened – economically and socially advantaged pupils are pulling ahead of their less advantaged peers.  Indeed, the recent Speak for Change report presented worrying evidence that the Covid pandemic has widened this gap even further: 66% of primary and 44% of secondary teachers reported negative effects on spoken language – particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The cost is also seen in the workplace: employees lose out without the necessary communication skills to do their job effectively.  Even in higher education, poor oracy skills affect student participation and engagement in seminars. Students from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds are also less likely to engage and participate in classroom discussion and miss out on the many benefits of oracy.

Closing the gap

The current ‘infodemic’ powerfully illustrates the need to equip pupils and students with the capacity to reason together to question assumptions, give and evaluate their own and others’ reasons.  Whether it is about covid conspiracy, celebrity lifestyles, body image or climate change, pupils are bombarded with unverified information.  Without the skills to critically evaluate this input, they may form judgements and conclusions based on erroneous information.   This has serious consequences at both the personal and the societal level.

How can teachers develop pupils’ oracy?  Although oracy is absent from school curricula, many continue to engage students in debates, drama, small group work activities and in a few cases a structured Oracy curriculum. Currently, one of the most popular approaches Philosophy for Children (P4C).   Matthew Lipman developed the P4C because he was frustrated with his students’ thinking skills at Columbia University in the 1960s.

P4C is predicated on the idea that genuinely open discussions are more likely in a community of inquiry where trust and relationships are nurtured.  After establishing ground rules, pupils are presented with a stimulus – for instance, a photo, story or video – and are invited to generate questions for discussion.  They vote for one question which becomes the basis of the dialogue.

The teacher’s role is to facilitate the discussion by encouraging students to unpick and analyse the contestable concepts in their discussion whilst also paying attention to the caring and collaborative thinking aspects.

P4C’s focus on the improvement of language development, confidence and social and emotional attributes has popularised it in many UK schools.  In the South Yorkshire region, many headteachers have invested in P4C because they are convinced of the benefits of getting children to inquire into and deliberate in the topics and questions that interest them.

As recent EEF findings show, although there was no direct impact on pupils’ standardised test results, pupil engagement is high and teachers also highly value this unique space for inquiring and reflecting on the big questions, whilst at the same time honing their pupils’ thinking skills.

A South Yorkshire strength

 Indeed, P4C in South Yorkshire is thriving and it is only second to London in terms of the number of schools and trainers involved.   The recently formed ‘Think together Sheffield’ body also aims to bring philosophy not just to schools but to the wider community including prisons, pubs, and after school clubs.

SHU’s commitment to P4C has strengthened P4C provision in South Yorkshire schools and consequently benefited pupil learning.  The Sheffield Institute of Education has also invested heavily in the programme for student teachers.  In partnership with the Society for the advancement of Philosophical Inquiry and Reflection, over 1,000 trainee teachers have received a four-hour introductory course since 2018.  And around 200 students and seven staff have completed additional training to achieve SAPERE’s level one certificate.

Student evaluation data suggests that students value their P4C training and highlight its impact on their questioning skills and ability to facilitate classroom discussions.  My own research with student teachers suggests P4C also enhances students’ reflective skills.

The skills and attributes that P4C developed – critical thinking open-mindedness, perspective-taking – are also highly relevant to the HE context.   Thus, P4C can be a tool to address many of the issues that we grapple with such as:

  • Developing students’ critical thinking.
  • Equipping student teachers with the skills and abilities to develop pupils’ critical thinking.
  • As a strategy or developing metacognition in Maths, Science, etc.
  • As an inclusive pedagogical approach e.g., students from minority backgrounds to express their views and perspectives – which can build self-esteem and confidence.
  • As a way to develop students as citizens.
  • Embedding relational pedagogy – i.e., supports learning by providing a psychologically safe space to test and evaluate ideas.

For school pupils and SHU students alike, the capacity to speak eloquently, to articulate ideas and to think and reason collaboratively is fundamental capability for personal and community transformation. It is therefore vital that SHU continues to play a role in supporting Oracy in the university and the South Yorkshire region.

Written by Fufy Demissie, Senior Lecturer in Early Years Education. (Dr Demissie has worked extensively with the P4C programme and has recently published research on promoting student teachers’ reflective thinking.






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