For teachers, there's nothing unusual about speaking to big groups. We do it all the time, and expect children to as well. But it's important to remember how weird this is. Few groups in life are as big as a class. Those that are tend to be doing routine, predictable work that doesn't require much dialogue. 

 

Why Here's a little experiment. Picture your level on your family tree. Count your siblings and cousins and add everyone's partners if you know them.

 

Now think how many of them regularly have to speak up at work in a group of 25 or more people? 12 or more? 6 or more? 4 or more? 2?

 

You might not have anyone who has to speak in a group of 25+ people. If you do, there's a very good chance that they work in a school.

 

Because schools are odd places

 

For teachers, there's nothing unusual about speaking to big groups. We do it all the time, and expect children to as well. But it's important to remember how weird this is. Few groups in life are as big as a class. Those that are tend to be doing routine, predictable work that doesn't require much dialogue.

 

For many boys, the next time they have to address thirty people after leaving school will be their wedding day. It shows how shunned public speaking is that there's no rush to extend this ordeal to the bride as well. (The only bride I've heard make a speech was a teacher!)

 

Are our expectations reasonable?

 

You don't start maths with calculus, or literacy with Shakespeare. Of course, we use strategies such as "Think, Pair, Share". But whole class talk is still seen as "best talk" from an early age, the standard by which we judge whether someone is "a talker" or "quiet". It's also the standard by which children are likely to judge themselves. And it's a false standard, because it doesn't reflect normal conditions for speech outside of education. Someone who is considered shy in whole class talk may be quite comfortable with groups that are normal sizes outside of school.

 

So why so much emphasis on whole class talk?

 

I think it's because we think we know what's going on. We can assess and control, and we think all the children are on task. But compliance is not participation. Just as many children will be thinking of something else during whole class talk as would have been talking about something else during small group talk.

 

Suggestion: 2 to 4 to 8 to All to 8

 

I've written before about "Small Talk Before Big Talk" - the principle of going from pairs to fours to eights to half class to whole class. Make sure that the fours and eights have a "pass it on" discussion, with each person saying the name of the next person to speak. No adults within the group, unless supporting one child closely and unobtrusively.

 

I've found it works best if you finish by going back to eights again (or 7-9 is fine). What you finish with appears to be the result and aim of the process. So use the whole group talk as a resource to feed more ideas into the eights, rather than the other way round, and

the children will begin to see the talk they facilitate for themselves as of equal or greater value than the whole-class talk.

 

Use physical contact

 

It's a good idea to establish the talk group physically each time. Shake hands as a pair, and have a sports team huddle stacking of hands for the larger groups. It fosters the right level of physical proximity for listening, and touch is good for making everyone feel part a group (except for the few children who recoil from touch - people are so complicated!).

 

Why not stick to fours?

 

If most work conversations are four or fewer people, why not stick to groups of four and give more opportunities to talk? The reason is that a group of four can easily manage themselves, whereas a group of eight have to work at it. So you're practicing the social skills of turn-taking and patience in a slightly harder, artificial environment, making the practice more intensive.

 

Isn't public speaking important?

 

Of course. And we'll be doing children a favour by giving them opportunities to become confident speaking in front of a whole class, or a still larger audience. But we should remind ourselves how big a deal speaking in front of lots of people is for many people, and carefully create the right conditions for it. It speaks volumes for the fearlessness of children and the positive atmosphere of classrooms that a higher proportion of children will speak with confidence to 30 people than is the case with adults.

 

Sharing the thought with colleagues

 

If this article rings true for you, next staff meeting, try this modified version of the experiment we started with.

 

"Think of your closest relative who has paid full or part time work somewhere. Put your hand up if their job regularly requires them to speak to a group of 25 or more people at the same time. 16 or more? 8 or more? 4 or more? 3 or more? 2 or more? 1 or more?"

 

You'll probably find that most of those who put up their hands for "25 or more" are teachers from mating pairs!

 

PS Please let me know if you find this article useful, or find it patronising and obvious. I'm always receptive to blunt and brutal feedback. The trouble with writing about something where you think, "Why haven't I noticed that before?" is that it's always possible everyone else has, indeed, noticed apart from the writer!

 

(C) Jason Buckley 2013 www.thephilosophyman.com