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A note on perspective:
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world and a compulsion to do something about it”
Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14
Pale Blue Dot is an umbrella term I use when delivering any talks, presentations or CPD on oracy. It’s kind of a self proclaimed ‘brand’. It’s the name of a photograph of planet Earth taken by the Voyager 1 space probe from a record distance of 3.7 billion miles, literally the most removed perspective we have of ourselves. I like the metaphor because what excites me most about oracy is the dialogic idea of seeing things (or feeling or thinking things) from at least two points of view at the same time. Oracy is most vital, in my eyes, to develop this dialogic idea through teaching and learning in both design and delivery. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.
The rise of (western) individualism combined with the technological revolution in the past decade or so has, through ideas and sophisticated algorithms, brought us and kept us very much at the centre of our own universe. The lasting impact of this has eroded our ability to effectively take on alternative, conflicting perspectives. In a post structuralist, post truth era we have been reduced simply to, thesis…that’s all that matters.
The Covid 19 pandemic has distilled the global narrative into one unifying story. This, perhaps, has allowed everyone to glimpse the unique perspective that Edgar Mitchell and a handful of others have had when looking back upon planet Earth from space. Most sectors have been forced into taking a good look at themselves, and within the world of education it has magnified a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the way things are and a compulsion to do something about it. But real change can be difficult, if not impossible.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
Is a word to describe being completely trapped by our past and previous experience. The word coined by French philosopher Jacques Derrida, evokes a recycled future persistently dependent on the ghosts of an always-already existing past. My own experience of school, nearly thirty years ago, is roughly the same as most students experience today. Minor tweaks aside; same curriculum, same subjects, same exams, same teaching methods, same classrooms (barring smart boards), same school day, same uniform, same canteen, same playground. Perhaps if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it but it does seem a striking stagnation given how much the world has changed in those thirty years.
Alexei Yurchak, a professor of anthropology in Russia, described life in the Soviet Union in the 1980’s as a strange paradox. One where everyone knew the system was failing, but as no one could imagine any alternative to the status quo, politicians and citizens were resigned to maintaining a pretence of a functioning system. The people knew the system was failing, the leaders knew the people knew, and the people knew the leaders knew that they knew. But no one could do anything about it, crippled by the absence of an alternative. In his book ‘Everything was Forever, Until it was No More’ he calls this ‘hyper-normalisation’. But there are lot’s of alternative models for education. Alex Beard, in his book Natural Born Learners explores tens if not hundreds of inspiring schools from across the world all attempting to do education differently. I fell in love each chapter; from High Tech High to Pekka Peura, the vest wearing Finish rockstar teacher, to I Promise, a community school started by NBA star Lebron James, to 42, the French coding school with no teachers, my mind was sent spinning into a wild new frontier of possibilities. The question is why none of these alternative models gain any real traction or, certainly in the UK, have no national systemic impact.
Assess what we value, don’t value what we assess. Ultimately decisions and behaviour are guided by how we measure and are held accountable for success. In 2019 New Zealand became the first western nation to introduce a wellbeing framework to replace GDP to measure the success of their country and guide economic and policy decision making. Child poverty, domestic violence and mental health are just some of the things that are now valued, through assessment, higher than economic growth. As I write this, New Zealand have all but eradicated Covid 19, announcing today no current hospital patients. Taking into account the incomparable contexts, it is interesting to observe the correlation between the decision making and what the country explicitly measures as success in comparison with other western nations that hold up GDP as their accountable metric.
The exams system within education is surely a symptom of hauntology; a cycle, a conveyor belt, a factory, a merry-go-round, a metre stick for a bygone era devastatingly bereft of any alternative. It’s no surprise that, particularly in high pressure moments (which is all but one weekend in early August for most teachers) that all behaviour and decision making is shaped by the only explicit metric for success in education, grades. Latin mottos, values stenciled on the wall, new initiatives conjured up after the weekly staff mindfulness all reveal themselves as well intentioned rhetoric when eyeball to eyeball with results, results, results. In the wake of Sats, GCSEs and A Levels being cancelled for students across the country schools and teachers are left floundering, wondering how on earth to attribute value to the students education, students left distraught, uncertain how they will know if they have achieved success, or failure.
The powerful question to ask in the summer term of 2020 is: with no exam at the end, would you simply continue to teach as if the exams were still on; same content, practice questions, revision, interventions, memorising quotes and equations? If not, WHAT and HOW would you teach your students. Surely the answer to this question is what you truly value about education.
