It’s no secret that although technology is a fantastic utility it is also a system we rely on heavily in the current climate. As a child I remember receiving my termly reports from school handwritten by my teachers; no mistakes allowed. Without it now, rewinding back time, how would we run our day to day lives in school; cellophane and OHPs, fax machines, reams of paper in the post, group phone calls, lessons via radio? While I jest, I struggle to imagine what teaching during a pandemic would be like without the tools many of us are lucky to presently have. 

The Abyss

A recent post by Sarah Ledger titled “with mics on mute, teaching into the abyss” relays what many teachers are experiencing the world over and is the opposite of what as teachers we love and now remember as “normal.” Our virtual classroom can feel a cold and distant place in comparison to the buzz of face to face teaching, the acknowledgment of body language, hand gestures, facial expressions, the pose, pause, pounce, and bounce of discussion, the say it again but better, the “what questions do you have?” and our expectations of a more fluid and natural discussion of old. So how can we get that buzz of communication back in an online context?

How do we communicate?

Voice notes in collaborative documents or OneNote? Using collaborative documents for peer feedback? Individual videos for students? Whilst there is flexibility in each option, there can still be some time dilation coupled with the possibility that students might not act on the feedback or even listen to it. While I think these tools are genuinely useful in their own right and serve a great purpose, they don’t mediate the immediacy or emotiveness of a conversation. So what next?

Breakout Rooms

The breakout room functionality in Microsoft Teams is a welcomed addition to online classrooms the world over, teachers have raved about them, and rightly so, but having them isn’t an automatic proxy for improved communications. It’s what you do with the feature and how you traverse the abyss that can make the realest of differences. In a classroom it’s relatively simple, turn and talk to the person next to you then we will deliberately go about generating a discussion from their answers while highlighting the importance of both Oracy and explicitly training ourselves to think metacognitively. So how can we make better use of breakout rooms?


Why Oracy?

The word “Oracy” encapsulates the concept of oral comprehension and communication while being a foundation for literacy. Thus, communication is founded in Oracy. If talk supports thinking and thinking supports learning, get the students talking in a deliberate manner with a sharp focus on core components of knowledge. Where’s the possible solution to what we already know? After having Sarah Lambert and Danielle Duffy on #LearnLiveUAE, watch the episode here, discussing how to successfully embed literacy and Oracy in the classroom, I’ve been waiting for the holy grail of breakout rooms to trial the Voice 21 framework (see image above) in my digital classroom. I’ve been trialing it with Year 10 students at my school (BISAD) focusing specifically on some of the linguistic, cognitive, and social elements to elicit increased communication amongst students but also to hone in on their structure and organization of talk using key terminology to further support their clarifying, reasoning and summarizing. 

Raising the Scaffold

Telling students to talk “X” or share their thoughts with “Y” or even simply placing them in a breakout room isn’t enough from my experience of digital classrooms. Yes, some might talk naturally but what about the others? Most, if not all, students will benefit from some guidelines and roles to fulfill within the discussion to help guide their focus on the subject matter. These not only aim to raise the quality of talk but also set out specific ways students should interact with one another’s ideas in the safety of a small group via a Teams breakout room while getting them talking in a more meaningful and direct manner. It’s also helpful from the viewpoint of sticking on topic while also helping the students to hold one another to account as collectively they are responsible for the conversation so there’s an emphasis on improving together; collective accountability. 

So how did I start?

Once the class had decided on their groups, they chose to work in friendship groups and I was happy with this as this gave them a basis of safety, I gave each group general discussion guidelines and their individual roles according to the discussion roles from Oracy 21. These are particularly useful! We worked through what each role would look like and the sorts of questions each role would ask so they had a frame of reference from which to work, then I gave Oracy Cambridge’s resource titled “useful guidelines for a discussion?” to whittle down from 30 to 7 guidelines that they would follow as a working party; this took the best part of a lesson but every student in every group contributed and they had some great discussions. So long to the void! In a follow-up lesson I gave five completely open questions to choose a discussion from, again, the quiet digital classroom felt like months ago, was the void now a thing of the past for as I dipped into each breakout room the conversations and collaboration was flowing. 

Image from one group’s Oracy collaboration space in OneNote.

We are still early in the journey but this new talk has made a difference and we will continue this journey. We’ve mixed it up a bit last week by splitting into our breakout rooms to decide on model answers to exam-style questions and having more exploratory talk around our current unit of study (Electricity). Looking forward, whether virtual or face to face, this is here to stay in our classroom and I can’t wait to see how this evolves over the coming months as we use Oracy further develop a multitude of skills from listening, to chaining ideas together, to helping themselves and others to make sense of new knowledge.

What did the feedback say?

All in all, feedback from the students has been positive (see above and below) but I believe that is all thanks to their investment in the process and willingness to try something different all while helping one another. They are more mindful now of how and where they use key terminology plus their capacity to hold, not just have, conversations is growing. It’s given a new dynamic to our online classroom and as per the image below they are keen to keep working together on this which makes me really happy!

Feedback collected via Teams chat function and Microsoft Forms.

So what’s next and why? 

We are well versed at BISAD with assessing our online classes across both primary and secondary and technology was established purposefully prior to 2020/21. For this class, I’ll return to an old favourite that’s been missing until now: Quizlet Live but with each team in a breakout room! Normally students would sit next to each other with their devices all on a desk, however, virtually this isn’t quite possible so they’ll have to share what potential answers are on everyone’s device prior to then deciding through a more meaningful discussion which answer is correct and who has it. I think their newfound joy of Oracy will make this really fun, they now hold (not have) conversations and it’ll bring back that collective competitive edge. 

I’m certainly no expert when it comes to Oracy but I’ve certainly enjoyed learning more around the topic, implementing it into lessons with structure and the students have certainly benefited which is what it’s all about, therefore, I’d urge you to give it a go in your digital classrooms.   

Further Reading & Resources

If you are an educator in the UAE give the Dubai Oracy Hub a follow too!

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