Category Archives: Rhetoric

History of Thought

In these days of very little time or space on a timetable it is still heartening to know that some schools are trying to make a space where children can be taught in a way that celebrates education for its own sake. An introduction to cultural capital, literacy, or whatever you like to call it in your context, where children can learn, discuss and make connections across the curriculum. It is with this aim in mind that I have been working on ‘History of Thought’, a course that enriches and stretches even the keenest of minds.

Please see below for details:

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The History of Thought (Ideas)

Purpose:

To connect ideas and thoughts across disciplines. (Inter-disciplinary)
To stretch and challenge pupils and widen their horizons.
To give pupils an in depth appreciation and knowledge of the ‘Great Western Tradition’ through a ‘Grand Tour’ of ideas and historical epochs.
To develop independent learning.
To develop pupils skills in writing and verbal communication.
To develop confidence and ability for university entrance procedures.
To enable pupils to develop their own interests and character, education for ‘freedom’.
To use the trivium as a teaching methodology.
To train staff and to encourage collaboration across departments.
To enable staff to think strategically about curriculum design and delivery.

History of ideas is intended to run alongside other disciplines. It could take the place of Religious Studies and PSHE or it could be given curriculum time of its own. The course takes a ‘liberal arts’ approach, in that it aims to ‘free’ the pupil to think for themselves and be able to make thoughtful criticisms, follow their developing ‘unique’ modes of thought, and become confident academically and be able to develop the art of conversation.

“liberal learning… above all else, is an education in imagination, an initiation into the art of this conversation…”

Michael Oakeshott

Content:

A series of historical epochs, such as: ‘Classical’, ‘Medieval’, ‘Renaissance’, ‘Enlightenment’, ‘Romantic’, ‘Modern’, ‘Contemporary’. The study could be frame by ‘what was distinct about the —— period’? or ‘what might we mean by the — – mind’?
Each of these could include a look at: science, art, architecture, geography, philosophy, literature, language, politics, ’events’ etc. in the UK, Europe, the ‘West’ and the world.
Other strands could be incorporated: ‘civilisation’, ‘trade’, ‘moral truths’, (or indeed ‘truth’ itself), ‘people’ – themes such as the growth of the individual, the nation state, ‘empire’, ‘democracy’, race, class, gender, sexuality etc.
Introducing Great Books/Objects (And discussing What is great? Why? Is this great? What is excluded/included, why might this be? Challenges to the canon) Context and Argument)

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Trivium:
The teaching of the course is designed to fit with the ‘trivium’: Pupils are introduced to the ‘knowledge’ of the era, they look at the main arguments, explore things in their context and also, maybe, with a contemporary eye (as long as that distortion is made clear). They are then invited to debate, write, argue and question one another, with the teacher ensuring that ‘the facts’ are always at the root of the discussions rather than ‘mere opinion’. Speeches, projects, essays and also products in a range of different media can then be produced – either for each epoch and/or at the end of the whole course.

EPQ:
The course can fit alongside the EPQ and be a good way of introducing it.
In Harvard all students follow a ‘programme in general education’ which, they argue: ‘…seeks to connect in an explicit way what students learn in Harvard classrooms to life outside the ivied walls and beyond the college years. The material taught in general education courses is continuous with the material taught in the rest of the curriculum, but the approach is different. These courses aim not to draw students into a discipline, but to bring the disciplines into students’ lives. The Program in General Education introduces students to subject matter and skills from across the University, and does so in ways that link the arts and sciences with the 21st century world that students will face and the lives they will lead after college.’

NB: The ‘History of Thought’ is intended as an academic core, not a second rate addendum. It is meant to be ‘highbrow’ and to furnish pupils with a good amount of cultural capital as well as give them a context to all their studies in the wider curriculum.

“Reading makes a full man, conversation a ready man, and writing an exact man.”

Francis Bacon

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If you’re interested in seeing whether this course can be tailor made to fit in with your needs: please do get in touch here.

Classroom Talk, Some Thoughts on the EEF Report…

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I think the three ‘Rs’ of Reading wRiting and aRithmetic should be expanded to the four Rs and include Rhetoric or oRacy, in other words: talk should be an essential core component of a good education. Schools should do their utmost to ensure children read well, write well, do their sums well and talk well.

