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Talk is not cheap, but it's so valuable

Primary pupils love to talk about controversial issues, but the curriculum constraints stop it happening, says Ross Deuchar.

In recent visits to primary 6 and 7 classrooms, I have seen several student teachers deliver interesting sequences of lessons focusing on key aspects of education for citizenship, human rights and democracy. Pupils have been desperate to share their personal opinions and beliefs about many controversial issues.

Among other issues, I have noted pupils' passion for engaging in the debates about underage drinking and drug abuse, the recent proposed ban on smoking in public places and the increasing threat of terrorism in society.

In one class, I heard a primary 6 boy describe how he had seen his big brother's underage pal buying bottles of beer at a filling station.

In another case, a primary 7 boy made the thought-provoking point that he should have had a say in whether his parents had split up, while another felt that his dad should have consulted him more before deciding to work abroad.

In one school, I was struck by the way in which the student teacher concerned was faced with the challenge of managing so many emerging anecdotes from children that it was almost impossible to do justice to them all within the context of one block of lessons. Yet all of the children had something important to say.

Inevitably in these situations, the pressure of an overcrowded primary curriculum tends to compel teachers and student teachers to move on to other areas of learning and teaching, leaving some of the debates unresolved and the children frustrated. With the best will in the world, it is difficult for teachers to really "go with the flow" because of the pressure of 5-14 coverage and expectations of national attainment agendas.

One of my student teachers talked at length about her desire to build in time for pupils to engage in open discussions about current affairs. But the need for clock-watching and for ensuring that her class contact time is spent covering all of the other work expected of her via national and local guidelines left her with many unfinished pupil debates.

In its discussion and development document, Education For Citizenship In Scotland, Learning and Teaching Scotland highlights the need for schools to facilitate the development of active and responsible citizens through encouraging pupils to respond in imaginative ways to social, moral and political dilemmas.

Encouraging pupils to engage in discussing controversial issues is a useful way to develop a sense of social justice and a strong will to become engaged in the concerns of the local and global community. However, despite these recommendations and the intense interest pupils may have for participating in such deliberations, all too often those inner voices of teacher guilt creep in about other neglected areas of the curriculum.

It seems to me that great opportunities are missed, where kids could really get their teeth into talking about issues that interest them. Pupil-driven agendas inevitably become slaves to 5-14 national guidelines. The pity of this is that many such pupil-led agendas for discussion could provide more impetus for areas such as writing, reading and key elements of expressive arts.

Such frustrations have made the publication of the Scottish Executive's A Curriculum For Excellence so welcome in my mind. Peter Peacock's vision is for a new curriculum that will generate successful and enthusiastic learners, confident at expressing their own opinions about the world and able to engage in responsible and critical thinking.

The key to the successful fulfilment of this vision may lie in the realisation of one of the curriculum review group's other goals: decluttering the primary curriculum. The review group sees this as a way to create more space for teachers to meet individual interests and needs, and exercise judgments about how best to engage individual pupils. The report also refers to the need for policy and practice to be underpinned by democratic values in enabling pupils to become committed to making active and ethical contributions to society.

To do this, of course, requires pupils to develop an understanding of their world and to envisage a future desirable to themselves and to others.

Discussing controversial and contemporary issues in the classroom is one important vehicle for this, and pupils must be exposed to a living model of democratic practice where they are encouraged to do it. In so doing, children need to feel that their views are being taken seriously and that teachers have time to listen to them.

With the use of the two Ds - de-cluttering and democracy - schools will surely be able to produce more motivated, engaged learners. The time has come to listen to the class in a more relaxed, pupil-driven environment which is conducive to contemporary, meaningful learning.

Ross Deuchar is a lecturer in education at Strathclyde University.

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