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Home > News and views > Circles of change

Circles of change

Teacher Patrick Ryan used his recent Walter Hines Page Scholarship to look at how oracy can help teach citizenship and the benefits this brings

Since the UK’s recent introduction of ‘British Values’ into the national curriculum, I’ve become more and more interested in how other educational systems deliver their SMSC (spiritual, moral, social and cultural development) citizenship programmes, and how successful these programmes are in supporting schools in producing citizens empowered to play their part in society.

Thanks to the Walter Hines Page Scholarship, I have been able to explore the American approach to this on a research trip that took me from Boston to New Jersey, New York and onto Washington DC and finally Central Pennsylvania.

During my time I observed and spoke with a wide range of people including students, parents, teachers, education trade unions, education support organisations, local politicians, congressmen and senators.

SMSC and citizenship programmes are critical in supporting students holistically. Students are introduced to a wide range of subjects and topics such as disability awareness and civil rights that they may have not been exposed to previously in their lives. This gives them an insight into how other elements of society are viewed and treated by society as a whole, and how these issues directly relate and intersect with their own roles in the community.

With globalisation, multiculturalism and societal pressures ever increasing and impacting on young people, it is imperative that they are equipped with the critical skills and attributes to navigate through their teenage years and participate fully in society.

I was surprised to learn then that American schools are funded on a county by county basis within each state, and property tax raised from each county funds local schools. As such, schools in the more economically deprived areas receive less funding and therefore have less monies to support SMSC/citizenship programmes.

An outcome of this system is that states are free to select aspects of the programme that support their local and regional history and cultural identity, rather than following a nationally agreed curriculum as we have here in the UK. Because of this, states do not always teach the wider aspects that support students taking a more reasoned and informed position on these topics.

Of course, there are differences in how this subject is taught too, and I was particularly interested to note that, within the US education institutions I visited, oracy plays a far greater role in supporting students with their holistic needs than in the UK, where I feel it is an underappreciate and under-utilised tool. In America, oracy is viewed as important for many reasons: it helps students formulate their ideas into clear thought, and through the use of a well thought out rationale and accurate use of speech, it helps them articulate their point of view.

I observed this being used especially effectively in ‘restorative circles’ – small groups where the objective was to discuss, debate and resolve disagreements and conflict in a more holistic manner and within a safe and secure environment. The teacher acted as facilitator and students were invited to participate, but could abstain if they desired.

After the lesson, I had the opportunity to ask students about this approach to resolving conflict and the response was highly positive. All felt it gave them a platform to share and voice conflicting opinions in order to try and find common agreements on matters that divided them and appreciated having a structure that does not allow further escalation or conflict.

As such, it was clear to me that oracy not only builds confidence through the process of speaking publically, it also allows students to calmly and effectively resolve conflicts, a skill that will surely support them throughout their adult lives.

Are you a teaching professional wishing to undertake research in the US? Applications for the Walter Hines Page Scholarship are now open, find out more here.

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