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Chalk Talk: My RANT on “Old” and “New” Pedagogy

By Adam Jewell, History Faculty

Chalk Talk: My RANT on “Old” and “New” Pedagogy

Ahhhh the smell of those white board markers, I love them, I just love them. If they do anything, they, at the very least, keep us from getting chalk all over us and having students ingest chalk dust like some sort of appetizer. It is my nostalgia for chalk that leads me to ponder something that keeps coming back to me like some sort of bad meal at every restaurant my wife and I ever go to. It is the practice of “chalk and talk” instruction. As the name entails, it is a practice as old as chalk, and well slate; I will confess I have no clue which came into use first. To be more exact, it is also as old as whenever one human sat and talked to another about something one of them was either curious about or “knew” more about. In essence, “chalk and talk” is a representation of the “old style” of teaching.

In your head you are probably thinking of some old, perhaps grey haired, man of diminutive stature with a pot belly, sideburns, and an affinity for the breadth of the English language. You may have ideas of a man or woman with a wardrobe akin to Walter White in the classroom (when I watched that show I realized just how bad I looked in my “teacher” outfits). Now imagine that teacher standing in front of you, likely behind some sort of podium, and every once in a while they will move ever so slowly to a chalkboard and write down a few, inevitably, illegible words before returning to their notes and podium to bellow a few more lines. A nice stereotypical picture, is it not? Of course the term “chalk and talk”, when used in today’s hyperbolic world of education speak, will often bring forth such a picture. A picture, if I may be so bold to say, that looks an awful lot like a college classroom (but more on that later in the year when the ‘Jewell LEO Trilogy’ comes to an end). This is not the classroom that modern schools of education want their students to produce. It is anathema to modern administrators and frowned upon by “experts” who write books on pedagogy and methodology. Instead the classroom should be all about you. We should concentrate on “student-centered” work and activities. Instead of being the “sage on the stage,” we should be the “guide on the side.” In addition, we are to teach to different learning styles. Some people are audible, visual or kinesthetic learners; we must cater to you all. Sounds great, love it, I really do, great idea. Seriously, all sarcasm aside, I do love it. Education, and more specifically the access to quality education, is one of the most important civil rights issues of our times. Having a system that reaches all and, when it does reach them, teaches them in any way that works is a laudable goal and should be at the very least sought after. However, it is my assertion that like any task in life, there is not one way to go about it. There is simply no one perfect approach and to simply cast aside an “old” idea because it is “old” is the opposite of what we are trying to do in education.

We are asking people to think and question. I ask students to think each and every day. I do not care what you think, as long as you think! When it comes to the “best” way to teach, we should also think and not simply be basic.We should question if the old ways may very well be the best ways and if the “new” ways actually “work.”

The subject first piqued my interest when I read an article in the Daily Mail back in November of last year.[1] I know what you are saying to yourself, “Wasn’t that the newspaper that backed Mussolini and Hitler in the early 30s?” Yup, that one! But, let us forget that transgression for a moment and look at the crux of the article. Basically a commission in England (and one in Australia, more on that later) was asked what made test scores in China so high. Seventy primary school math teachers spent time in Shanghai investigating what made their math students score, on average, as high as 30% higher than English students on similar assessments. In essence, the study found that Chinese students scored higher due to “whole class” instruction led by a teacher. They did not learn through a “student-centered” approach; as The Mail defined it while describing the practice, “Pupils are encouraged to ‘discover’ knowledge by themselves, working at their own speed or in small groups, with the teacher offering them support.”

A similar result came from a study done in Australia (admittedly this was another study funded by the central government and used The Mail story as much of its premise). This report focused on what changes, if any, should be implemented to increase the “robustness, independence and balance of the process and development of the Australian Curriculum.” The study’s larger goal was to assess if Australia had the educational infrastructure the “nation requires in an increasingly competitive world.” The findings suggested that “[i]nitial instruction when dealing with new information should be explicit and direct.”[2] It of course left open space for more “student-centered” work after a level of proficiency in a subject or content area had been achieved.

A similar report led by Paul Kerschner for Educational Psychologists looked at the process of “minimal guidance during instruction” to assess if “student-centered” techniques worked “in the context of our knowledge of human cognitive architecture.” A geeky way to say: does allowing students the freedom to learn with minimal or no guidance from teachers “work” when we look at it through a cognitive (mental processes and abilities as they relate to knowledge) lens? In short, the study (led oddly enough by an educational psychologist) found that minimal or no guidance from teachers only showed empirical success when students attained a “sufficiently high prior knowledge to provide ‘internal’ guidance.” That is to say, when students understood the content to a ‘sufficient’ level, they were then able to work independently with more success. However, the study points out there is little evidence to support that even at that point students be “left alone” per se. More simply put, “not only is unguided instruction normally less effective, there is also evidence that it may have negative results when students acquire misconceptions or incomplete or disorganized knowledge.”[3] In essence, much of the study agreed with the English and Australian studies, although the topic was more micro than the previous ones.

