Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Utter Brilliance

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Utter Brilliance

Article excerpt

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 told TES 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. …

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