The EEF reported this week that modest gains in English, science and maths can be made in upper primary school if pupils are taught in a way that uses the dialogic teaching methods as proposed by Robin Alexander. As it puts it, in the interim report, ‘Changing Talk, Changing Thinking‘, the approach to classroom talk is a specific method:

defined and developed by Robin Alexander, [which is] in contrast with some other approaches to oracy…

So this is not just about talk in the classroom, nor about just any method of approaching talk, it is specific to Alexander’s version of dialogic teaching. His approach:

attends as closely to the talk of the teacher as to that of the pupil, because it is through the teacher’s talk that the pupil’s talk is either confined within the tightly controlled boundaries of recitation or encouraged through discussion and dialogue to enlarge its discursive and semantic repertoire and hence its cognitive power. Hence the focus… on the balance of closed and open questions, recitation and dialogue, and brief and extended pupil contributions. For while dialogic teaching, again unlike some other approaches, accepts the need in certain circumstances for closed questions, recitation and brief pupil contributions, it also affirms that unless the quantity and quality of pupil talk is extended well beyond these traditional patterns of exchange into a much more extensive interactive repertoire the full communicative and cognitive potential of classroom talk will remain largely unrealised. In the end, therefore, it is the pupil’s talk that matters most, and it is to the teacher’s agency in securing the enhancement of pupil talk that dialogic teaching is directed…   

Alexander’s 11 categories of ‘learning talk’ (narrate, explain, analyse, speculate, imagine, explore, evaluate, discuss, argue, justify, question)… were modified for coding purposes as 12 sub-types of extended pupil contributions which also include pupil responses to some of the key teacher talk moves. The modified coding categories for pupil learning talk were: expand/add, connect, explain/analyse, rephrase, narrate, evaluate, argue, justify, speculate, challenge, imagine, shift position. These were applied… to video transcript samples from both the intervention and the control groups at the mid-point of phase 2.

…the differences by that stage of the intervention were striking. Intervention group pupils were markedly more expansive in their contributions and exhibited much higher levels of explanation, analysis, argumentation, challenge and justification. Their talk, then, was clearly much more dialogic than that of their control group peers. Though there were between-subject differences, the overall pattern of intervention/control contrast obtained across all three subjects tested…

the intervention impacted positively on teacher questioning, teacher talk moves for probing pupil responses, the balance of recitation and discussion/dialogue, the length of pupil contributions and – critically for the quality of pupil thinking, understanding and learning – the pupils’ repertoire of what Alexander defines as ‘learning talk’. 

Because the interventions were so wide ranging and the results so modest it is difficult to come to any conclusion about dialogic teaching as an approach to teaching and learning. There are also many imponderables, including the age of the children involved in the study. If they were older would the results have been more or less impressive? If the pupils were more secure in their subject knowledge, more expert, would they have gained more or less from Alexander’s methods?

The EEF report states that:

The approach, termed ‘dialogic teaching’, emphasises dialogue through which pupils learn to reason, discuss, argue, and explain in order to develop their higher order thinking as well as their articulacy.

When people talk about ‘higher order thinking’ I assume they are referring to some sort of taxonomy where ‘knowing stuff’ is at the bottom and ‘analysing or arguing about stuff’ is nearer the top. If so, is it then possible for teachers and pupils to move onto arguing about stuff too quickly and give the impression that ‘higher order thinking’ is being engaged, when in fact it isn’t? Can pupils ‘talk the talk’ but not ‘walk the walk’? A rejoinder to this might be but that is what the higher order thinking is for: to secure the knowledge. But, instead, could we be securing a method, beloved of some politicians, that of avoiding deep analysis because they want to avoid exposing a level of ignorance? I haven’t seen the videos and would love to see how probing the questioning was, how analytical the pupils were, how well constructed the arguing was, and also how all this talk reflected the quality of their ‘knowing their stuff’.

If we look at extracts from the ‘Coding Frame’ for analysis of video data we can see what was being measured. As far as I can ascertain it was the style of talk that was being analysed and not whether the talk was ‘correct’:

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The analysis of the evidence seems to be of the talk and not its explicit connection to content. It is thus possible to suggest that whilst much of the talk might have been qualitative in terms of its performative nature, it might not be so in terms of the knowledge being discussed. Whilst the teacher asking ‘where’s your evidence?’ etc. might elicit the correct response, it might also elicit one that is completely wrong.  Of course, this might not be the remit of the study, but it should be of crucial concern to the quality of teaching and learning. Data that connects talk to the knowledge being discussed might help us evaluate what type of talk is helping or, maybe, hindering understanding. Or it might be too difficult to compile.