‘Cancer not covid’ is a sentence I’ve had to say a lot recently, a strange quirk of the times. My mum was a teacher of nearly 50 years and I’ve loved hearing stories from ex colleagues and looking through some of her old teaching material and planning. However what I discovered was that much of what in my mind I think of as progressive or even innovative, was being practised decades ago by her, and no doubt thousands of others. I have just rebranded it, packaged it up in a slightly different way. So like much of fashion, music, art, politics, fiction, even technology (see recent re release of Nokia 3210) I am just ‘recycling a future persistently dependent on the ghosts of an always-already existing past.’ Maybe that’s why real change is so hard, I have allowed myself to feel as though I’m on the frontline, when actually it’s just a moment on a merry-go-round.
Is the biggest driver of all human behaviour according to former FBI lead negotiator Chris Voss. In his book, Never Split The Difference he cites Nobel Prize winning economists that say our value of loss is five to seven times greater than that of an equivalent gain. In other words losing £5 can feel like losing £35. This is particularly relevant when it comes to the status quo. Apply that theory to the education system and the perception of losing what we already have outweighs any potential change by as much as seven times.
The narrative function ‘aggressive nostalgia’ is a strategy employed by politicians that directly taps into our perception of loss. It’s a simple device, create a story about something we once had and then suggest it has been taken from you. ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘Take Back Control’ are two examples that demonstrate the power that the fear of loss has in controlling our behaviour. ‘Politicians’ jobs used to be delivering our dreams but now they protect us from nightmares.’
Adam Curtis, a journalist and documentary maker asks, do we really want change? He agrees that the fear of loss is the biggest barrier and as a result any attempt at change he says has been reduced to a rhetorical engagement. On March 15th 2003 an estimated one million people took to Hyde Park as part of a global protest against the Iraq war, ‘the largest protest in human history.’ Incidentally organised in an office donated by the National Association of Teachers in FE. It’s widely acknowledged that the march made no change. Some quotes from organisers ten years on read, “It did absolutely nothing” and “It was a huge show of anger but that’s about it. It left no lasting legacy in my opinion.” Curtis says it’s important to note that the slogan for the march was ‘not in my name’ which he highlights as a symptom of the rise of individualism and how this is intrinsically linked with a fear of loss. If the most important thing is us, then we have everything to lose.
Rose McGowan risked everything; her career, her reputation, her friends, her security, potentially even her life. ‘Brave’, her expose on the systemic predatory misogyny in Hollywood and beyond, was the catalyst for the #metoo movement and the eventual 23 year sentencing of ‘the monster’. At the 2016 Golden Globe Awards female attendees wore all black and brought #metoo activists as their guests as part of the ‘Times Up’ protest in alignment with the aims of #metoo. On the one hand it raised the profile of the movement, shining a global spotlight and creating a space for conversation and debate. Many however were critical of the protest suggesting, like the Iraq war march in 2003, it changed nothing. Rose McGowan goes further saying it would have been better not to have happened at all, suggesting it was perversely complicit in sustaining the system that facilitated the abuse of so many women. The key claim is the tokenistic gesture towards change was, although collective in demonstration, driven purely by a sense of individualistic self protection, risking nothing and in fact gaining great PR. Therefore, it became a purely rhetorical device serving both the system, by creating an illusion of change, and the individuals by making them feel part of change. Just a cog that keeps the machine turning. Now Rose McGowan has no career to speak of, she endured years of ‘mafia esq’ harassment courtesy of journalists and hired private investigators. Recently in a hotel lobby, two Hollywood execs approached her and said “nobody likes you, we can’t have fun anymore”.
It’s a teacher’s natural impulse to do the best for the children in their care, to keep them safe and provide each child with the best possible opportunities. It’s this impulse that makes educators a special breed and for most overrides being underpaid, overworked and the need to dart around like Harry Potter in a game of quidditch to negotiate the bureaucracy. It’s also this unique impulse that is perhaps the biggest barrier to any real change in education. How could any teacher deliberately risk the future of the children in front of them? Even if you had the contention that radical change may provide transformational gains for future generations and society, it’s our perception of loss that keeps us in check.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The bad news is that change needs catastrophe. The bad news is we’re slap bang in the middle of one. The even worse news is that this particular catastrophe is unlikely to be bad enough. In his book, The Great Leveller, Stanford professor Walter Scheidel traces large scale systemic social and economic change throughout history and argues that they are always the result of one of what he dubs the ‘four horsemen’: war, revolution, the collapse of states and natural disasters (of which pandemics are one). He highlights violence as a key component, and not just ordinary violence. “Only specific types of violence have consistently forced down inequality, “War has to be total; revolution has to be ultra-violent and socially pervasive; state failure has to lead to violence so intense that “it wipes the slate clean”. Ditto the social effects of pandemics.” I don’t think many people would volunteer to live through a ‘violent’ catastrophe, however, and even now the gravity of the current situation creates a desperation for people to get back to normal.
