Utter brilliance

4th July 2014 at 01:00
Once the cornerstone of a classical education, rhetoric has fallen out of favour. But those Romans and ancient Greeks knew a thing or two, says Martin Robinson - teach a student to speak well and they can change the world

Peter Hyman is fuming about the recent removal of the speaking and listening assessment from the English language GCSE. "It makes me extremely angry, it has no logic to it," says the headteacher of the high-profile School 21, a secondary free school that has recently opened in a deprived area of East London. "Why have we still got oracy in languages exams? Why is it fine to do an oral in Spanish but not in English?"

Hyman, who worked as a speech-writer for former Labour prime minister Tony Blair before taking to the classroom, hit the headlines earlier this year when he spoke of his plans to make oral communication a key concern in his new school.

"For too many people it's about having a debate club after school," he says now. "What we're about is putting oracy at the heart of our learning. In this school, lessons are filled with talk, discussion and debate. Our students are confident and articulate. We want oracy to be up there with reading and writing."

Hyman is at the vanguard of an increasingly vocal group of teachers and educationalists who believe that oracy should be part of the curriculum - not just because it helps pupils to progress in life but for deeper, philosophical reasons. "The aims for the school are to create beautiful work and to make a difference to the world," he says.

A poster hangs in each of School 21's classrooms emblazoned with the word "eloquence" - an aspirational message for the students, some of whom may not even speak English when they enrol or may have trouble speaking to an audience owing to a lack of self-belief.

"Oracy and well-being come together because if you're confident, then you're going to speak well and you're going to articulate your ideas, so the two are linked," Hyman says. "So we see having a discrete oracy curriculum as enhancing well-being; it's about cooperative skills and ways of thinking about yourself."

Drama techniques are used throughout the curriculum in School 21 to encourage talk; Hyman delivers his assemblies with children sitting in a circle, a format familiar to many performing arts teachers.

The school has also teamed up with University of Cambridge education professor Neil Mercer on a project to create a teacher-friendly toolkit for assessing students' spoken language skills. This tool will enable teachers to analyse four aspects of spoken communication to determine where students' strengths and weaknesses lie and to plan lessons accordingly. The four areas are physical (how you use your voice and body), cognitive (how you marshal an argument and use questioning and logic), linguistic (how large your vocabulary is and how fluently you use general, abstract and academic words) and social (how you engage an audience and develop your confidence).

In one classroom where the toolkit was being piloted, for example, 11- and 12-year-old pupils were delivering semi-autobiographical speeches to the rest of the class. They had written them for "Ignite", a series of five-minute TED-talk-style presentations that they were due to perform in front of an audience later that week. The same pupils will next year move on to longer and more complex talks, exploring challenging themes that require more academic and formal language.

Ancient wisdom

The process has echoes of the historic teaching of rhetoric, which goes back to the ancient Greeks. For example, the four areas of Mercer's diagnostic oracy tool are similar in scope to the five parts of classical rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery.

For the ancients, there was a great deal more to rhetoric than simply delivering a decent speech in the marketplace. Greeks and Romans alike believed that it was the art form that most reached out to the world.

As for Hyman, his ideal is to have oracy taught in every school. "It is about changing the world, it is about doing good in the world," he explains.

These are grand statements. But Hyman is not alone. Unesco, for example, recently produced a report that claims education could help to produce a more "just, peaceful, tolerant, inclusive and secure" world by developing "cognitive skills and non-cognitive skills [such as]communication and aptitudes for networking and interacting with people of different origins, cultures and perspectives".

So far, so simple. Improved communication skills equal a better world. Well, maybe not. Take this description of one of the 20th century's most memorable public speakers, one that would no doubt tick all the right boxes in any oracy mark scheme: "The essential characteristics of his speeches to the people are clear organisation, irrefutable logical reasoning, simplicity and clarity of expression, razor-sharp dialectic, a developed and sure instinct for the masses and their feelings, an electrifying emotional appeal that is used sparingly and the ability to reach out to the souls of the people in a way that never goes unanswered."

You've probably guessed the identity of the speaker. It's Adolf Hitler, as described by Joseph Goebbels.

Likewise, American "shock-jock" radio presenters are fantastic communicators - they get their messages across powerfully. But it is hard to suggest that they make the world a better place - or even a more tolerant or inclusive one, to return to Unesco's ambitions.