In which case, I put my finger in the air and say that clearly classroom talk is a good thing but, there could be superior methods of classroom talk especially for children of upper primary age where garnering a level of knowledge might be more important than being able to argue about it straight away. What if the

closed questions, recitation and brief pupil contributions

were helping pupils make more substantial gains in their learning than the use of a:

much more extensive interactive repertoire [using] the full communicative and cognitive potential of classroom talk ?

I don’t know.

I just think sometimes I, and maybe other teachers, like to get on to the arguing, analysing and all the ‘fun’ stuff before enough knowledge has been secured. This can result in pupil confusion. In trivium terms I think of this as trying to get through the grammar quickly so that we can get onto the dialectic where the engaging stuff might be. Yet it’s not so engaging to discuss things that you don’t know anything about, and it’s better to listen a bit more to an expert talking about it, in other words, the teacher, or read a bit more about it in a book before one gets involved in a debate.

School 21, A ‘Conversation’ With Peter Hyman.

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Late last year I had a long conversation with Peter Hyman in which we looked at areas of agreement in our education philosophies and areas where we disagree. This conversation took place within the walls of Windsor Castle, a most un-revolutionary backdrop, steeped in history, a place beautifully unencumbered by 21st Century thinking, unless you count the aeroplanes preparing to land at Heathrow that must disturb a good night’s sleep for various Royals, their servants and staff. Peter and I agree on many things but we also have some significant disagreements too.

In today’s Observer Peter has an article, It Is Time for a Real Revolution in Britain’s Schools, in which he sets out many of our agreements but also hints at those significant disagreements too. The article begins at an event which I attended in the House of Lords, a pupil gave a beautifully crafted speech, the need for eloquence is something about which Peter and I wholeheartedly agree. Peter was formally a speech writer for Tony Blair and shares with me a passion for the Art of Rhetoric, though, perhaps due to Blairite revisionism, he calls it ‘Oracy’. I contributed to the English Speaking Union and School 21’s book called ‘Speaking Frankly’ (Available for free: online edition, here) In the book I make my case, in a piece called ‘the Age of Rhetoric’, for argument, debate, logic and eloquence but also for the teaching of judiciously selected texts and a well thought through curriculum. It is on these points that Peter and I have real disagreements.

Although I agree wholeheartedly with Peter when he says:

An academic education (the head) starts with the basics of literacy and numeracy, then builds out to a deep love of words and facility with the English language. It then develops a depth of knowledge of key concepts and ways of thinking in areas such as science, maths, history and creative arts. This knowledge should be empowering knowledge – knowledge that draws on “the best that has been thought and said” from the past, as the cultural critic Matthew Arnold advocated, but importantly is shaped and applied to the needs of the present and future.

I’m not sure that he means the same thing as me when he writes this. To me this means emphasising subject based teaching, teaching knowledge explicitly so that children remember it and, importantly, it also involves the need for reflection, absorption and silence. Peter prefers a project-based approach to finding the ‘best that has been thought and said’, the problem I have with this is that it doesn’t tend to find the best. Let children free too early on the task of academic knowledge acquisition and they are more likely to find stuff that isn’t that good and also quickly pass over stuff which is difficult to understand. This stuff needs to be taught in a systematic way, it needs to unfold in a carefully constructed narrative, so that children learn in real depth. For this to occur, it needs to be chosen by teachers, presented in a specific order, and referred back to often. It should not be left up to the child to construct, not if you want them to truly learn.

I also worry about Peter’s idea of a ‘noisy’ classroom. If he means a classroom in which children talk and are questioned as well as questioning, where the ‘noise’ is purposeful, then great. If this is just a rhetorical flourish to get a reaction, that this is not the default position, and that if he saw children working silently and diligently on their own in a classroom he wouldn’t worry about it, then fine,  because sometimes we really do need to work alone and quietly, if we want to reach insight and understanding.

As a drama teacher, I love group work, yet I can also see its many problems and weaknesses. It is not a great way to learn stuff. Certainly not for every child in a group. It also suffers as an approach because a teacher can’t keep track of the ‘learning’ that is going on in a group and often quite fundamental concepts are distorted through a ‘Chinese whisper’ approach in which a nugget of knowledge is reshaped into a prize piece of nonsense.

However, we do agree that there should be debate, dialogue and conversation, these things have an important role to play. I worry that Peter has a slightly Utopian idea that his approach will make the world a better place, I’m not sure that we ought to try to make children more ethical and liberal, but we should certainly offer up the great issues of our time as well as the past so that they might be more informed but free to make their own decisions and, yes, mistakes as well as successes.