Stephen Berkoff is a renowned British theatre practitioner who understood the requirement for catastrophe to create a landscape for change. He was interested in revealing to his audience the uncomfortable truths that underpin society, often interrogating oppressive systems and power structures. This intention is nothing new in theatre, however the process is what stands him apart. His ‘Total Theatre’ aims to give the audience a jarring, uncomfortable experience, one that prods and provokes all the senses. He wants to create an internal catastrophe in each audience member forcing, through discomfort, a perceptual excavation creating a space for change. One of Berkoff’s influences was the French practitioner Antonin Artaud, who articulated this desire to give the audience a ‘catastrophic’ experience: “I want to give them the experience itself. The plague itself, so they will be terrified and awaken. I want to awaken them, because they do not realise they are dead.” This idea is fundamental in Christianity, paradise is taken away through an awakening of consciousness leaving two choices; seek to gain more and more consciousness, or slip back into unconsciousness.
In my experience the best feedback I’ve received has been the most painful. It has either shone a light on something I’d desperately been hiding from others or revealed a total blind spot. Having difficult conversations and being comfortable in the uncomfortable are in vogue concepts within developmental organisations, the roots of which can be found in psychology. Carl Jung’s quote: “That which we need the most will be found where we least want to look” articulates the benefit of this style of dialogue in the development of the ‘Self’, with a capital S. The story of suffering and resurrection is familiar. We all know this feeling of experiencing a trauma and coming through it with a sense of regeneration, having learnt something about ourselves and our place in the world.
Trauma Centre was the affectionate nickname given to the Drama school I attended for three years. The fundamental aim of the training was to ‘strip you down; emotionally, physically and psychologically to your core in order to build you back up again’. There are many myths about the training, one of which is that students were made to strip naked on their first day. The journalist, Rhik Samaddar’s memoir ‘I never said I loved you’ contains a chapter charting his time at the school. ‘We worked nine till nine again, until the arc of the sun was a memory, returning home mute and hungry, to prepare work for the following day, which would be summarily dismissed as inauthentic and facile.’ It was notorious for psychologically brutal feedback and boot camp-like discipline, if you arrived even five seconds late for the first lesson you were sent home. ‘The movement teacher Liana was a Swedish sadist who waterboarded us with lactic acid, exhorting us into stomach shredding folds, tendon thinning stretches and barrel jumps for hours, until our bodies cried out in unending pain.’ Mobile exercises were designed to help you reach a state of ‘pure emotion’ by ritualistically playing out a traumatic moment from your past in front of your peers. ‘We knew the right scene to choose, we were told, because it was probably the one we least wanted to,’ a knowing paraphrasing of Jung. I was there at the same time as Rhik and can confirm this is a rose tinted account. Each day, each lesson was a continuous cycle of suffering and resurrection. ‘It’s a calling to turn one’s body into sacrifice.’
Addiction has been described as a holding pattern to sustain a stasis after, or in response to trauma. The requirement for change begins with a raw and difficult self reflection, a willingness to give in to something beyond the self. ‘Step 1 (of 12): We admitted we were powerless – that our lives had become unmanageable.’ You must confront and acknowledge your deepest flaws, forensically diagnose them and then lay them out in front of you, it is only then that the virtuous opposite exists.
Traditionally education has taken a monologic approach, delivering content in the most effective way possible. Thesis…that’s all that matters. Synthesis is the interplay of opposites, it requires contradiction, conflict, confrontation. These things generally slow down and get in the way of efficiently delivering the solid mass of curriculum.
Oracy is unique in that the delivery mechanism is, in itself, also a curriculum.
It seems more important than ever to support a generation of young people that undoubtedly want to be the change. Education must embrace dialogic pedagogy in everything it does. We must become sophisticated oracy practitioners, not just in the way we teach but in the way we think. One scroll of edu twitter will demonstrate a prime example of a monologic, ‘thesis is all that matters’ type of dialogue. The sophisticated oracy practitioner will craft antithesis to allow for synthesis. Armed with a toolkit that supports students to interrogate content through multiple lenses, both developing their own ability to elaborate; expand, justify and reason as well as to take on alternative viewpoints; listen empathetically, without judgement, clarify and probe, challenge, disagree. This democratises the curriculum, transforms thinking, knowledge and skills from something that gets dumped onto a page and forgotten about into a fluid, ongoing process – a dialogue. Most importantly, it shapes young people’s ability to negotiate an increasingly binary world and have a chance of creating change. This is the dialogic idea, the holding together of two alternative viewpoints and synthesising something new. Synthesis is the interplay of opposites, it requires contradiction, conflict, confrontation. Change is forged in the continuous collusion of difference.
‘Tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance.’
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