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Talking is good for the brain;Briefing;Research focus

So say researchers Neil Mercer, Lyn Dawes and Rupert Wegerif after encouraging constructive debate among primary pupils

The Crick Report's proposals for a new curriculum initiative on citizenship have raised some important questions. Why do our private schools see it as obviously necessary for children to be taught how to engage in the intellectual cut and thrust of reasoned, constructive debate on moral and political issues while the curriculum of state schools gives virtually no attention to this at all?

Surely we don't still think that learning how to use talk as a tool for co operating and persuading is something only "the nobs" need? And are the new proposals justified in linking debate and discussion with the development of reflective, critical thinking?

A research study at the Open University has shown that by using some practical strategies and activities teachers can help children become better at communicating and reasoning. It also shows how they can then apply these skills in debating the kind of moral, social issues that Bernard Crick focuses on.

A unique finding is that children who have learned better oral communication skills become better at doing tests of reasoning. For the first time we have clear evidence of the link between the development of children's communication skills and improvements in their critical thinking.

In an article soon to be published in the British Educational Research Journal (Volume 25, Number 1), we describe how four years of working closely with teachers in five Milton Keynes primary schools has led to "Talk Lessons", an effective programme for eight to 11-year-olds.

The essence of this programme is as follows. First, teachers establish with children what counts as good, productive discussion and agree some explicit ground rules for making it happen. These rules are posted on the classroom wall, as a constant source of reference (see box above right).

The teacher also has to "model" some effective ways of talking for the children in whole-class activities - for example, asking "Why?" at appropriate times, giving examples of reasons for opinions, and checking that a range of views is heard.

The final key feature is that the teacher has to organise children into mixed gender "talk groups" in which they work together, without constant supervision, on problem-solving activities which can only be completed successfully through talk and co-operation. In this way, children practise skills they are learning with their peers, and see for themselves that following the ground rules gets results.

These group activities relate directly to the Years 4-6 curriculum in English (including literacy), science and citizenship; and some activities use specially-created computer programs to prompt discussion.

A good example of the computer-based group activities is one related directly to the Crick Report's citizenship proposals. In an interactive narrative called Kate's Choice, the girl in question faces a moral dilemma.

A friend tells her he has stolen from the local shop, for reasons which are not entirely selfish, and asks her to promise not to tell.

Various pressures then act on Kate to make it hard for her to keep this promise. The children have to talk together and decide what Kate should do.

Video-recordings of this activity show striking differences between the debate of the children who have done the Talk Lessons and those who have not. After the lessons children discuss issues in more depth, participate more equally and fully, and provide more reasons to support views. They use reasoning words such as "because", "if" and "why" much more often. Their ability to think critically is visible in their talk.

We have also used a standardised psychological test of reasoning, Raven's Progressive Matrices, to test the effects of the programme on children's problem-solving skills. This test requires children to match sets of complex shapes, and is used by psychologists as a measure of general intelligence. Children who have done the Talk Lessons improve significantly on this test, compared with pupils in other schools.

The outcomes of this research for the development of children's communication and thinking skills is potentially great. It puts good citizenship - listening with respect, giving reasons, coming to shared decisions - at the heart of the curriculum instead of being an "add on".

Neil Mercer can be contacted by phoning 01908 653843 or by e-mail on n.m.mercer@open.ac.uk.

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