Speaking for Meaning

Consider a child who speaks the following phrase:

“Is not underhand over the post garden implications.”

In one sense, there is nothing ‘incorrect’ about it. All of the sounds, or ‘phonemes’ to use the jargon, are in the right order and everything has been pronounced accurately. But, of course, the phrase has no meaning and the child is therefore conveying no meaning whilst speaking it.

Speaking is clearly more than simply the rote regurgitation of ‘correct’ sounds.

At West Bay University, most of our education research involves finding out what pre-service teachers’ attitudes are to various aspects of education. We are not alone; this exercise dominates research across the field and with very good reason. We wish to discover whether pre-service teachers approach their vocation with constructive or destructive informal pedagogies; whether they believe in authentic, contextualised, real forms of learning or whether their own childhood experiences have locked them into paradigms of rote memorisation.

Our research into attitudes towards the teaching of speaking shows that many pre-service teachers haven’t even considered it! This shows the emphasis that society has previously placed on this crucial area – none! Here at the Extraordinary Learning Foundation™, our mission is to change all that.

Moving on from our first phrase – where meaning was clearly absent – I wish to now present a more complex and nuanced example. Imagine if a child in Grade 2 were to declare the following.

“Democracy is a good way to protect people’s freedom.”

What would you think now? You might be inclined to suppose that this child was ‘smart’. Yet, the work of the German psychologist Edmund Rotz shows us clearly that a child at this stage of development could not possibly associate appropriate meaning to such a phrase. In actuality, what we are witnessing is rote verbalisation without meaning. The child has no idea what she is saying.

For speaking to have meaning, it must be situated in real, authentic, appropriate contexts; contexts that are familiar to the child. Speaking about democracy and freedom at this stage of development is too abstract. Children’s speaking should be focused on what is relevant and meaningful; that which carries meaning for the child in his or her everyday experience. Childspeak must be situated in, around and inside of real, rich, authentic contexts that are motivating to the child. It is only then that we will experience real speaking for meaning. Here at the Extraordinary Learning Foundation, we have summarised this idea with the following diagram – the fruitcake model of speaking:

The fruitcake model of speaking

I am speaking to Haneck von Beer about his approach to speaking for meaning with his Grade 4 class. Haneck works at the Grunig Institute and it is the lunch recess. All of Haneck’s class have eaten their lunch and are out exploring their ideas in the imaginarium resources area.

“There’s this kid, George,” Explains Haneck, “All he ever wanted to talk about was planets and space and yet he has no direct experience of these concepts.”

This is, indeed, a common problem.

Haneck continues, “And so I asked him whether he had any pets.”

I smile, I can see where this is going and how the principles of the fruitcake model will apply.

“George says that he has a cat,” Continues Haneck.

I nod.

“So I ask him to talk about his cat. For the first time, I heard George speak in a real, authentic, appropriately situated, meaningful way.” Haneck smiles.

If only all educators had such skills! “What did George say?” I ask, totally subsumed in this moment of genuine authenticity.

“He said, ‘I have a cat and it is brown’.”

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Learning Limbs

There is a spider that lives in the Swiss alps, the elastichspinne, that makes its web in pretty windy places. Some elastichspinne’s have been recorded as making more than a hundred webs, each of which is blown away by the wind before they even catch a single fly. Whilst spiders are not themselves great learners, this spider illustrates one of the key features that all great learners have; grit or the ability to stick at something. Here at the Extraordinary Learning Foundation™, we see grit as one of the four learning limbs that we must ensure that our young learners sprout.

The Four Learning Limbs

The Four Learning Limbs

The head represents curiosity because the eyes are always looking and the ears are always listening. The legs represent grit because they are the stable base that supports learning. The arms represent adaptability because arms are capable of being put to many different uses. The torso represent creativity because that it what is left.

Many of the schools that work with us here at the Extraordinary Learning Foundation™ use this model in every lesson in order to raise children’s meta-cognitive consciousness so that they can deploy these learning limbs deliberately and consciously. There has been much research into this area and such meta-cognitive strategies have been shown to be highly effective.

