The theory behind this lies in what I regard as a failure of the system, and its relationship to the predominance of reading and writing.
Outsiders constantly demand that we do better - get more children reading and writing fluently - and because we are judged on this kind of success or failure, we respond. We do more and more reading and writing, test more frequently, and rarely have time to pause for breath to see what is happening as a result.
Yet if we do pause for thought, we know in our hearts that many of our children cannot read or write effectively and that some will never improve. Our system has ensured that they have failed so often at these skills that they are now convinced they are hopeless cases, with no confidence to persevere. The more we push them in the direction they believe they cannot go, the more they dig their heels in.
So is there an alternative? I believe that lessons that consist of talking and listening can help those who are otherwise disbarred from success to have some. They may see, to their own surprise, that they have minds, and can use them. They can be rewarded by teacher praise (the most important resource in education) and they can be encouraged to try harder and even to write and read.
Talking and listening lessons come in many shapes and forms. Below is but one example.
John Fines transported his charges back to Elizabethan England to work on their talking and listening skills - with impressive results. In this history lesson I had certain objectives. First, I wanted it to feel like fun - to go like a roller-coaster and yet at the same time press the children to think. Above all I wanted this, as part of a sequence of lessons, to give them a chance to meditate on the difference between reality and fantasy. This is hard for 10-year-olds who quite enjoy resolving problems via a fantastic escape route. But they will never be able to work on the past in this way - they must at least distinguish between two kinds of imagination.
The content requirement of this sequence of lessons from the school was that they must be about transport. We had done a fair bit of work on time-lines, discovery and development and I felt they were ready to flesh out the principles they had established.
I set the lesson in 1560, with Queen Elizabeth just established on the throne. I talked with the children about the problems of getting from Chichester (where I live) to the school in Midhurst - a distance of some 12 miles. You could walk or come on horseback or in a farm cart but by which ever way you chose, it was going to be long, arduous, messy and dangerous.
What about a coach service? The children allowed that this might be a good idea, while pointing out that it wouldn't resolve the problem of bad roads and highwaymen. One child said it would be more sensible to establish a toll road first, but acknowledged that we didn't know much about road building in 1560.
So we decided to go for the coach service and see how it ran.
The first problem we encountered was a lack of ready money.
I only had Pounds 5. A new coach, we estimated, was going to set us back Pounds 45, a second-hand one Pounds 35. The children opted for a new one. It was, they said, less liable to break down.
Having sorted the coach, we then turned our attention to the horse power. We would need two teams of horses, one at either end. Best to have four in a team, but at Pounds 6 a horse we would try first with teams of three.
The bill mounted up - we would have to spend Pounds 129. The mental arithmetic in this lesson was a bit mind-stretching for the children and also revealed that some were none too good at it - they reached for their calculators but, I reminded them, it was 1560 not 1996.
COUNTING THE COST
How were we to raise the money? We thought about how much a person might have available to lend in 1560, and how they might want to check on the reliability of the borrower, and about interest. They asked me some grilling questions. Getting l0 per cent of Pounds 33 quite foxed them for a while but we struggled on. I was going to need Pounds 18 just to pay back interest each year, and if I intended to pay off the capital then lots more had to be earned.
The children were quite tired by this stage, but if we wanted to finish the job, we must know how much we could charge and how many customers we needed to have, with six inside and four up top.
They wanted to cheat and charge high prices, and it was a struggle to get back to reality. Eventually, we established that the cost of our coach rides would be a penny a head. More desperate calculations ensued, ending with the appalling discovery that when we had paid our interest we would have a paltry Pounds 5 15s as profit. In a later lesson they established scenarios for journeys - a good day, a brilliant day, a bad day, a disastrous day. We suffered a nasty "ham bush", which left the coach in the ditch with someone injured. However, a glorious meeting with Queen Elizabeth gained us her patronage as well as her bag of gold.
PAUSE FOR THOUGHT
This difficult thinking convinced everyone that inventions and developments had a hard time taking off. We could put the date on our time-line, but it involved some tortuous calculations. It was a hard lesson, hard on the children and the teacher. I wouldn't want to set up a coach company every day, but consider what we achieved. At least one third of the children would not be able to write effectively about this. Perhaps half would not have done the figuring on their own. Ninety per cent would not have persisted with the thinking. Maybe fewer than l0 per cent would have understood the ideas if I had just told them, or they had read about it. The success lay in every one of them working together, talking, listening and thinking.
I am very proud of what those children did, and saddened when I see other classes, their heads bowed over books in silence, doing undemanding, tedious work. I am sad, too, when I see so many regarding themselves as failures, lacking confidence and determination because of their experience with a pencil and paper curriculum.
John Fines is president of the Historical Association and co-director of the Nuffield Primary History Project