“What are you staring at?” she demanded.
I’d been admiring a squirrel outside. “Erm. I’m thinking.”
“Thinking? You’re supposed to listen to me.”
Until then, lessons had been about endurance, not education, led by spinsters who preferred silence to inspiration. We middle-class milksops at Northampton High School for Girls didn’t play up. We were numbed by learn-by-rote 1950s’ textbooks. When, or if, teachers actually spoke, few asked us questions. Not before Mrs Ingham did I realise that the words issuing from their mouths were supposed to enter my ears and water a garden of ideas.
Luckily, I loved reading. At night, under the covers, my imagination swashbuckled in proxy adventures. However, in a class of today’s kids – tanked up on sugary breakfasts, loud music, computers and television – learning would have been a minor miracle.
The teachers I know have many gripes. Number one is behaviour. Number two is frustration at an educational bureaucracy obsessed with measurable results; league tables, and multiple-choice exams that test only pupils’ abilities at multiple-choice exams. Too often, teachers feel like crowd controllers, hammering facts into buzzing brains.
I met a sixth-form head at an Artificial Intelligence seminar. We discussed his students’ social skills (or lack of them), and their interest in the internet and robots. I asked what A-level this came under.
“None. Just to get them thinking about thinking. You know, that old thing, education. I like to work some in, around the syllabus.”
Literacy profits from peaceful study, and my friends in city comprehensives dream of placid pupils like the young me. However, if I could repeat my primary education, I’d take a chatty teacher like my man in Reading: one who places discussion at the centre of education.
Conversation stimulates habits like taking turns, asking questions: essential to learn for ourselves, and, more importantly, from each other. Though stories saved me, they needn’t be a private passion. Telling tales, in and out of school, is the stuff of a social life.
Get a child guessing where a story’s heading, or to say what he has been up to, and you elicit not only thought, but his sense of self. As Nobel-winning novelist John Steinbeck wrote: “We are lonesome animals. We spend all of our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say – and to feel – ‘Yes, that is the way it is, or at least that is the way I feel it.'”
There’s no surer test of an idea than explaining it to another person, because stories force us to arrange events in logical sequence, by cause and effect (which also makes them memorable). Hence we solve work problems faster, over coffee with a colleague, than scrutinising a manual.
This won’t be news to talented teachers. Research finds children absorb vocabulary faster, listening and chatting, than from studying lists. Similarly, playful lessons, where pupils toss about the ball of an idea, unleash the power of multiple minds firing together. It’s fun because it elasticates the brain.
Minor adjustments in teachers’ conversational style can also reap huge rewards. Yes, even silence, used creatively. For example, in one experiment, teachers who waited a few extra seconds for pupils to answer questions provoked fuller answers. Exam results improved, too. Why? Listening flexes that miraculous mental muscle, intuition.
A vivid teacher not only gives his pupils pause for thought but also makes their imaginations his collaborators. However, he can’t succeed if pupils don’t know how to listen. This is where parents come in.
Tell a parent that conversation matters more than education and they’ll tell you to get a life. However, without it, tiny minds remain just that. Two American academics spent decades monitoring conversations to which children were exposed from birth. Only one factor predicted educational success. No matter how rich, poor or learned its parents, the more conversation a child experienced, the better he would do.
Alas, kindergartens whisper about youngsters who arrive, never having had a one-on-one with an adult – and others, who struggle to articulate words, having been raised in homes where the television is never off. They may have toys, warm
beds and plenty to eat, but they are neglected.
Intriguingly, in South Korea, whose educational system is considered the best in the world, for too many children, benefits are offset by blighted social lives and internet addiction. Too many hours spent bent over homework, or devoured in games online, have left them angry, ill-equipped to express their feelings, never mind salve each other’s.
My favourite discovery, researching my book, The Art of Conversation, came courtesy of a study of chat in various social situations. The most ungrammatical sentences featured in academic conferences. Reading is no guarantee of literacy.
Inside a book dwells the luxurious illusion of a world of our own. But to get on in life, children must get out there, and get talking.