The great liberal arts tradition is, of course, an education that provides children with the means to learn valuable knowledge, to value discussion and thought, and appreciate the need for beauty and eloquence in their communications with the outside world.

It is great that we have a system in which a school like ‘Michaela’ and a school like Peter’s ‘School 21’ can coexist. I wonder if there is room for a school that seeks to put both approaches together and whether that would satisfy Peter’s desire for innovation?

Katie Hopkins, Denial, and Teaching ‘Critical Thinking’

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AQA state that:

A-level Government and Politics enables students to develop their critical thinking skills and enhance their ability to interpret, evaluate and comment on the nature of politics.

For a teacher this is quite a challenge, especially in ‘politically charged’ days like these. Days in which the ‘politically impartial’ speaker of the House of Commons has found himself in hot water for expressing a preference as to whether Donald Trump should address the Houses of Parliament and stating that he voted for ‘remain’ in the EU referendum. A teacher of politics thinking about developing the political critical thinking skills of her students needs to ensure this critical thinking is sensitive to the values and beliefs of different political traditions. This is hard enough when the values and policies of the two seem to have much in common, it is a much harder task when they don’t.

According to Olga Khazan:

liberals and conservatives… now seem further apart than ever on their policy preferences

And, despite many MPs in the Labour Party marching through the same ‘Brexit’ lobby as the Conservative government’s MPs ,the same seems to be at play in the UK.

This distance between the two sides can easily venture into classrooms. A caller to a radio station last Sunday stated that her 17 year old son:

was forced to drop his Government and Politics [A level] after he was “alienated” by fellow pupils for voicing support for Trump during an in-class debate. The concerned mother also said that he was told by the teacher “he shouldn’t have such strong opinions”.

If a teacher and the majority view of the pupils in a class is such that Trump is beyond the pale it might be very difficult for someone with differing views to state their case. That his classmates reportedly shunned him in the next lesson and that this was seemingly supported by the teacher makes it even more worrying. If you can’t have strong opinions in a Government and Politics class, where can you? Maybe the teacher and the classmates need to think about the importance of denial.

The caller was phoning in to the Katie Hopkin’s show on LBC is of note, at the end of the call Hopkins suggested she ‘might go into teaching’, something that might send many teachers into paroxysms of anger. Apparently this sort of response would be quite typical for people of a liberal disposition, our response, whether conservative, liberal or libertarian or a. n. other, to people with whom we disagree tends to be one of complete disbelief, after all our values are the correct ones.

Khazan cites a report by Matt Feinberg, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto and his co-author, Stanford University sociologist Robb Willer, who have studied the difficulty in how to persuade people to your way of thinking. She writes:

One reason this is so hard to do, they explain, is that people tend to present their arguments in a way that appeals to the ethical code of their own side, rather than that of their opponents.

Feinberg states:

“We tend to view our moral values as universal… there are no other values but ours, and people who don’t share our values are simply immoral. Yet, in order to use moral reframing you need to recognize that the other side has different values, know what those values are, understand them well enough to be able to understand the moral perspective of the other side, and be willing to use those values as part of a political argument.”

For someone updating their status on social media this means they usually send out messages that take their own ethical code as being the one that everyone shares, and if someone doesn’t share it then there must be something wrong with them.

If you think Trump, his team and his supporters are a ‘bunch of deplorables’ it might not be the most persuasive language to use if you want to persuade his voters to change their minds. Brexit is another obvious issue with which it is easy to come unstuck and find yourself treating those ‘on the other side’ as if they are completely deluded. The more passionate one feels about an issue the less carefully one might choose one’s language.

For a teacher, in a classroom, if you want to connect with those who do not necessarily share your views it might be worth looking at how you communicate as well as what values you are promoting.

A classroom is a place where emotions matter but it is also a place where the use of reason and reasoning can be taught. As David Hare puts it in his foreword to Denial by Deborah E Lipststadt

“In an internet age it is, at first glance, democratic to say that everyone is entitled to their opinion. That is surely true. It is however a fatal step to then claim that all opinions are equal. Some opinions are backed by fact. Others are not. And those which are not backed by fact are worth considerably less than those which are. “

The classroom should not encourage children just to shout off their opinions but be places where opinions are developed through careful thought and analysis of facts and ideas. This would involve the teacher understanding different viewpoints and presenting material, where useful, dialectically. As this article puts it:

Surely [pupils] deserve the opportunity to learn how to think, before a teacher tries to tell them what to think as well.

