Bring Back Rhetoric!

Forget 21st Century Skills!

“What we need is not new, but perennial. We need an art that integrates body and soul and recognises enduring and underlying principles, which have sustained wisdom and insight throughout humanity’s history.”
The artist and punk: Billy Childish (with Charles Thomson), Remodernist Manifesto (2000)

I wrote a piece this week for the TES in which I said that: “Schools should ensure that rhetoric and debate are central to their curricula.” I go on to suggest that the Government/Ofqual was absolutely right to remove speaking and listening from the English Language GCSE, I don’t think it was a great ‘test’ nor do I think it was particularly challenging or reliable but I do think spoken English is a very important part of any curriculum that values eloquence and the right of children to leave school fully able and willing to take part in ‘the conversation of mankind‘.

In order to help schools focus their pupils on the need to communicate beautifully there are drama classes, debating societies and public speaking where some children can be challenged to argue, think, and hone their skills of presentation to a wonderful degree, much more than in many speaking and listening tasks they took for GCSE. I would like to celebrate this side of schooling in a way that not only cements their learning in other subjects, but gives them space to think, connect, articulate and defend ideas they have had (or will have had when they are given the tasks to do) about some or much of their learning. I would like pupils to have the opportunity to show off their skills of speech making and ability to enter into dialogue with adults and experts about their thinking.

In the TES piece I argue that we should revive the idea of a Viva Voce where we could: “see and hear whether pupils can talk about their work as well as write about it.” This exam could be called a ‘rhetoric exam’, involve children in making speeches linking together aspects of their learning and then answering questions about what they have said.  The exam could be carried out by and assessed by teachers, and moderated by exam boards through videos and spot checks. Crucially, grades would be awarded in a way that reflects the subjective nature of the assessment, not 1-9 or A-F but, as is common in many performing arts exams, in the following way: fail/pass/merit/distinction. It would be absolutely essential that the exam should not count towards any accountability procedure whatsoever, as the teachers involved must not be compromised and nor should it be part of any ‘essential’ exams that kids should take, reflecting the possibility that the grade might not be 100% accurate. Rather it should be an opportunity for enrichment with the rhetoric exam happening because people know it’s the right thing to do to help children flourish in their lives.

Perhaps the exams could be run as an adjunct or an extension to the current EPQ or even performing arts exams like those run by LAMDA and Central. I think it would be a great way for schools to start to be a bit more daring with their timetables, I would love to see Rhetoric taught in a formal way: period 3 on a Thursday I think would be just right!

Oh and, bearing in mind rhetoric classes would involve debate, these two ways of the trivium could be then complemented by discrete classes in English grammar, truly a radical re working of the timetable, and an opportunity to go back to the future, forget 21st Century Skills, bring back the perennial! Bring back Rhetoric!

8 thoughts on “Bring Back Rhetoric!

  1. Few could or would agree, if we are going to equip children with the tools they need to be involved in the “conversation of mankind” then rhetoric seems a logical choice of tool. I have a copy of 21c and I think it is a great book.

    I diagree however about the nature of the conversation.

    In 2014 we do live in a world in which knowledge and it’s use are changing. Oakshott was there in a world before the moon landing. He was there in a world of bakelite. There was no IBM PC, in fact there was no PC. No mobile, no pocket calculator. The biploar transistor was just invented and the first 4 bit microprocessor was not invented for another 10 years.

    We live in a wolrd in which most of what a doctor knew in 1960, really is now available on the internet, you really can look it up and many people often do.

    I feel that the conversation you wish to see, would have taken place between Oakshott and Plato but would equip neither of them for the 21st century and certainly not the 22nd century.

    Maybe the “conversation of mankind” is rapidly becoming a different conversation. Having lived in this world for almost 60 years. A system that was designed to maintain the staus quo for the few is no longer appropriate. The world increasingly doesn’t work that way any more. Most Chinese and Korean pupils that I teach do not consider themselves being prepared for the conversation of mankind as you would probably describe it.

    Just a thought.


  2. In primary schools we call this ‘talk for writing’ – it has been developing n many schools for about 10 years now – originally through a DFE innovations grant, investigating the link between storytelling and writing – then nationally through the national strategies ‘talk for writing’ initiative. The approach focuses on developing children’s talk through story telling, poetry performing plus discussing, persuading, explaining, instructing, informing, recounting. It involves learning ‘model’ examples and innovating on these so that the children can invent. It involves ‘talking as a writer’ and ‘talking as a reader’ – socratic talk – but at its heart is the idea of learning how to talk elegantly and powerfully.


  3. In fact something very close to what Martin describes here already exists as a component within the EPQ. At the end of their projects, students are expected to make a (typically 10 min) oral presentation of their project, exploring their main research findings and arguments, or, in the case of practical projects, reviewing the design process reflectively. There is a viva element too, with questions from an audience, which will usually include an assessor (or two, for objectivity) and other students. In my experience, oral presentations of this nature are valuable for just the reasons Martin gives. Watching students present their own research can be a real delight, especially when, as is often the case, it is clear that a strong personal commitment has driven the project process and the students have gained real mastery of the topic of study. The fact that skills in oral presentation are assessed in this way creates an expectation that they will be taught, and there are many activities which can usefully form part of the taught component of the EPQ (e.g. inviting students to lead ‘work-in-progress’ seminars, or observing and commenting on presentations…)

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thanks for an excellent post, Martin. I agree that we need a greater emphasis on oracy. Speaking clearly and persuasively is an important skill which tends to be undervalued in our system. However, as you point out, this should not be separated from values, reflection, judgement and the ability to question, challenge and debate. These don’t automatically flow from good speaking skills.
    I also agree with John that the Extended (and Higher) Project offers a great opportunity for students to develop their ideas with others; critiquing each other’s early drafts in discussion and through the final presentation. A good EPQ should be as much grounded in talk as in it is in writing.
    Visual and performing arts students routinely produce final projects which represent the best they can do with the skills they have developed. I think student research offers the potential for every young person to create at least one ‘masterpiece’ like the apprentices under the guild system.
    The use of EPQ is quite patchy across the country and I will be blogging more about this soon.

    Liked by 1 person

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