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Pedagogy by competence : What is it ? The example of oratory art within the program FORCCAST

Cyril DELHAY ©Josselyn Bossennec / Sciences Po

Cyril DELHAY ©Josselyn Bossennec / Sciences Po

Interview with Cyril DELHAY, Professor of oratory art at Sciences Po.

Cyril Delhay is professor of oratory art at Sciences Po and collaborates to the FORCCAST program, initiative of excellence in innovative courses. The program articulates among other topics the learning of the pillars of public speaking and the debate about technical and scientific subjects, which creates controversies, in introduction to Scientific Humanities. He teaches in the Bachelor and in the different Masters and Schools. He coordinates since around 15 years a team of some 20 teachers of public speaking, lyrical singers, actors, and consultants.

How do you do to teach public speaking ? Being a good public speaker, isn’t it a matter of talent ?

No one was born an accomplished orator, but one can become one. Contrary to what is often assumed, public speaking is fundamentally a technical issue. Everyone can become a good public speaker. The best of them are those who have undertaken methodical work, often to correct initial defaults. Churchill spoke with a lisp. According to the antique authors, Demosthène had to overcome a defect of stammering.

What is the basis of this technics ?

Quintilien has already written it 2000 years ago in the Oratory Institutions. The secret of the good orator is the actio, that is to say the body awareness, the use of its physical resources, its capacity to deliver a public speech. This said, one must still determine the aimed skills. At Sciences Po, a team of teachers specialists of public speaking has gathered regularly and intensively to define them. It was necessary to discuss and agree on the terms and objectives. It took time, but enabled us to make a substantial step forward. It was an exercise of collective intelligence. And definitively with results! Evaluations of the module of debate, proposed to all newcomers on the Parisian Campus during the integration week have moved from 75% of satisfaction (rate of answer “satisfying” or “excellent”), for around 400 respondents, to 95%! And this, with a rate of “excellent” grades ranging from 50 to 70% depending upon the years and students !

How can we ascertain that a skill is well defined ?

This is indeed not obvious. I see two criteria. The first being its indivisibility (granulometry). A skill is probably sufficiently well defined when it cannot be devised again. It is in fact a very Cartesian approach of pedagogy. For instance, to define vocal quality, at the beginning we considered equally the mastering of the intensity, the tone, pitch and flow. But each of these deserves a specific distinct line. We moved from 17 to 43 fundamental skills of the orator, only for the standing position, the orator’s position. The second criterion is the capacity that the student will have in appropriating the skill, to understand it and make it its own. Sometimes, many exchanges between the students and the teaching team are necessary to reach a satisfying degree of formalization. We all agreed that the breath were fundamental for the orator. But it was necessary to precise and convene that it was precisely the costal-diaphragmatic breath, which is the cornerstone of what we had to teach. This said, a theoretical understanding of this breath was necessary, we use a 3D movie, and to have the students learn it. Practical trainings are unavoidable. One does not learn to swim by reading a book on the theory of swimming at the beach. Learning exercises had thus to be conceived.

Does a precise definition of skills modify the way you teach ?

It changes everything! One should not underestimate the risks. It is rarely said, but this leads the teacher to abandon certain prerogatives. He is not anymore the one knowing with the black box of its knowledge, jealously kept as an industrial secret, and added to this, the capacity to give the well-known academic grade out of 20. He is the one who shows you the mountain to be climbed and gives you the map and the compass! He is not anymore the guide, which places himself in front of you and orders you to follow him at a sustained rhythm. He becomes an accompanying teacher, always available in case of need but who stands behind you.

Once the skills refined, is the classical evaluation format (out of 20) adapted ?

Not necessarily. Students expect to be given a precise and qualitative feedback on what they do and their progress. From this point of view, the customary grade out of 20 is reassuring. The precision it implies might nevertheless only be a delusion. When we put in place our new grid of grades, we proposed an evaluation from 1 to 5 for each skill. The 1 corresponding to “Excellent”, the 5 corresponding to “fundamentals remain to be built”. We were satisfied of our work and of the positive formulation… Until international evaluators, and specifically Canadians, let us noticed that the grade out of 5 was just a translation of the grade out of 20! You are still halfway from it, they told us. The precise definition of skills enables even clearer, concrete and constructive feedbacks than the grade out of 20: acquired / not acquired / in the course of acquisition. This does not prevent from distinguishing via an oral or written qualitative evaluation of excellent performances or a student who made interesting progress.