In the state education system, oracy has been recognised as an important and necessary life-skill for students to develop. It has long been recognised within the private education system, where rhetorical skills have been a foundation of learning and expression since Plato’s Academy. The students at Eton don’t learn different scientific, historical or geographical facts to the students at Anytown High School, yet they will be far more likely to pass the exams to get them into Oxbridge and thereby gain positions of power within society.
Why is this? Well, this disparity can in part be accounted for by the “silver spoon” class attitudes that still permeate every aspect of our society. You’re more likely to become Prime Minister if your father was Foreign Secretary. But moreover, you’re more likely to become Prime Minister if you believe from an early age that you are capable of becoming Prime Minister. It is not so easy for a parent in Anytown to get their children to believe that they can achieve whatever dreams they have. Those of us at the coalface of trying to improve oracy confidence in Anytown see that many students face difficulties even finding a dream to chase. They see no future ahead of them, save the same struggles to find work and housing that their parents and grandparents faced.
Dreams have become a privilege that many working-class students today feel they simply cannot possess. Why have aspirations for a better life if there is no way of getting out of this life? This is the fundamental problem facing educators today, and most behavioural and attitude issues in the classroom stem from this lack of self-belief. Students who see the inherent value of learning, and who are driven to further their own growth and success, are far less likely to be disruptive in class, or to bully other students in order to feel better about themselves. This is plain and simple common sense. We all know this. So why aren’t we doing anything about it?
Some will say that it is the responsibility of parents to inspire their children to want a better life, not of overworked and undervalued educators. They are of course correct. It certainly is the job of parents to inspire their children. But it is also the job of every adult that has anything to do with the social development of any child. In a democratic society, we are all the buck-stop when it comes to taking responsibility for the flourishment of our children. As educators, we are in a unique position to inspire the self-belief needed to have dreams, and the self-confidence to chase them.
Many schools are doing exactly that – inspiring students to aspire. But far too many are not. Far too many schools lack the funds and resources to hire and retain the excellent teachers needed to resolve this corrosive barrier to social mobility. It is difficult to inspire students when you yourself are travelling miles every day to a “failing” school and struggling to pay the mortgage and get enough down time. But as I said, many schools achieve it. Working across the UK, I see schools in similar socio-economic environments with similar catchments achieving completely different results. Most schools recognise the socio-economic pressures that can have detrimental effects on their students’ lives, and thereby bring obstacles to learning and aspiration. They put in place various supports and strategies to help combat these. Most strategies are pragmatic, such as breakfast and after school clubs, homework classes, learning support staff and equipment etc. This is all excellent stuff, and long may it continue. But on its own it is not enough.
Whilst all these strategies are helping to drive up exam results and university places, dreams cannot be bought with a blank cheque from the DofE. What is needed above and beyond such strategies is a safe place for students and educators to talk. No amount of support or strategic planning can give students dreams for a better future. Such dreams can only come from within the students themselves. What we educators can and must do is provide an encouraging and respectful environment where students can speak about their hopes without fear of ridicule or judgement. But that is not the whole story, it is merely the point of departure on a journey to arming students with the skills and confidence necessary for expressing those hopes coherently and persuasively.
We are social animals. Language-use defines us as a unique species on this planet. Most of the time we think in words, so the limit of our linguistic ability is also the limit of our thinking ability. As Wittgenstein said: “What can be thought clearly can be said clearly, and whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must pass over in silence.” Our entire universe, including our ideas of and aspirations for it, is limited by our use of language in both thought and speech.
If we want our children to dream of a better future for themselves, we must encourage them to think and speak out about those possible futures. They will then be better armed with the confidence and clear thinking needed to achieve their dreams. Confident oracy skills show confident thinking skills, such is the link between language and thought. For students to speak about their hopes clearly, they must first have thought those hopes clearly. To express their dreams clearly and confidently, students must first believe they can achieve those dreams. Therefore, developing oracy skills simply is developing confident students who can aspire to achieve their dreams.