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Give rein to free speech

In Inverclyde, as primary pupils learn the manners of conversation, teachers are learning the benefits of classroom discussions, writes Elizabeth Buie

Joyless is a good word for a Primary 2 child to use, no matter what their background. It is an especially good word for a child attending a school in one of the most deprived areas of Greenock, where many children have delayed language development.

Were it not for a project being piloted in nine schools and with 16 teachers in Inverclyde, the boy at Sacred Heart Primary who used the word might not have extended his vocabulary so much over the past session.

He is not unique. Many of the children are showing improved language skills, not just in speaking, but reading and writing too.

The Listening and Talking for Learning project is based on the principles of "dialogic teaching", as Professor Robin Alexander of Cambridge University coined his primary education through dialogue approach, and has been developed by Fiona Norris, a quality improvement officer in Inverclyde, with support from primary teacher Jess Carrol, who is seconded one day a week.

The basis of the two-year pilot, which started this year, is teachers sharing and developing ideas. Teachers are paired to develop their practice, they receive regular visits from Ms Norris and Ms Carrol, and have recall days once a term which allow them to share their experiences.

"The least successful way of introducing change is just to do it to people.

That is where a lot of professional development falls down, where there is no follow-up," says Ms Norris.

"I designed this project so that we form a community of inquiry, in which pupils, teachers, myself and, to some extent, the evaluation team are creating something all together."

In broad terms, the project's aims are to improve teachers' and pupils'

understanding of the role of talking and listening in learning, to become more confident in using classroom talk, and to develop and share good practice in talking and listening.

One of the first steps was to explore with the teachers the principles of how to use open questions in class, applying Bloom's taxonomy of questions with its six levels of thinking skills. The P1-P7 teachers, including staff from a Gaelic-medium unit and a special school, then had to establish rules and routines for effective discussion in the classroom.

The age-old system of hands up to ask or answer a question is out. Instead, children in discussion groups use a series of hand gestures when someone else is speaking and they are thinking about what that person is saying.l Fists closed or clenched show they are thinking.l Thumbs up indicate they are ready to pick up the conversation. The speaker scans the group and passes the discussion to one of them with their thumbs up.l An open-handed gesture is used for passing on the discussion. This was devised by a child in the Gaelic unit and has been adopted across the community of schools.

In the context of paralinguistics, it is recognised that encouraging children to use gestures will help them think, says Ms Norris. "Effective communicators usually use body language. Why not make children aware of their body language?"

The teachers acknowledge that, in the past, they might have by-passed pupils who did not have their hand up to answer. "Now pupils realise that the teacher will expect an answer every time and will give them time to think," says Kirsteen Doherty, the P7 teacher at Sacred Heart Primary.

The P2 class is discussing worries and the children take turns to share fears, in a large group initially, then in threes. While in the large group, one girl has indicated that she wants to pick up the discussion, but when it is passed on to her, she sits silently. Patiently, the teacher and pupils wait. Then she starts to talk.

She has used "thinking time", says Ms Norris, and it is important that teachers give pupils that space to reflect. "A lot of adults can't handle that kind of pause."

Julie Docherty, who teaches P6, says: "It is hard to sit back and have that waiting time; it seems like an eternity. You want to help out the children, but they do have a contribution to make."

Brian Boyd, who is evaluating the project with John Lawson, both of Strathclyde University, is very impressed by the depth of insight shown by some of the children when they use the rules.

"They are not unconnected to the rules underpinning Assessment is for Learning, but focus on rules of discussion learning, which is something that teachers have always been uneasy about because they worry about being off task," says Professor Boyd.

Many of the teachers see advantages in using the gestures.

"Passing it on is a great gesture," says Gillian Deveney, the P1 teacher at Sacred Heart Primary.

Her P2 colleague, Lynne Gillan, says: "One boy got tongue-tied. I thought he would start crying, but he passed on to help himself. The other boy passed back to him and he was able to finish. He just needed time to get his thoughts together.

"There was one boy who didn't speak last year. He was the one who said 'joyless' today. He feels more confident that someone would take over from him."

There are other spin-offs from setting social rules for discussion. The children have become more confident and noticeably better behaved in class and in the playground. Boys who had been banned from football training have been allowed to return on condition they follow the listening and talking rules. There are clear signs that children are getting better at resolving conflict amicably.

It has prompted some interesting responses from pupils. One told her teacher: "All my mum and dad do at the table is argue, but when they argue they don't even have eye contact."

