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Ask 20 people the question above, and you would probably get 20 different responses – and offered readily. It seems everyone is an expert when it comes to saying what is wrong with education, and what should be done about it. But there is hard evidence on one ubiquitous aspect of school life - classroom talk - which now makes a very strong case for talk to be given special attention by policymakers and practitioners.

Talk is ephemeral – here one instant, gone the next, which is probably why it has not been taken seriously enough. But it is at the heart of education. Teachers use talk as the main tool of their trade. The amount and quality of talk that children experience in the early years is a good predictor of how well they will do in school. Yet teachers’ effective use of talk isn’t a high profile topic – and schools aren’t doing enough to develop children’s skills in using it. We know that most classroom talk looks like it always has done: teachers asking ‘closed’ questions to try to prompt specific ‘right answers’ from children. Yet we also know children get more involved and learn best when teachers do the following:

  • explore students’ ideas through using ‘open’ questions

  • encourage students to put knowledge into their own words (and offer them new vocabulary to accommodate new ideas)

  • press the students to elaborate and justify their views, eg ‘How did you know that?’, ‘Why?’

  • allow students extended turns to express their thoughts and reveal their misunderstandings

  • hold back demonstrations or explanations until the ideas of some students have been heard

  • use whole class discussion to help students see where their study of a topic is coming from and where it is going

  • at least sometimes, allow students’ comments to shift the direction of a discussion (and even, perhaps, of a lesson!)

  • ‘model’ ways of using language to present rational arguments, so that students can learn by example.

It is accepted that children need to be taught skills in maths, science, football, cookery and IT, so why not talk?

As any teacher will testify, though, if a class has only had a very traditional experience of talk an ‘open’ question will only receive (at best) a suspicious silence. Some teachers are naturally brilliant at establishing the right climate for talk. Their students come to appreciate the educational value of talk themselves, and trust that they will not look foolish in front of their teacher and fellow students if they express tentative ideas or reasonable disagreements. But most teachers still need some help in making classroom talk can work for them and their students.

The TDA’s ‘professional standards for teachers’ say that a teacher should "adapt their language to suit the learners they teach, introducing new ideas and concepts clearly, and using explanations, questions, discussions and plenaries effectively". But it is not just a matter of ‘adaptation’ - a critical review of established habits and the learning of some new ones is often required. The TDA might more appropriately say that a teacher should "be skilled in using talk to instruct, guide, manage, assess and inspire a class of children, and in so doing enable them to become effective users of talk for learning, explaining and solving problems together."

When it comes to children’s own developing use of spoken language in the classroom, the evidence is also there – though the research reveals an interesting paradox. Collaborative group work can be a powerful aid to learning, in all subjects, and for the development of reasoning and communication skills; but in most classrooms, most of the time, it is quite unproductive, even a waste of time. This goes to show that just giving children the opportunity to collaborate isn’t enough – they need guidance. International research has shown that when children are helped to understand talk as a problem-solving and learning tool, and shown how to develop skills in using it, the quality of their talk and group work improves and so do the individual learning outcomes. For children whose out-of-school lives give them little exposure to reasoned discussion, this can be a life-changing experience.

It is accepted that children need to be taught skills in maths, science, football, cookery and IT, so why not talk? Is it really more important that children know about trigonometry by the age of 15 than that they are able to communicate well with other people? We sometimes hear concerns expressed about how children speak, but these are usually focused on the ‘red herrings’ of accents and slang. British public schools have always valued confident expertise in the spoken word. Is that one reason why so many of their pupils end up in politics and the broadcast media? There are still a few misguided champions of the working classes who think that teaching children ways of communicating which they might not naturally encounter in their communities is oppressive. That is nonsense, of course, as I expect those people who have come from such backgrounds to achieve success in talk-based occupations would agree.

It is time to have a national initiative focused on talk, which would involve teachers, in all subjects, being trained to use it effectively. And all primary teachers and secondary English teachers would also be asked to prioritise helping children learn how to use talk to get things done. We know now how to make this happen.

Neil Mercer is professor of education at the University of Cambridge and spoke at the RSA seminar: The social brain and the curriculum on 26 February 2010.

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