I’m sitting at the back of Dana Rece’s Grade 9 class at the Central International School in Utaga. Dana is resplendant and glowing in a purple shawl. The buzz of excitement in the room is adiabatic. The children sit at their study pods, discussing the science investigation that they have just been working on.

“OK class,” Dana Rece states, making a gesture that signals that it’s time to listen-up. “Discuss which learning limbs you have been using today with your study buddies.”

Dana Rece waits for a few moments in order to give her students plenty of time to Talk-it-out™.

“OK,” Dana gestures again, “Katia; what did your group think?”

Katia, a vital girl with glowing red hair and intense eyes answers, “We think we were using some grit. It got pretty tough going when all the paper towels kept splitting.”

“Uh-huh,” Acknowledges Dana Rece, “And what limb is that?”

“Yeah, that’s the back legs,” replies Katia.

“And why the back legs?” Dana continues to probe.

Katia is quick with her response, “Because they are the stable base that supports learning.”

“Good.” Affirms Dana Rece, “Anyone else come up with any other Learning Limbs™?”

A compact young man with a broad smile indicates that he wishes to speak.

“Go on, John,” Katia encourages.

“Well,” Says John, “I think we used some creativity in designing the inquiry process together – when we sketched it out on the big sheet.”

“Excellent,” Dana Rece nods her head, “And what limb is that?”

“That’s the torso,” Says John, before he continues, “And it is the torso because that’s what’s left.”

A broad smile breaks across Dana Rece’s face. “Great work today class! Good job!”

Mind tools for the whole child: Think-it-out™

As Clayton Dyer’s class rush out to recess and the pleasant hum of happy, laughing children recedes, I take the opportunity to grab a few words with this expert, long-standing collaborator of the Extraordinary Learning Foundation™.

In his tailored beige cardigan, Dyer strikes me as the epitome of the Zeitgeist.

“We teach children, Tait; that’s the key.” Dyer smooths his elegantly trimmed beard as he speaks, “We don’t teach content. We don’t teach subjects. We teach children.”

It’s a profound statement and one that summarises my own thirty-year journey of discovery about the phrenology of learning. It’s about the child. If there is one thing that all of the supremely talented educators that we work with here at the Extraordinary Learning Foundation™ would agree on, it is that we teach children; we teach situated, contextualised, definitional children (apart from those of us involved in adult education).

When I read of some of the ‘reforms’ that are taking place in the global edusphere, I sometimes worry about the children. I wonder if they are front and centre of our concerns. Am I alone?

I don’t think so! As Dyer explains, children are definitely at the top of his list.

“One of the strategies that we’ve been working on with the Extraordinary Learning Foundation™ is a model based upon Talk-it-out™ with a particular focus on the pre-cognitive/recognitive stage.”

Talk-it-out™ is one of the successful Extraordinary Learning Foundation™ strategies that we have action-researched across a number of contexts and situations, finding it to be extraordinarily powerful and effective.

Talk-it-outClayton Dyer and his colleagues at the William Rodgers Middle School have been successfully trialling and researching a modification of this model with a particular emphasis on the mentalistic elements.

“What we found,” Explains Dyer, “Was that, when presented with standard curriculum content, children would typically try to work out what it was; describe it, list it, recall it and so on. But they did not interact with it critically. They would not ask how these knowledges related to the reigning hegemony and therefore whether they were disputable or at least coalesced into different patterns from alternative, diverse, inclusive perspectives.”

This is a problematisation that I am familiar with from many multi-layered contexts.

Dyer continues, “We used the architecture of Talk-it-out™ to help formulate some of the critical vocabulary. But vocabulary are still just words. We needed students to speak for meaning rather than just speak. And so we decided to spend more time in the pre-cognitive/recognitive in order to give them tools to add meaning to their own thoughts.”

This is the model that Dyer and his colleagues developed:

Think-it-out“The value of the model,” Continues Dyer, “Is that it enables students to independently develop a superluminal mass of capacity for criticality.”

The benefits could not be clearer than that.