This seemingly liberal view against teachers indoctrinating kids might seem reasonable enough, until you realise it’s from the Daily Mail and written by the aforementioned Katie Hopkins. Hopkins is a right wing controversialist and the Mail is a newspaper even shunned as a reliable source by Wikipedia, so when I tweeted the article I should have expected a reaction. Most teachers even those agreeing with the sentiment could not see past the Hopkins/Mail concatenation. Not all opinions are equal but for some this is due to who utters them and where, rather than what the opinion might be.

The film of ‘Denial’ shows this brilliantly, as much as someone might hate the words of David Irving because of who he is, in the court of law it came clear that the battle over what is said is more important than the battle around their character. If we are teaching about such things it would be important to show how the teacher should not say ‘Irving is evil’, no matter what their personal viewpoint might be. They might speculate as to his motives, but the most important part of the lessons should be about the facts of the case as presented. A great lesson in how to think forensically rather than purely emotionally, the film shows how difficult this can be and also how all involved are emotional beings and that this is an important part of what makes us all too human it might sometimes get in the way of ‘truth’.

If not all opinions are equal this cannot be based on what we ‘feel’ about those facts but on how we examine, analyse and use persuasive argument to see which opinions count for more. These opinions will sometimes, perhaps often, not reflect our own. We have to ‘deny’ our own feelings. This denial can be very important.

In a Government and Politics class, it shouldn’t be the initial opinions of the teacher, or the children, that matter. It should, however, be about discovering about where ideas come from. We might ‘feel’ our moral sentiments are universal (some of them might be) but we need to look at how other people might differ. Rhetoric can be carefully constructed to persuade those who disagree with us to think about what we might have to say with sympathy. The course could also look at the darker arts of politics: The Prince or, even, House of Cards, but most of all it should look at how to have educated opinions, how to muster arguments, empathise with your opponents, yet be able to argue with them respectfully, eloquently and thoughtfully and perhaps, even, sometimes change their minds. Articulating opinions sometimes needs the act of denial in order to make them stronger.

On Milo and Free Speech in Schools

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The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. JS Mill

This week saw Milo Yiannopoulos banned after discussions with the DfE’s Counter Extremism Unit from speaking at his old school, the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, a school from which he was expelled eleven years ago. Apparently the concern was that there might have been demonstrations against him that might have got out of hand and the reputation of the school might be harmed in some way. Meanwhile, in Scotland, (Gorgeous) George Galloway who had spoken at  Dollar Academy in Clackmannanshire that morning was later ‘attacked’ (Glitter Bombed) by a group of five people led, according to Galloway by a ‘Trans and an anarchist’, at a speaking event at the University of Aberdeen.

As Galloway said:

Few weeks go by when the ‘identity politics’ crowd don’t strike one campus or another either physically or with their ‘no platform’ demands.

Galloway is right, there are too many people who rather than argue and debate with people wish to close down debate entirely and whether they are groups of demonstrators or state agencies we should do whatever we can to ensure free speech in our places of learning.

Katie Hopkins wrote in the Daily Mail (check your personal triggers at this point) that:

Rather than let the 220 pupils who had signed up to hear him speak, listen, challenge him and make up their own minds, it was decided that exposing pupils to anything other than a liberal viewpoint could be damaging.

Hopkins has a point when she says that too many, so called ‘liberals’ are:

The… champions of diversity who will not tolerate diversity of thought or opinion.

This is an important point. If children in our schools, who can access a wide range of opinions online, are unable to access a range of thoughts, ideas and opinions when at school and are able to see how these ideas stack up under scrutiny then are they being educated properly?

But there is a problem with extreme views, they are not ‘harmless’.

In the Guardian the murderer of Jo Cox MP, Thomas Mair, was described in the following way:

Mair was racist and a terrorist in the making, his home stuffed with far-right books and Nazi memorabilia and his mind brimming with a belief that white people were facing an existential threat. “The white race,” Mair once wrote, was about to be plunged into “a very bloody struggle”. His greatest obsession, however, and his deepest bitterness was over those white people whom he condemned in his writings as “the collaborators”: the liberals, the left and the media.

Mair accessed his local library’s computers, looking up such things as the BNP, white supremacists, Nazis and public shootings, the Ku Klux Klan, the Waffen SS, Israel, serial killers and matricide. His hatred fuelled by his reading and his reclusiveness.

If we were to apply Mill’s principles on Liberty to Mair, we would have to make a decision about what point someone becomes a danger to others. This is a judgement call and would also necessitate some form of scrutiny of a person’s private life in order to ascertain whether they might be a danger.

