Words for life;Citizenship;Language

23rd April 1999 at 01:00
That's a stupid thing to say!" says Michael. A hubbub of voices adds clamour to what Michael's teacher had hoped would be a calm and purposeful discussion about the moral issues surrounding property. She is trying to introduce more debate on such matters following the recommendations of the Crick Report on citizenship education published last autumn.

Property, rights, responsibilities, equality and diversity are all issues that are particular to citizenship education, and debate is stronglyadvised by the report as being an essential means to raising awareness and increasing the necessary skills of discussion.

In class - despite apparent peace - tongues are surreptitiously poked out, hands are covering ears and sharp glances are being exchanged. There is a palpable feel of jarred tempers ready to ignite into argument - argument, but not debate. Some maintain that children, especially those at key stage 1, are only capable of the former. It could be that they are confusing the content of young children's debate with its manner. Children's moral judgement, evidence suggests, proceeds developmentally and one should not expect adult reasoning in young children's debate. What can be expected and achieved, though, is a manner of debating that is considered, purposeful and respectful - whatever is being discussed. However, they need two things if this is to happen - the ground rules and the language.

The ground rules are familiar to teachers who make use of a "circle time" format for discussion; the children learn to take turns, not interrupt, and to treat each other's contributions with respect. They also learn to use words like "agree" and "disagree". What is probably less familiar is the establishment of an appropriate language in order to raise the level of debate and increase articulacy. Without it, a debate often remains a thinly disguised exchange of prejudice.

This language consists of short phrases and words - "tool words". They are by no means exclusive to citizenship, but are of use in all areas of learning. There seem to be about 30 words that form an essential core, but they cannot simply be handed out to children as a word list to be learned off by heart nor can they be used at all times, whether or not children understand them.

These words are potentially very powerful in terms of enhancing children's thinking and language but delivered in this way they will have the effect of matches applied to sodden fireworks. The real test is for children to be able to make these words their own by mutual negotiation, experiment and feedback. It needs some structured planning by the teacher but it is not particularly time-consuming and the effects are almost immediately apparent, especially in a class that encourages purposeful and reflective talk.

So what might these words be? Those most relevant to citizenship education are probably same, different, opposite, respect disrespect (or not respecting),agreedisagree, point of view, rightwrong, kindunkind, fair unfair, change, question, compare, idea, decision. Other words pupils find of use are imagination, feelings (and words for different feelings), team, and organise.

While it might be thought that many children know these words, they rarely use them - or, if they do, it takes little time to find out they rarely have the depth of meaning one assumes they have. In practice, I have found that if the word matches an experience already in a child's life, there is unlikely to be a problem in learning it, or deepening their understanding. Indeed, it seems that in giving that experience a word, particularly in the jointly-negotiated way described below, children are not only able to give meaning to it but are able to take more control of their thoughts and feelings.

How might these words be introduced? Each teacher will find their own way. The essential principle is that the meanings of the words are explored and negotiated by the children themselves. The hardest part for a teacher is being the "manager" of this exercise, not the "instructor".

In one example of how this might be done, a class teacher introduced one of the words with a very brief definition (in practice, often selected from a story) and then explained to the children they were going to "explore" it.

Over the next day or two at discussion time, she told them she was going to ask them to relate examples of real-life experiences that they felt illustrated the meaning of the word. The class itself would decide whether this was, or was not, an acceptable example and why. If it was, then it was to be recorded in a way which would later become part of a book. This in itself became a record of learning outcomes and a means of assessment. In the event the children took the task very seriously and these "negotiated" words soon became part of the class and individual children's vocabulary and noticeably enhanced their level of debate. Other teachers have undertaken similar exercises and found such words form the backbone to all their discussions.

As we accept the principle of giving children the tools about how language works in the literacy hour and maths in the daily numeracy lesson, so giving children the "tools" with which to debate gives them the means to articulate their thoughts and feelings. Problems such as racism are not going to disappear because of a list of well-meaning rules posted on a classroom wall. They are the stuff of real debate and that debate will only be effective if children have the necessary skills with which to undertake it. Skills, incidentally, that will last them a lifetime - and benefit not only individuals but the society they are going to live in.

Annabelle Dixon was The TES Lucy Cavendish research fellow 1997-98 and is a former deputy head

* 'Oh, them golden slippers...'

The party shoes were extravagantly pretty by any standard. Covered in gold and coloured sequins and edged with pearl beading, they'd been bought in a jumble sale and taken to school for the dressing-up box.

That they were popular was an understatement and, not unsurprisingly, this produced its own set ofdifficulties.

Two children in particular both wanted to wear them at the same time and I could hear the wrangling from across the room. One of the children -seeing my intention to quell the disturbance - came across to me. "It's all right, Miss," she said, "we know we've got a problem but we want to solve it."

The words "problem" and "solve" had been two recently introduced "tool words" much discussed by the children in the class and were now, seemingly, becoming part of their every-day vocabulary. I was pleased that they had recognised a "problem" for what it was but I was curious as to their solution, as evidently the simple taking of turns which I, in my unimaginative adult way, might have suggested, was not satisfactory.

The solution was not long in coming as one could see by two beaming faces. It affected their walking though, because they each wore one of the coveted shoes.

Fairness takes many forms to an infant and fairness on their terms had won out. The words "problem" and "solve", seemed to have not only given words to the reality of their dilemma and helped them achieve this aim without resorting to fighting or spiteful disagreement, but it had put them in control of the situation. They had consequently been able to take responsibility for the resolution of their difficulties.

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