What is the point of Speaking and Listening? #BlogSyncEnglish

There has been much hand-wringing over the past couple of years about the place of speaking and listening in the English curriculum. The refrain from English teachers and teaching unions has generally been along the lines of this cri de coeur from Joe Walsh of NATE:

“What is proposed is essentially a downgrading of the importance of speaking and listening skills in the English GCSE.”

And where have teachers placed the blame of this devaluation of speaking and listening? Step forward Michael Gove and the DfE.

The thing is, I’m not so sure that speaking and listening has been devalued. Or at least if it has, Gove and the government aren’t entirely culpable.

When I trained, speaking and listening was a teacher-assessed element of the English GCSE, making up 20% of the overall grade in the AQA specification that my school followed (three tasks in, broadly: presenting, role-playing and discussion).

It might also be worth adding that one of the three pieces of coursework in the concurrent AQA English Literature GCSE was also allowed to be delivered orally too – that piece constituted 10% of the overall grade.

This, one would assume, is the evidence that speaking and listening once had a place of value in English. By removing it from the GCSE and letting it stand alone, we are told, Gove has devalued speaking and listening.

This suggests that the very value of speaking and listening is subjective rather than intrinsic: that its value is only based on the utility teachers and pupils see in it. When the speaking and listening assessment affects a pupil’s GCSE grade, it has value. When it doesn’t, its value is diminished. This seems to also suggest that the value of speaking and listening is ultimately decided by schools, teachers and pupils – even if that decision is provoked by curriculum changes.

But the narrative of a devalued speaking and listening is one that troubles me. It is my contention that speaking and listening may now actually be finding its rightful place in the English curriculum, and that the changes made in the past few years are actually bestowing speaking and listening a more intrinsic value.

When announcing the changes, Ofqual admitted that that there were huge inconsistencies in teacher assessment of speaking and listening. This meant that “in schools where the rules are interpreted differently, or where marking is more vulnerable to pressures from accountability measures, [pupils] may have received extra credit – when grade boundaries were set – for work of the same quality.” This seems a euphemistic way of saying that some schools inflate grades in speaking and listening assessment. Indeed, I did placements in three schools during my training year and was struck by the vast difference in interpreting the grade descriptors. It was clear in one school that they were inflating the grades to give low achieving pupils a better chance of passing the GCSE (they did this with the kindest of intentions – they cared about their pupils and truly wanted the best for them). However, this is anecdotal so we should adhere to a principle of charity and suggest that the majority of teachers weren’t cowing under the pressure of accountability measures and that they continued to approach the assessments with integrity. But even if this is the case, inconsistency is still rife. This is because, as Daisy Christodoulou has suggested:

So even if we think we are rigorous in applying the rules and we take pride in fair and accurate marking, the outcomes probably still aren’t actually fair and accurate.

Of course, speaking and listening in the new GCSE English curriculum is also teacher assessed. However, it seems that exam boards will be taking moderation a little more seriously than they did in the old GCSE. Whilst details are still yet to be finalised on this, it seems that they will be requesting audio-visual recordings of a sample of students from each centre. Moderation in previous qualifications meant that an examiner from your board came in once every five or so years and schools handpicked a few pupils to do a speaking and listening assessment in front of them. As a process of moderation, it was a fleeting nod to the idea of rigour.

I would hope that, with the new assessment, schools will produce audio-visual recordings of all pupils’ tasks for internal moderation. I think this will have the further benefit of bestowing a sense of formality about the speaking and listening ‘examination’, suggesting that we as schools value this strand of our subject highly. In this sense, it will still down to schools to decide on the value of speaking and listening. If we take it seriously then we are saying: this has value.

We really need to stop the hand-wringing and the ‘think of the children’ arguments like this one: “For some, these S&L activities have been proud moments, huge hurdles to overcome, only for their grades to become worthless.” Their grades are only worthless if schools and teachers don’t value them.

However, it isn’t solely down to us. I actually think that in separating the assessment from the GCSE grade, Gove, the Dfe, Ofqual – whoever you want to hold responsible – have brought out a more intrinsic value in speaking and listening. It no longer has subjective value as a component part of the GCSE. In previous qualifications, it was hidden away: once the exam certificate was printed all we could see was the overall English grade. But now speaking and listening has achieved independence. Future GCSE certificates will give a grade for English (reading and writing, still enmeshed) and a separate grade for speaking and listening. Potential suitors (colleges, employers, etc.) can now see exactly how well their petitioner has demonstrated verbal communication within the context of formal education. As a former of employer in an industry of mainly customer-facing roles, I would have found this incredibly useful.