David Aaronovitch pointed out in this week’s Times:

I have yet to come across an example of a public figure murdered by a mad liberal whose home was found to be stocked with books by John Stuart Mill and covered in slogans calling for proportional representation

The centre must hold. There are certain aspects of a person’s views that might alert us to further problems. This is where ‘society’ takes a view but one in which it can overreach itself, Mill, again:

when society is itself the tyrant – society collectively over the separate individuals who compose it – its means of tyrannising are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its public functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right; or any mandates at all in things in which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.  

Those who call for a no platform have a point, we know people have been radicalised  by hate preachers and fundamentalist Muslim extremism and far right extremism are two of the most obvious dangers to our way of life but is that a good enough reason to ban Milo from speaking at his old school?

No. There is considerable difficulty at the heart of Mill’s liberal utilitarianism, but it is not, in his view, for the State to make moral judgements about us unless those actions are going to harm others. The school invited Milo and wished to question him about his views, this is clearly not a school in which pupils will be brainwashed by his ideas and then go on to do harm to others. That his views can be easily found online, often in the context of having little scrutiny means that they would probably have had a ‘safer’ space in which to analyse his thinking than they do now as the talk failed to materialise. The idea that the school which expelled Milo would have some harm done to its reputation is ridiculous and if potential demonstrations are a problem then it’s for the police to ensure freedom of speech is upheld as a principle as far as is possible.

It is the danger of views not being open to scrutiny that should worry us more. The more we can argue with those with whom we disagree the better. That some are a danger to others is not the argument, we know this and these people should be dealt with before they can do harm to others. If only Mair could have been prevented from carrying out his disgusting crime, the better for us all.

If anything, more schools should be inviting the likes of Milo and Galloway to speak to their pupils, however, it might be better that schools forgo the idea of having people  ‘preach’ to their pupils and ensure, instead, that equally eloquent speakers are pitched against them. Debate specific issues, invite these people to make their argument in the context of the topic of your choice and through the discipline of a formal debate so that their views can be tied down and exposed to forensic examination.

It’s the hiding away of views or the exposure to unchallenged platitudes that can foment more trouble.

The Importance of Debate in Schools

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Creating a culture of speech in your classroom means having everyone doing it, not simply those that are willing – do not let students ‘hide’.

Andrew Fitch,  from the book: Trivium in Practice

In a piece for the TES, Jonathan Simons, head of Education for Policy Exchange, wrote about the importance of debating:

To debate, participants must analyse complex issues of ethics, law, politics, science… it teaches rhetoric, and the ability to stand up and speak in front of an audience. It demands confidence in one’s position. It requires teamwork between speakers. It instils general knowledge. It is transformative.

Simons also points out that debating has been a central feature of our best universities for centuries. As Petrus Ramus put it in his Dialectica of Invention:

What is Dialectica ? A. DIALECTICA IS THE (sic) art of disputing well…

It is the art of dialectic, that puts questioning, reasoning, critical thinking and logic at the heart of the trivium. These are all essential attributes of a great education and to be able to do them well can help ensure that young people perform well academically and, indeed, socially.

It is not enough for schools just to teach knowledge, knowledge is the base of great thinking, but without the practice of using knowledge to challenge and rise to the occasion when challenged, an academic education falters. Argument is key to thinking well.

Andrew Fitch, the director of spoken literacy at Highbury Grove School helped coach the England schools  debating team that won this year’s world debating championships held in Stuttgart. Highbury Grove school, under the leadership of Tom Sherrington, is undergoing the process of putting trivium principles at the heart of the educational offer to their pupils.

In the book, Trivium in Practice Andrew Fitch has contributed an excellent short guide for teachers called: “Spoken Literacy and Rhetoric in the Classroom…” In his introduction he writes:

…using the three part trivium structure, I have utilised debate, in a variety of forms, to ask students to intellectually engage with relevant material through being forced to attack and defend various aspects of the knowledge that they have been given… Through argument generation and speech creation, students dialectically engage with the material, developing a familiarity with it beyond the simple stating of facts.

Debating competitions and debating societies should be a feature of all good schools. However most young people will not engage with it until debate features as a part of the everyday curriculum. By having to think clearly and defend or attack an idea, a work, or a philosophy, children will be challenged and, in turn, will understand more about the content of the curriculum and what it means to them and the society of which they are a part. I would go so far as to say by grappling with the playfulness of ideas in this way they will, in turn, become more engaged with the issues they are debating and that can only be a good thing.