This is not to say that one version of instruction should be followed and that way is the “old” way akin to “chalk and talk” as it is “better” for students. Instead, and this is especially true with the Kirschner study, both approaches should be utilized and, more importantly, teachers and administrators should recognize and use their professional expertise and judgment when knowing where to apply each style. While the English and Australian studies are not as explicit with that view, it is clear that all the studies suggest a mixed approach. What also must be kept in mind are the levels of student ability, complexity of the course and material, and issues of time and pacing. In essence, there is no silver bullet, no magic approach; no one size fits all approach.

This is all the more clear when theory comes up against the enemy. In this context, the enemy is none other than students. Yup, students are the enemy to any lesson plan, rubric or theory put forth. No plan lasts first contact with the enemy, and that is true when it comes to the classroom. Of course in this context students are more like “frenemies” without the actual friendship, so maybe they are non-combatants (wait that does not work either) or simply variables (yup, that sounds better). It is hard to set up a class that can reach all learners, as we like to do. As mentioned before, people learn differently (of course this could be the subject of another rant and is worth descending, or ascending to, but for now check out the New York Times “Are ‘Learning Styles’ a Symptom of Education’s Ills?”i) and it is only after a long period of getting to know our students do we truly learn what “ways” those are. However, many students do not know how they “learn.” What makes it even harder is that many “learn” in multiple ways. Therefore, the construction of a class that meets as many different learning styles as possible and uses as many different techniques as possible, within a set time frame and covering set content, is the task before all teachers. If that sounds hard, it is not that bad. Catching a fly with chopsticks is hard. Chasing down a flying squirrel that walked out of your chimney as you wrote this and watched your rather pregnant wife spray it with Lysol is hard (true story). Teaching a class that meets multiple learning styles and perspectives, not to mention varying levels of teenage angst, is easier than catching the aforementioned animals, I guess.

In the end, my point is somewhat simple. There is no ONE way to teach. In my past life, one that my students know causes me horrible PTSD, there was only one way to teach. All the “new” ideas were Gospel. We were told we must march forth like sycophantic teacher-soldiers into the realm of “modern” education and chunk our lessons with all the modern multi-modal instruction techniques that existed…or else. I did not stick around long enough to learn what the “or else” truly meant. I know why we did it. I know that many schools are slaves to test scores and indeed many of the studies referenced here are about raising those test scores (in the USA that may somewhat be due to Race to the Top funding from the Federal Government) as barometers of student achievement. I know that test scores are a part (but yes only a part) of the college application process. I understand and agree with most of that. However, what “works” for some, does not work for all. Some approaches are not suited for all. Some disciplines are more apt to instruction in different ways. Students are more malleable (or how about pliable) of mind than we give them credit for. Educational theory often neglects two variables it cannot quantify: the student and the teacher. Sure we can show and analyze test scores and survey results, but what cannot be quantified is the connection between students and teachers. It is hard to graph that. It is hard to quantify the qualitative. All the theories, whether they be “old” or “new” by today’s standards, cannot account for the person who has to (and man I detest quotes, but here goes) “stand and deliver.” If the teacher is capable enough in his or her connection with students, I would argue, the methodology does not matter. Who cares how it gets done, as long as it gets done?

This is not as Machiavellian as it seems. There is no ill intent inferred or intended. Instead the point is, use “chalk and talk” or “project based learning” or “student-centered learning” or better yet, use them all. Stand on your head, sing, shout, roll around, throw candy, act like a fool, or do none of these approaches. In the end it is the connection and trust between teacher and student that I believe helps facilitate learning. Once that is achieved, any method will work.

 Adam Jewell is a member of the History and Social Sciences Department and teaches Advanced European History and RUSH (Regular U.S. History). He received his B.A. in American History from Bridgewater State University and his M.A. in American and European History from Virginia Commonwealth University. Mr. Jewell coaches boys soccer and lacrosse and lives in Framingham with his wife Kristi and son Greysen.


[1] The article can be read in its entirety here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2836240/Minister-tells-schools-copy-China-ditch-trendy-teaching-chalk-talk-Teachers-speaking-class-“effective-independent-learning.html

[2] For the entire article: http://theconversation.com/chalk-and-talk-teaching-might-be-the-best-way-after-all-34478 and if you want to waste say a week of your life you could read the report unfiltered here: http://www.studentsfirst.gov.au/review-australian-curriculum

[3] For the entire study see: http://projects.ict.usc.edu/itw/vtt/Constructivism_Kirschner_Sweller_Clark_EP_06.pdf

[4] Perhaps one last version of Jewell complaining will revolve more around this topic as it is put forth by the Times here: http://op-talk.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/25/are-learning-styles-a-symptom-of-educations-ills/?smid=nytcore-iphone-share&smprod=nytcore-iphone&_r=0

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