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Home > News and views > ‘Pursuing a discussion to a positive conclusion is a skill which can – and should – be learnt’

‘Pursuing a discussion to a positive conclusion is a skill which can – and should – be learnt’

Neil Mercer

 

Neil Mercer, Director of Oracy Cambridge and Chair of the Ouse Valley branch tells us about the benefits of learning to talk, and think, together

In the field of oracy, Neil Mercer is something of a superstar. Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge, and Director of the centre Oracy Cambridge at the Cambridge college Hughes Hall, he was previously Professor of Language and Communications at the Open University where he was also Director of the Centre for Language and Communications and Director of the Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology. He has written several books exploring learning through talk and has published widely across the world, as well as being a consultant, visiting scholar and examiner for governments and universities in many countries. His new book, Oracy: the transformative power of talk, will be published by Bodley Head in 2025.

You might imagine then that Neil is a former teacher or public speaker, but in fact his ‘origin story’ is more personal still. ‘When I was about eleven, we moved from Lancashire to Cumbria,’ he says. ‘It was only about 100 miles, but the accents and dialects were completely different. The kids at my new school thought I should be a comedian because I sounded so funny. It was then that I also realised that school had its own ways of using language, and that you needed to master those if you wanted to get on.’

This early interest in speech was consolidated by a degree and later a PhD in psychology, focusing on long-term verbal memory and retrieval. ‘But about three-quarters of the way through my PhD, I started reading about the work that had been started in the late 60s and 70s by people like Douglas Barnes, Jerome Bruner and Basil Bernstein about the role of talk in education,’ he says. ‘And it was at that point that I decided I wanted to get out of the lab and apply my research to a real-world situation.’

There was another impetus too – a realisation, when he started working as a lecturer, that he had never been taught public speaking in the way some others had. ‘At university, I’d always admired those students who could stand up and speak at political societies and the like – I was far too scared. So I started really looking into how spoken language is handled in schools, and the differences it can make, and I’ve been concentrating on that ever since.’

It is now accepted as fact that oracy/speaking-and-listening/effective speech – call it what you will – can be taught. The harder argument to win, unfathomably, is that it should be. There is considerable evidence proving that teaching children to talk helps them to access, understand and enjoy their learning better, raising academic achievement. It equips them with the skills to express themselves in and out of school, and enables them to articulate their emotions and, in doing so, better regulate them. Crucially, teaching children to use exploratory talk and reasoned discussions has been shown to have a direct and measurable effect on how well they are able to think – both individually and as a group.

‘Some years ago, my research colleagues Rupert Wegerif and Lyn Dawes and I realised that school students could get a lot out of working in a group, but that they often don’t,’ says Neil. ‘And one of the main reasons is that they often don’t know how to think collectively, how to use talk most effectively to get things done. When they do, not only is group work much more fulfilling, but children are better able to reason out problems on their own. They become able to think critically and independently – and that, of course, is what education should be helping young people to do.’

All this evidence and related recommendations were presented to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Oracy in 2020 but sadly, oracy is still not consistently taught or assessed in schools, nor does it feature in Ofsted’s criteria. So, what does Neil think needs to happen – aside from Ofsted setting out a strong expectation that spoken language is used well in class?

‘Firstly, oracy needs a place in the curriculum, like literacy and numeracy,’ he says, ‘so that there are lessons in which students are actively taught how to listen and to use spoken language. Elite public schools do this already, of course, but it shouldn’t be for the privileged few – it should be happening everywhere. Secondly, understanding and promoting oracy should be part of teacher training,’ he continues. ‘It shouldn’t be something that is left to chance or that you only find out about later in your career.’

Oracy education can take many different forms, such as how to make a good public presentation or how to work well in a group. And to help students learn most effectively, lessons should not only include authoritative presentations from the teacher, but be balanced with small group and whole class discussions in which students’ voices are heard. In a maths class, individual students might be called upon to explain their solutions to a problem (something which happens regularly in Russian schools, and which is believed to be behind their strong performance in the subject), or to help struggling classmates. ‘This can sometimes be more effective than the teacher explaining,’ says Neil, ‘since the student, having only a slightly more advanced level of understanding than his or her fellow pupil, can often explain it in ways that are easier to understand.’

In all subjects, it is important that all students, not just the most confident, are encouraged to speak, and that all views are heard.  This not only helps students to learn from each other but also helps a teacher hear what they do or do not understand. ‘Children need to be taught to be critically constructive,’ says Neil. ‘In other words, they ought to be able to disagree, but without being rude – they need to give reasons for their opinions.’

Where a consensus is required, Neil feels strongly that the teacher should insist it is achieved – rather than allowing students to agree to disagree. ‘After all,’ he says, ‘in the real world, if you’re designing a new product in a team or you’re a member of a government committee that’s doing some work on climate change, for example, you can’t just agree to differ. Pursuing a discussion to a positive conclusion is a skill which can – and should – be learnt. After all, you get the best outcomes if you think together with other people.’

NEIL MERCER AT A GLANCE

Whom do you most admire?

Douglas Barnes, who is the inspiration behind some of my work. He’s still alive and living in Highgate but he was a teacher and has researched and written a lot about the role of talk in education. I feel he really started something in the 1960s which is still progressing today.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Professionally, I’m proud to be one of the people who, as a collective, has managed to get oracy and spoken language into a position where it’s treated as something important in educational circles.

And your biggest regret?

I agree with Freud in thinking that regret is not a useful emotion, but I do wish that I’d had singing lessons.

Tell us something surprising about you.

I play the mandolin in a band called Kites Collective. We’ve been on tour a few times, mainly in Germany.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

Human intelligence is distinctive because it is social: using language, we can think together in a way no other creatures can. So, the lesson I have learned is to listen to and to take seriously what other people say and think before I make any important decision. And if you have new evidence or information, then you should be prepared to change your mind – it’s not a sign of weakness.

What is your guilty pleasure?

Eating fish. I’m a vegetarian, but I love fish, especially fish and chips.

 

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