 

A Classroom Should not be a Safe Space

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Should a classroom be a safe space?

Let’s unpick that a bit, should it be a space in which mortal danger can occur? Should it be a space from which a child is lucky to get out alive? If we take it to mean this then yes, a classroom should be a safe space, but should the classroom be a space in which ideas are not allowed to be voiced, or certain ‘trigger’ words are banned?  That some students have got to University and are so openly able to be traumatised by certain texts and behaviours that mean lecturers and other students, speakers at debates including well known figures, like Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer, face calls to be banned from speaking at some campuses is an extraordinary sign of our times. Democracy is on the back foot, instead of  the common people conversing and arguing with each other, we have returned to an aristocracy, but this time the nobility are self appointed purveyors of more noble thoughts than the rest. Instead of being ‘the best born’ our new aristocrats are those with the ‘best thoughts’, they are able to close down the thoughts and uttering of the rag tag demos with their edicts from their moral high ground.

Where does some of this behaviour come from? Where do people begin to believe they have the right to rise above others? It might be from home, that was how the old aristocracy worked: ‘you have blue blood, my son, you are born to rule’ but the new aristos are self-appointed, they are not born, they are made, and one of the places that forges the new aristocracy is the school classroom. For where do these thought deniers get their prejudice and wholesale belief that they are the chosen ones but in a space that validates that view?

Any teacher who has faced the ignominy of being ‘interviewed’ by a panel of fourteen year olds understands that pupil power is taken very seriously by some schools. An adult, often a parent, sometimes in a stressful time of their life, wanting a job, finds themselves having to answer questions from pupils who represent the voice of the student body. An interview, which is more and more being exposed as a flawed way to judge a candidate, is a shop window for a statement about the school… what children say here, matters. But, of course, it doesn’t really. If student voice really mattered then our schools would be full of teachers appointed by students against the wishes of the adult interview panel. Some Headteachers would be subject to disciplinary procedures if Student voice was taken seriously, it’s window dressing, a sop, but it is part of the idea that what students say matters, as long as what they say doesn’t rock the boat.

For at the same time as student voice, classrooms have become places that tell children off for not saying the right things. Children are encouraged to express their views and their feelings about all sorts of things and, as long as these views and feelings are ‘correct’ they are taken seriously and validated and/or patronised. Emojis are employed for children to tick: ‘did you enjoy class today’? Classroom discussions elicit answers: do you feel  Hitler was a naughty boy? Imagine the response that a teacher would give to a child who argued that Hitler was right? What about the racist child? The homophobe? All are asked their views but some are immediately silenced: ‘You can’t say that,’ ‘You can’t use those words,’ This is ersatz free speech and children are given the impression that they have to say, in class, things that ensure they sound like they are thinking the ‘right’ things. This is not teaching, it is the use of authority to oppress people in the doublethink world of giving them a voice.

Children should not be asked for their opinions in class. Well, not until they have really thought things through. A classroom should not be a ‘safe space’ it should be a space in which children have their thoughts challenged, not by telling them what they can think but by exposing them to the thoughts of others. The best that has been thought and said, is often contradicted by other thoughts and saids that could also be described as the best. Classrooms should be places where children learn about the dialogues and arguments of the past and by engaging with these texts they will have their minds educated in such a way as to begin to be able to understand even the most obnoxious viewpoints and the arguments against them.

Most dialectical points are not necessarily between extremes, most are neither obviously right against obviously wrong and here, the complexity of arguments and thought is exposed and understanding enhanced. Instead of trying to take the moral high ground a pupil is placed in a position where they begin to see that complex differences between people are not solved by shutting down debate but through careful negotiation and dialogue and that, even then, positions can remain intractable. Texts can be juxtaposed to emphasise these arguments but also single texts which contain great arguments at their core can be chosen. Every child should have the opportunity to pick apart a great debate at the centre of a great novel or play. To be exposed at an early age to the great piece of theatre that is Antigone can only be a good thing. To realise that the implacably opposed Antigone and Creon can be both at the same time right and wrong could open their minds to empathising whilst disagreeing. Pupils should be taught to be disputatious, to love heated argument and debate. They should be taught to listen to other views, no matter how much they disagree with them, they should be taught to listen respectfully whilst searching their mind for good arguments to oppose whilst reserving the right to change their minds. Teachers should know how to conduct proper class debates where a knowledge base is used to argue from, Socratic circles can help here as they demand that references to texts are central to the argument.