So to suggest that separating the speaking and listening from the GCSE is downgrading it seems absurd to me. I think that, finally, speaking and listening may have been elevated to its rightful place.


The Reconciliation of The Debate (Is it possible? Is it desirable?)

Yesterday, I wrote a blog about how important debate around the distinct philosophies of teaching has helped me. I’ve had some really positive responses to it, but I thought it particularly pertinent that a large number of people echoed my experiences of watching and taking part in the debate. By way of showing the extent of the debate and how it has helped shape a number of teachers’ understanding of their practice, I thought I’d share some of the tweets where people claim to have undertaken a similar journey to me. I think this shows how important and useful the debate has been.

There have been some really thoughtful blog posts on this topic too:

Can a false choice be an object of research? by Greg Ashman

Varieties of boredom by David Didau

Boredom by Toby French

Dangerous Conjectures by Horatio Speaks

Shutting down debates by Rory Gribbell

The Unexamined Life by Phil Stock

In the last of these links, Phil Stock expertly draws our attention to the importance of the “insights that can emerge from holding two opposing ideas in tension.” Phil also alludes to the way that many teachers who dismiss the debate actually try to reconcile the two philosophies – he notes how people say things like “one day I am traditionalist and another I am progressive”. As Phil points out, this confuses methods and philosophies, but a wider point that we might draw from it is that some see the goal of the debate to reconcile these ideologies. Indeed, if they claim to be bored of the debate and to have moved on, as Anthony Radice points out, the assumption is that they have managed to reconcile them:

If this is the case, I would dearly love to see someone – who positions themselves as having moved on from the debate – write about how they have reconciled these two competing philosophies. At the moment, I follow Phil’s opinion that holding these opposing ideas in tension is where the power of both of them lies, but I’d be incredibly interested to read, from any commentators, about the reconciliation of progressive and traditional education philosophies.

As you can see from the tweets above, I am confirming my own biases that the debate is useful. This is a genuine open request to challenge those biases. Over to you.

I Was a Teenage Progressive: A Defence of the Debate

I listen to a lot of podcasts and one of my favourites is David McRaney’s ‘You Are Not So Smart’, in which he discusses and explores the cognitive biases and self delusions we all have as humans.

Yesterday, as Twitter responded to some prominent bloggers’ attempts to suppress the debate over progressive and traditional philosophies of education, the latest edition of YANSS hit my iPhone. It was called, ‘Bullshit’. The episode mainly discusses PhD candidate Gordon Pennycook’s excellent work on the topic of, well, bullshit (apparently it is a clearly defined concept which is marked as quite different to mere ‘lies’) – work which you can read here.

But the preamble to the podcast really reminded me of my formative years in teaching and on Twitter, and how taking part in the progressive vs. traditional debate, as well as observing it, has helped shape and develop my understanding of the differing philosophies of teaching. You should listen to the whole podcast, but I’ve transcribed the first seven or so minutes of it below.

The podcast starts off with David McRaney narrating the story of web developer, Seb Pearce, who then picks up the story himself…

David:  Seb told me that, as a teenager, he became fascinated with new age thinkers, new age writings, and new age personalities.

Seb: When I was about 19 or so, I was kind of a self-help junkie.

David: But the more he learned about new age ideas and new age personalities, the more he read books by these people and the more he connected with them and their online presences, the more he noticed something that… unsettled him.

Seb: I noticed after being involved in that stuff for a while that there were a lot of things that they were saying that didn’t really match up with what they were doing.

David: Public tantrums, egotistical behaviour, flaunting of wealth and status… you know: people stuff. It all began to take a toll on Seb’s belief and his trust in these supposedly enlightened individuals.

Seb: It all culminated in this debate I was watching on YouTube one time. It was a debate – I can’t remember where it was, but it was called ‘Does God Have a Future?’

David: ‘Does God Have a Future?’ was a debate televised on ABC in which science communicators, Sam Harris and Michael Shermer, debate famous new age figures, Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston.

