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Debate: Communication

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By John Coe — General Secretary of the National Association for Primary Education

John Coe reflects on an inspirational teacher he once observed. But after 40 years, what lesson has he learned from her?

John Coe

Funny thing learning. Some things you pick up or hear, and you immediately have them fixed in your mind. This is seldom though, unless what you hear or are taught (not the same thing) – gels with a past experience and your thinking about it. Perhaps I’m naturally slow on the uptake, but it’s taken a full 40 years for something I experienced many years ago to finally make some sense to me.

Our marvellous chief, Alec Clegg, had asked us to consider why one of his teachers, who worked in Castleford, was so successful. I was not alone among my fellow inspectors in Yorkshire in finding it hard to explain why. One of the first tasks Alec set me, fresh from my Essex headship, was to go to said teacher’s school. ‘Spend some time with her,’ he said. ‘And come back and tell me why she’s so good.’ I went – and was astonished.

Asking for help

This particular teacher had developed a unique way of teaching, called ‘Asking out’. It was based on the principle that if you didn’t know something, or otherwise needed help, you asked another child or went to the front and asked the whole class. Both questions and answers were delivered in standard English, the language of the BBC newsreader, and of course the language of education. If mistakes were made, they were, with perfect courtesy, corrected by other members of the class. Now, these were ordinary children (although like all children extraordinary in their talents) and their family-grown language was very far from standard English. As they spoke, the syntax and vocabulary they used were certainly not what they used in the playground or in their homes. It was a strange and somewhat unnerving experience to listen to them.

The children’s willingness to criticise and to be criticised led to outstanding quality in their work

Results speak for themselves

The wider effects were to be seen in the children’s attainments. Reading and spelling were of a particularly high standard and it was interesting also that their powers of observation were remarkably well developed. Their willingness to criticise and to be criticised led to outstanding quality in their work. Rather than the reasonably expected quarter of the class going on to grammar school, no less than 28 out of the 32 passed what was then the 11-plus examination.

I returned to Sir Alec and told him, ‘She’s a marvellous teacher and her method works superbly, but it’s a one off. We can’t generalise from it.’ I understand now I was wrong.

On reflection

Over the years, I have come, like many others, to acknowledge the importance of speaking and listening. But until now, I never believed that disadvantaged children’s facility with the spoken word was crucial to their success. A study by John Bercow MP concluded that seven per cent of children have a serious communication problem. No, they don’t. Most of these children communicate perfectly well, but they do not do so using the standard English of the Foundation Stage literacy milestones, SATs or GCSEs. This is the heart of the problem we face, and it has taken me 40 years to realise that the inspirational teacher I observed all those years ago was showing us a way to deal with it.

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