A child who is protected from persuasive dangerous views is given no thoughtful weapons against these views because they are crouched in a safe space that leaves them exposed to a life where argument is not broached. A space which allows no debate can leave a child bereft when they come across someone who is bent on exploiting them in some sinister way or other. A safe space is, paradoxically, a dangerous one.

Voices Joined, Not Silenced.

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Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible; and don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon.  Henry Higgins to Eliza Doolittle. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw.

It is also the language of Germaine Greer and the, sadly missed, Lisa Jardine.

In order to bring different voices together we need to be able to ensure language is understood. Our culture of conversation should not be about silencing voices it should be about listening to and enabling all to congregate in a place we share in common: voices joined, arguing, discussing, agreeing and disagreeing. At its heart is our agreement to have the conversation, a sign of a mature democracy rather than a petty piteous regime in which there are the chosen ones who know what is right and the ignorant, ‘evil others’ who should have their tongues ripped from their throats. Too many people are trying these days to silence voices because they disagree with them. Rather, we need to listen to a range of voices, this should be at the heart of our culture as understood by Michael Oakeshott:

…culture itself is these voices joined as such voices could only be joined, in a conversation – an endless unrehearsed intellectual adventure in which, in imagination, we enter into a variety of modes of understanding the world and ourselves and are not disconcerted by the differences or dismayed by the inconclusiveness of it all. And perhaps we may recognize liberal learning as, above all else, an education in imagination, an initiation into the art of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices; to distinguish their different modes of utterance, to acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to this conversational relationship and thus to make our debut dans la vie humaine.

Our society has ‘jumped the shark’ when people try to silence Germaine Greer due to her ‘misogyny’.

If a school has a culture of silencing debate by not giving children the opportunity to speak or, when they do, by silencing them if they’re not saying the right ‘politically correct’ things then we have a culture that encourages young people to see thought and speech as a potential crime. If debate is reduced to being only the concern of politicians on telly with their Etonian wiles and a pastime for those dining at the dinner tables of Hampstead then something is wrong. If articulate talk is for the posh, then the rest of us are like dogs chewing over the inarticulate scraps left at the feet of the privileged few.

In today’s Times Clare Foges, speechwriter to David Cameron from 2009-15 argues that: “Children should leave school not just with a clutch of GCSEs but the gift of clear and proper speech.” She is right but this does not mean teaching children elocution, it means children need to learn to listen, think, argue, debate, and speak in formal ways, in the spaces that they share in common, which means mostly in the classroom.

Schools need to give children the opportunity to express their thoughts, though not their unthought through prejudices. No-one needs to hear, in a formal space, a child mumbling incoherently about something of which she knows very little. Pupils need to learn how there is often more than one side to an argument, they need to understand the complexity and subtleties involved in different points of view. They need to be taught how an argument is constructed and why, they need to understand logic and also the philosophical underpinning to different discourses. Pupils need to  begin to discover what they believe and begin to articulate their thoughts in dialogue with others. They shouldn’t be looking to close down other people’s differing views, rather they should relish the opportunity to learn by listening to the voices from the past and the present in order that they might be articulate in the future.

Debate involves articulacy. Not only should students begin to understand why there are a range of views, they should also begin to be able to communicate in a way that means they can be understood. At the heart of this a school should have a policy for speaking and listening that covers all opportunities where pupils have to communicate with each other as well as encouraging more. Good communication includes the arts of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric; through the trivium children learn about the thoughts and ideas of the past and discover what matters. They are then given an opportunity to think about and challenge these thoughts and ideas and, in the process, develop the abilty to add to the thoughts and ideas that might matter in the future. Knowing, questioning and communicating; instead of shutting Germaine Greer up,  they should understand why she is a colossus among men, they should challenge and debate with her, but shut her up? No!

Imagine if we had shut up all the other great thinkers of the past because they were not ‘politically correct,’ imagine the paucity of our culture if we allowed our half formed, ill informed, badly educated, prejudices to always hold sway. As Lisa Jardine put it: “We are going to have to learn how to participate in debates which are not about certainties.” Students should be curious about the world, not certain that they are its moral guardians, they should be open to the possibilities inherent in debate, not frightened due to its ability to offend. Schooling has a hugely important role to play. If our young people are frightened to debate then we have denied them the gift of clear and articulate speech.

If you are interested in the ideas expressed here, I’m leading a course on whole school speaking and listening, looking at debate, dialogue and rhetoric, click here.