Improving Oracy in Physics by Will Snow

I have been having real trouble with a set of high achieving year ten physics students since starting the course with them in September. To begin with, we were strangers to each other and my first impression of them was that they were a very, very quiet bunch; often they would work in silence when not prompted to.

Coming to mark their books however, I noticed a consistent pattern to their written work. When describing a physical system, their language was underdeveloped for a class of their ability. For example, when describing an interaction pair, a typical answer would be “Object one pushes object two, and object two pushes back”. Whilst this is not explicitly incorrect, when compared to a more developed answer: “Object one exerts a force onto object two, therefore object two applies an equal force onto object one, which is equal in size and opposite in direction” it was obvious that students were writing ideas down before thinking about them, the first thing in their heads was coming out, rather than a more structured, developed answer.

Following Will May’s excellent session on oracy in the classroom during the mini teaching conference, I began to consider that the quietness of the classroom and the underdeveloped responses may be linked. Perhaps, as the students were not talking, they were also not developing their ideas. As suggested by Vygotsky (1962), thinking develops into words in a number of phases, moving from imaging to inner speech to inner speaking to speech etc. To put it simply, conversation is the sound of thinking.

But how to get them to talk? I decided to dedicate a lesson to the art of talking.

For my starter, I introduced the question: what does a scientist look, act and sound like? In between the typical silence, the class fed back some answers, though they continued to be limited in scope.

With the help of Will Mays, we then discussed what I had noticed in their books and the reasons I felt I was seeing these common errors.

So, to get them talking, I found them something to talk about! I picked an article from a news website which was addressing the gender inequality in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, with some questions to go along with it. Students read the article, thought initially and then discussed their ideas with their partners.

Will and myself proceeded to discuss the questions with the class, deliberately playing devil’s advocate, with controversial (and certainly not our own!) views on the emotive subject at hand. Students very quickly became quite enlivened and excited by the debate, and we were able to draw in students who are normally quite passive in activities such as this.

We followed this by asking the question: ‘Is additional funding for female STEM students  a good or bad idea?’ and giving them a viewpoint to argue (either for or against). Whilst students debated in small groups (with a classroom atmosphere that was notable more electric), there was an encouraging level of conversation. Will and I circulated, talking to students who very often have little to say.

Part of the lesson needed to revolve around a topic students have strong opinions about, and that could be debated for or against. Will and I also needed to make it very clear that the views that we were expressing certainly were not always our own!

The results from this lesson have been clear in my class. Several of the quieter girls in the class have continued this discussion outside of the classroom with me, and the levels of conversation in the classroom are noticeably greater.

I am continuing to encourage the students to talk to give themselves a bit of mental ‘breathing space’. So far, the results I have seen in books, tests and in the classroom have been encouraging. 

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