In any language, it's good to talk

19th January 2001 at 00:00
Robin Alexander, following his international study, believes that oracy is the key to improved teaching in England

Who said this? "Under the guise of fine phrases like 'parental choice' and 'decentralisation' this Bill will deny choice and centralise power and control over schools into the hands of the Secretary of State in a manner without parallel in the western world."

Yes, it was none other than Labour's then education spokesman, Jack Straw. He was right: after 1987, but still more since 1997, we can forget those smug allusions to stony-faced Russian officials and French ministerial stop watches. England now takes the prize for its relentless drive to control education from the centre and its draconian system of educational policing.

The use - and abuse - of power in education is a theme of Culture and Pedagogy, my new study of primary education in England, France, India, Russia and the United States. It used observation, video, interview and document analysis to show the subtle yet decisive ways in which culture and history penetrate every aspect of public education, from national policy and curriculum to school ethos, classroom relationships and the language of teaching and learning.

More than half the book is devoted to the classroom. In a comparative study this remains unusual, for only recently have comparative researchers started to examine practice as well as policy, let alone to explore the relationship between them. In its classrooms, as in so much else, England sits on one side of a cultural fault-line marked not by the Atlantic but by the Strait of Dover. Somehow the power of mainstream European pedagogy has passed us by.

That pedagogy is all about structure: the form, sequence and pacing of lessons, the way knowledge is conceived and reshaped as learning tasks, the use of time, and above all the transforming power of structured talk. Again, though, national stereotypes must be abandoned, for the study shows how a commitment to structure does not inhibit diversity.

Across the cultures six basic views of teaching and learning either achieve a confident consensus or jostle for supremacy: the rote transmission of information (everywhere, especially India); cultural induction via the disciplines of knowledge (France); classrooms as microcosmic democracies (US); responding to children's developmental needs (England and US); accelerating children's development rather than following it (Russia); and achieving structure, conciseness and rapidity in all teaching (Russia and France).

Alongside the influence of empire and revolution, of church and class, and of enlightenment, industrialisation and now globalisation, we find the more personal stamp of Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky and - the grandfather of modern pedagogy, his impact still discernible in Russia and central Europe - Comenius.

Beyond are more primordial values, three of which - individualism, collectivism and community - relate in a special way to how a society sees itself. In Russia, France and India the importance of collective consciousness and responsibility shapes schooling in fundamental though different ways. In Russia, for example, classroom dialogue is extended, public and precise rather than fragmented, private and conversational, as so often in England.

In some American clasrooms, values are in a state of active, even disruptive tension as teachers urge children to care, share and negotiate in a context of fiercely-defended individualism. And England? Here, primary schooling has lost many of its certainties and betrays increasing confusion as it is bounced from one "tough new" initiative to another, and meanwhile reflects deeper crises of national identity and purpose.

I have attempted to portray, understand and explain, not produce a "best-buy" effectiveness study, but there are many lessons for English primary education. These centre, for example, on lesson planning, form and sequence; on classroom organisation; on the balance of the class, the group and the individual; of ways of turning monitoring into a tool of learning ; on the handling of time and pace. But alongside the vital question of who controls our schools and how, one challenge emerges: the need to transform classroom conversation into an empowering dialogue whose function is cognitive as well as social.

England has witnessed several attempts to upgrade oracy, from Bullock to the National Oracy Project, but all have been short-lived. Many people still believe that reading and writing are the only "real" work, or perhaps, like the Victorians, fear to uncork the volatile possibilities of talk. Such atavism ignores the lessons of modern psychology about the unique contribution of talk to learning, and perhaps compounds our growing national inarticulateness. For their part, France and Russia make spoken language pre-eminent yet their children learn to read at least as fast as ours. We must revisit oracy, and soon - though in the present climate I fear that some joker in the Government will prescribe an Oracy Hour.

Book of the week,Friday magazine, 21 Robin Alexander is professor of education at the University of Warwick. His book "Culture and Pedagogy: international comparisons in primary education", is published by Blackwell, price pound;65 hardback, pound;16.99 paperback


* England goes against the international trend in its continuing drive to control education from the centre.

* "Modernising" governments usually underestimate the power of history. Education systems, including those that have experienced violent revolution, show remarkable continuities at the deeper levels of practice.

* English primary education displays increasing confusion about its values and purposes, and teachers undertake an exceptionally diverse and sometimes conflicting range of tasks.

* England would profit more from studying primary schooling in continental Europe than importing slogans from the US.

* The key to the success of mainstream European pedagogy is not so much whole-class teaching as clarity of purpose, economy of organisation, and the emphasis, in every context, on structured classroom talk.

* School-effectiveness measures such as "opportunity to learn" and "time on task" are suspect, for what one teacher achieves in a ring-fenced hour another can achieve in half the time, and learning is not simply about keeping children's heads down.

* The balance of reading, writing and talk needs urgent review. Classroom talk should be transformed into cognitively-challenging dialogue, but an imposed "oracy hour" is not the answer.

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