Seb: When questions were asked to Chopra and Houston, their answers were just kind of like the spiel that they would do on their book tours and stuff that was just… it was like selling their product. Full of buzzwords – yeh, they would throw out these words that they knew that other people didn’t understand, um, but they sounded scientific and so that kind of lended (sic) authority to them I think.

David: Here’s a sample of what Seb is talking about…

Deepak Chopra (clip from ‘Does God Have a Future?’): Science tells us that nature is a discontinuity, that is, an on-off phenomenon. That there are gaps between every two ones where you find a field of possibilities, a field of pure potentiality. Science doesn’t call it God, but what is God if not the immeasurable potential of all that was, all that is, and all that will be? Science also tells us that there’s a field of non-locality where everything is correlated with everything else.

David: Seb was so struck by what he heard as a nonsensical verbal smokescreen, that he wondered if he could write a computer programme that could replicate it. Basically, he took all the buzzwords that he could think of that felt ‘new-agey’ and fed them into a programme that was written to obey the rules of English sentence structure. And then he added code that would produce the sort of statements that use, as he explains on his blog, “language games and emotions that lure people into this stuff”.

Seb: You notice the people who think that they do understand it, like the followers… even they don’t understand it – to them understanding it just means not disagreeing with it, I think.

David: Yeh, because its purpose is to create an emotion, to create a feeling…

So Seb created the New Age Bullshit Generator, which is quite good fun. You can play with it here.

But it isn’t what Seb created that struck a chord with me, it’s his journey from self-confessed new age ‘junkie’ to skeptic that seemed very similar to my development through understanding philosophies of teaching.

You see, I was once what you might consider a progressive teacher. I believed in progressive aims of education, and my approaches in the classroom reflected this. But – and this is important – I didn’t actually know that my philosophy was progressive. I thought I was just teaching and that the beliefs I had and approaches I undertook were entirely neutral in their ideology. They were just what was handed to me by my entirely impartial and objective teacher training.

And then I got involved in social media. I saw people like Andrew Old arguing against some of the things that I believed in. I argued against Andrew. He was obviously wrong and was tied to some ideology. I made it clear that what I was doing was free from ideology, it was just common sense in teaching. Andrew very patiently argued his case clearly and coherently. It was frustrating. Infuriating, even.

And I watched others argue against Andrew. And like Seb with his new age thinkers, I started to see how what they were doing didn’t stand up to the arguments Andrew made against them. Andrew was patient. He wouldn’t deviate from his argument. His arguments were logical. I noticed that the arguments against him were often fallacious and the behaviour of his interlocutors often didn’t match up with what they were saying – here were people arguing for group work, social interaction, critical thinking, individuality, etc., and yet they were displaying behaviour that seemed antithetical to this. What’s more, and this is hard to admit: I was one of these people behaving this way.

I started to understand that there were these two movements: progressive and traditional education. As I began to understand that my philosophy came from a tradition – that of progressive education, I also began to debate what I believed. Some of my beliefs stood up and I still hold them; but many of them, under scrutiny and challenge, shifted and changed. They often didn’t change in the moment of debate, but more likely over time as I took things away from the discussion and reflected on them. I would defend the same idea against different challenges from different people and each time I was able to add light and shade to my belief: sometimes the idea stood up under challenge, and sometimes it crumbled. I would go away and seek out reading and research based on the debates I was having or witnessing.

The discussions were never framed as Progressive vs. Traditional, but the knowledge that these competing ideologies were circling around the debate was vital to understanding them.

So, like Seb, I shifted from one side of the debate to the other because of my experience of seeing the debate in action. Where Seb shifted from new age junkie to self-help skeptic, I too have swung from being knee deep in progressive education to being heavily skeptical about its claims. I even wrote about how I’d changed a while ago.

So I am thankful for the debate. I hope it continues to enlighten people as to the philosophies and ideologies of education that are often hidden from us when we train. It may not change people’s beliefs as it has mine, but it will enlighten them as to the tradition of their beliefs. It may even strengthen the beliefs that they already hold.

Like Seb, I listened carefully to the debates and it took a toll on my belief and trust in what I had been told. But, unlike Seb, I wouldn’t go as far as to call progressive education ‘bullshit’. That would be like calling a debate ‘boring’.