Great communication is not an uncomplicated force for good; it can also be allied to lies and danger. By teaching children oracy, we will not necessarily show them how to make the world a more peaceful place. Shakespeare sums it up well in The Tempest: "You taught me language, and my profit on't Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid youFor learning me your language!"

Just because we teach people to communicate beautifully does not mean that they will become tolerant of each other - or, indeed, feel kindly towards their teachers.

Take another disturbing example, that of Michael Adebolajo, one of the killers of soldier Lee Rigby in 2013. His former headteacher at Marshalls Park School in London, Pam Mason, described him after the attack as: "A good-natured and easy-going boy. He had a strong group of friends but he could mix well with others, and he was popular and well-liked across a wide range of students. Michael was bright and confident and had a good sense of humour."

Clearly nothing about Adebolajo gave his teachers any clue as to what he would do later on in life, nor should we hold them responsible for his actions. It sounds very much as if he was rather good at communication and might even have excelled in oracy.

That should give us pause for thought. No matter what we as teachers do in school, how good a moral grounding we give pupils or how well we help them to think about and understand the world in which they live, in the end we set them free to make the most ghastly choices in their lives as well as the most wonderful.

Hope for the best

In this world, where passionate intensity is all too often left to those with the worst intentions, we need to return it to the armouries of those with the best. Teachers should argue with children, present alternative viewpoints and act as devil's advocates. Instead of a homogeneous set of "global citizenship values" imposed from afar, the only value we should insist upon is freedom: the freedom to speak our minds and the freedom to disagree.

Oracy is part of the conversation of mankind, a continual process through which we hope to communicate beautifully but also need to challenge ugly or dangerous talk. Therefore schools should ensure that rhetoric and debate are central to their curricula.

This need to improve oratorical skill features strongly in England's new key stage 3 national curriculum for English, which states that pupils should be taught to "speak confidently and effectively.using standard English confidently in a range of formal and informal contexts, including classroom discussion".

The guidelines go on to state that pupils should participate in "formal debates and structured discussions, summarising andor building on what has been said. [They should] speak confidently and effectively.using standard English in a range of formal and informal contexts; giving short speeches and presentations, expressing their own ideas and keeping to the point."

I believe the government was right to remove the speaking and listening assessment from the English language GCSE. But rather than just doing away with it, they should have replaced it with a far more challenging test reflecting their stated belief that spoken English should be an important part of the curriculum.

Oracy should be assessed, but in a way that emphasises the understanding of content as well as an ability to argue a point of view under cross-examination. Instead of just assessing the quality of talk, we could revive the idea of a viva to see and hear whether pupils can talk about their work as well as write about it.

By allying understanding of content to the quality of their talk, the assessment becomes more purposeful and the rhetoric is less likely to be empty. The assessment could be carried out by teachers and moderated by exam boards watching a selection of videos or listening to recordings, as well as carrying out spot checks in schools.

However we go about teaching oracy, Hyman is absolutely right to emphasise its importance. As befits a former political speech-writer, he says: "I want people wrestling with big ideas, wrestling with controversies." This is absolutely as it should be. But we must not rely on the idea that great communication will bring about a better world all by itself.

The job of education is to give people the tools to argue passionately for what they believe. Unfortunately, all we can do in the long run is pass on what we think to be best. We give them the tools; they will decide how to use them.

Martin Robinson is the author of Trivium 21c: preparing young people for the future with lessons from the past, published by Crown House Publishing, pound;18.99. Find him on Twitter at @SurrealAnarchy

Word up: the pick of TES Connect's oracy resources

Vocal etiquette

This helpful PowerPoint can be turned into a wall display showing students how to be a good speaker and, just as important, a careful listener.


Open debate

Which is the best pet? What's better - summer or winter? These open-ended questions will spark discussion among your primary pupils.


Dream classes

Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech and the film The King's Speech form the springboard for a pair of lessons on giving presentations.


Snap chat

From closing zoos to banning dogs from parks, the topics in these seven short speaking activities are perfect for getting key stage 3 pupils talking.


Breaking taboos

Build vocabulary, encourage talk and revise keywords with this adaptable activity inspired by the board game Taboo.


Enter the matrix

Help students to identify and work towards their oracy targets using this handy grid.


Just a minute.

This entertaining unit of work takes inspiration from comedy improvisation techniques to help pupils speak confidently.


Ready to roll

A simple board game that allows students to practise appropriate registers of speech for different scenarios.


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