From a learning perspective, there are other clear benefits. Ms Norris says it is important that pupils talk in the classroom for communicative, social, cultural, neuroscientific, psychological, political and pedagogical reasons.

"Language, especially spoken language, builds connections in the brain, pre-eminently during the early and pre-adolescent years," she says.

"Language and the development of thought are inseparable. Learning is a social process and high-quality talk helps to scaffold the pupil's understanding from what is currently known to what has yet to be known."

Kathleen Boyd, the headteacher of Sacred Heart Primary, has found that the teachers involved in the project are now talking more about teaching and learning and the pupils are talking more about their own learning and how they can help each other to learn.

The teachers were told initially to choose one subject area in which to apply the listening and talking project, but they admit it has "seeped"

through into other areas. It dovetails neatly with Assessment is for Learning and, with its cross-curricular application, is ideally suited to A Curriculum for Excellence.

Ms Norris does not want the Listening and Talking for Learning project measured in terms of attainment or test results. "It has value in itself.

"Children understand that it is helping their learning. What we are saying to them is that we value talking and listening."

Mrs Boyd adds: "Our children needed a lot of language to talk with and this has given them the language to talk.

"Little kids like big words, but ask them to write them and they won't because they can't spell them. However, if you ask them to say them they will, as long as we've set up the context so that they are confident."

Ms Norris concludes: "Any children, whatever their background, will benefit from learning like this. Children learn better if it is active and they are participating, not just receiving all the time."

Bloom, B., et al, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: the classification of educational goals, McKay, New York, 1956Alexander, R.J., Towards Dialogic Teaching: rethinking classroom talk, Dialogos, York, 2004, revised 2006


P2 pupils at Sacred Heart Primary in Greenock explain

* We talk one at a time

* We do not interrupt

* We keep good eye contact

* We give reasons and explain our ideas

* If we don't understand something, we ask for an explanation

* If we disagree, we ask "Why?"

* We think about what we hear

* We share our ideas

* We listen to each other

* Closed fist: I'm thinking

* Thumbs up: I'm ready to speak

* Open-handed gesture: I'm passing over the discussion

Dialogic teaching

Dialogic teaching is underpinned by five fundamental principles.

It is

* collective: teachers and children address learning tasks together, as a group or as a class;

* reciprocal: teachers and children listen to each other, share ideas and consider alternative viewpoints;

* supportive: children articulate their ideas freely, without fear of embarrassment over their answers - so it is inclusive for habitually quiet, compliant children - and help each other to reach common understandings;

* purposeful: teachers plan and steer classroom talk with specific educational goals; and, perhaps most critically

* cumulative: teachers and children build on their own and each other's ideas and chain them into coherent lines of thinking and enquiry.


Subject: Children's rights

Prepared by: class teacher Kirsteen Doherty

Arrangement: class of 24 pupils work in threes, then groups of 12

Pupils begin by considering, in groups of three, nine case studies of children's experiences or situations in different countries across the world, from street children to bonded children.

They include the case of 9-year-old Firoz in Bangladesh, who was arrested for stealing a mobile phone, was not allowed to see his parents and was tortured by police, who bound him and crushed his thumb with pliers.

The pupils then form two groups of 12 to exchange ideas and discuss issues further.

Pupils are expected to understand and identify the children's rights that have been violated, to discuss their own thoughts and feelings (using skills and techniques that have been previously identified) and to be able to compare and contrast a typical child's life in Scotland with the experience of those discussed.

While they are looking at children's rights in different parts of the world, they also have to think about the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Once in the groups of 12, the pupils are allowed five minutes to choose the situation they would like to respond to. The trios take it in turns to explain their thoughts and feelings to the others in the group. The others are then given an opportunity to question and respond.

The teacher then gives the pupils a few minutes to identify any good practice in discussion, which was evident within their larger group.

The two groups then give feedback to each other.

Possible extension work could be the formation of four groups of six (two trios) for further discussion. They might discuss whether children's author Caroline Castle's adaptation of right number 2 under the UNCRC is true for every child.

She says: "Whoever we are, wherever we live, these rights belong to all children under the sun and the moon and the stars, whether we live in cities or towns or villages, or in mountains or valleys or deserts or forests or jungles. Anywhere and everywhere in the big, wide world, these are the rights of every child."

Pupils could go on to discuss the content of a poem entitled "An Equal World", which was written by a 14-year-old, and then, in threes, write their own poem with the same title.

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