Forget 21st Century Skills!
“What we need is not new, but perennial. We need an art that integrates body and soul and recognises enduring and underlying principles, which have sustained wisdom and insight throughout humanity’s history.”
The artist and punk: Billy Childish (with Charles Thomson), Remodernist Manifesto (2000)
I wrote a piece this week for the TES in which I said that: “Schools should ensure that rhetoric and debate are central to their curricula.” I go on to suggest that the Government/Ofqual was absolutely right to remove speaking and listening from the English Language GCSE, I don’t think it was a great ‘test’ nor do I think it was particularly challenging or reliable but I do think spoken English is a very important part of any curriculum that values eloquence and the right of children to leave school fully able and willing to take part in ‘the conversation of mankind‘.
In order to help schools focus their pupils on the need to communicate beautifully there are drama classes, debating societies and public speaking where some children can be challenged to argue, think, and hone their skills of presentation to a wonderful degree, much more than in many speaking and listening tasks they took for GCSE. I would like to celebrate this side of schooling in a way that not only cements their learning in other subjects, but gives them space to think, connect, articulate and defend ideas they have had (or will have had when they are given the tasks to do) about some or much of their learning. I would like pupils to have the opportunity to show off their skills of speech making and ability to enter into dialogue with adults and experts about their thinking.
In the TES piece I argue that we should revive the idea of a Viva Voce where we could: “see and hear whether pupils can talk about their work as well as write about it.” This exam could be called a ‘rhetoric exam’, involve children in making speeches linking together aspects of their learning and then answering questions about what they have said. The exam could be carried out by and assessed by teachers, and moderated by exam boards through videos and spot checks. Crucially, grades would be awarded in a way that reflects the subjective nature of the assessment, not 1-9 or A-F but, as is common in many performing arts exams, in the following way: fail/pass/merit/distinction. It would be absolutely essential that the exam should not count towards any accountability procedure whatsoever, as the teachers involved must not be compromised and nor should it be part of any ‘essential’ exams that kids should take, reflecting the possibility that the grade might not be 100% accurate. Rather it should be an opportunity for enrichment with the rhetoric exam happening because people know it’s the right thing to do to help children flourish in their lives.
Perhaps the exams could be run as an adjunct or an extension to the current EPQ or even performing arts exams like those run by LAMDA and Central. I think it would be a great way for schools to start to be a bit more daring with their timetables, I would love to see Rhetoric taught in a formal way: period 3 on a Thursday I think would be just right!
Oh and, bearing in mind rhetoric classes would involve debate, these two ways of the trivium could be then complemented by discrete classes in English grammar, truly a radical re working of the timetable, and an opportunity to go back to the future, forget 21st Century Skills, bring back the perennial! Bring back Rhetoric!