Wednesday, April 29, 2015

the dubious merits of "chalk and talk"

[Note: je dois dire "Ça gaze?" à mon visiteur breton basé à Rennes! J'espère que vous trouverez utile cet essai comparatif sur la méthodologie pédagogique.]

A post over at Instapundit led me to this Business Insider article on education in China, and how the Chinese education system supposedly explains the high performance of its students on certain internationally recognized tests. Glenn Reynolds, master of Instapundit, quotes what he considers the main points of Kevin Donnelly's article; he interprets the piece as saying that less-traditional teaching methods are little more than ways to "politicize the curriculum" (so take that, liberals!) and were originally exciting simply because they were new. In the battle between "direct instruction" (i.e., teacher-centered lecture and direction) versus "inquiry learning" (i.e., less traditional, more student-centered approaches), direct instruction is, by Reynolds's lights, the better method: it's "proven," he writes.

If all you read of the Business Insider article is Reynolds's excerpt from it, you'll come away with the wrong impression. When I originally read Reynolds's post, I was ready to disagree completely with BI, but after reading Donnelly's entire spiel, I've come to the conclusion that the article's position on direct instruction, and on education in general, is more nuanced than Reynolds lets on. Donnelly makes claims that I vehemently disagree with—and I'll talk about those shortly—but he also makes claims that are, in my opinion, just pedagogical common sense. Let's start with those. What does Donnelly get right?

Especially during the early primary school years in areas like English and mathematics, teachers need to be explicit about what they teach and make better use of whole-class teaching.

If it's taken as is, this claim makes sense. When you're teaching the rudiments of a subject, strategies like rote memorization, habit-formation, and repetition are a teacher's best friends. This really should go without saying. I take this view when teaching, say, basic vocabulary and grammar in English: learn the building blocks first, then start recombining them in interesting ways later. This principle works outside of foreign-language instruction, too: it's hard to do higher math without reflexive knowledge of the basic multiplication tables, for example. You can't talk about international politics without a basic understanding of geography. In history, you can't talk about the causes of, or relationships between, major events without a brute-force knowledge of the events themselves—who was involved, when and where the events happened, and so on. All of this gets back to the "taxonomy" created in the 1950s by Dr. Benjamin Bloom and his team.

Bloom's Taxonomy, as it's called, is an educational staple that depicts the levels of human cognition, ranking those levels from basic (which also means essential) to advanced. Knowledge sits at the bottom of the pyramid-shaped diagram. In Bloom's terminology, knowledge refers to the retention of facts, so it implies things like rote memorization. Next up is comprehension, which is the ability to restate learned facts in one's own words. Comprehension is the beginning of an even more advanced skill: interpretation. Why? Because how you describe a fact is itself an interpretive act. Next up is application, which is exactly what it sounds like: plugging comprehended facts into new situations. At this level of the pyramid, we're starting to see a bit of creativity. Not much, but it's there. From here to the top, we're dealing with advanced cognition. Next up is analysis, which involves carving phenomena into their constituent parts and figuring out how the parts interrelate. The final two levels of cognition are synthesis and evaluation. Originally, evaluation held the top spot, but over the decades, the map has changed to place synthesis on top—a move that I agree with. Evaluation refers to the ability to make a value judgment: is something good or bad?* Synthesis, by contrast, is the high-level ability to take the parts that had been carved up in analysis and rearrange them intuitively and creatively, finding or making new connections between the parts, thus arriving at innovative and inspired insights.

Bloom's Taxonomy has served me well over the years, especially whenever I've had to design test questions and formulate lesson plans. It's also allowed me to think back on my own professors' work and to see the "puppet strings," so to speak, in their instruction and test design. Most good profs understand that they're going to have to put a "What's the relationship, if any, between X and Y?"-type, synthesis-level question on their final exams. I didn't take any science classes in college or grad school, but I imagine that science profs do much the same when they design their exams: they try to get their students to think outside the box, to draw connections and arrive at breakthroughs.

All of this is to say that Bloom and Donnelly seem to be in basic agreement as to what's fundamental when it comes to thinking and learning. But let's move on and see what else Donnelly's article gets right.

...the UK report and other research suggests [sic] that memorisation and rote learning are important classroom strategies, which all teachers should be familiar with.

The UK report states that teachers need to “encourage re-reading and highlighting to memorise key ideas”, while research in how children best learn concludes that some things, such as times tables and reciting rhymes, ballads and poems, must be memorised until they can be recalled automatically.

This muddles the issue a bit, as rereading and highlighting are active activities, not passive ones. Donnelly's overall argument seems to be that so-called "passive" (i.e., teacher-centered) activities are just as conducive to learning as active ones, but in the above-quoted text, I think he fails to make his case: rereading and highlighting require the brain to engage with the text in a proactive way. That said, the idea that chunks of information "must be memorized until they can be recalled automatically" strikes me as a perfectly sensible teaching/learning strategy for lower-level students. You can't teach a kid to read until he's learned (i.e., memorized) the alphabet.

One of the education fads prevalent across Australian classrooms, and classrooms in most of the English-speaking world, involves the concept that all children have different levels of intelligence and their own unique learning styles. (For example, some children learn best by looking at pictures, by being physically active, by hands-on, tactile learning or by simply reading the printed page.)

The UK report concludes such a teaching and learning strategy is misplaced:

The psychological evidence is clear that there are no benefits for learning from trying to present information to learners in their preferred learning style.

Instead of taking the time, energy and resources to customise what is being taught to the supposed individual learning styles of every child in the classroom, it is more effective to employ more explicit teaching strategies and to spend additional time monitoring and intervening where necessary.

I remember, back at Georgetown, that our profs talked extensively about this issue in the context of teaching foreign languages. There are so many teaching methods out there, and they cater to God-knows-how-many different learning styles, but in the end, you're just one man, or one woman, standing in front of the classroom with just a finite amount to time to teach a finite amount of material. Given those spatiotemporal strictures, it's inevitable that you, as the teacher, will be forced to pick and choose—to hammer out your own style, to figure out what works for you. For each teacher, the answer to the question of "best method" will be different. This is because each teacher is different. So here, too, I don't think Donnelly is wrong. What he's writing makes perfect sense: you don't have time to cater to a classroomful of different learning styles; the best you can do is test the winds, get a general impression of the class's collective psyche, and proceed with whatever method you deem best for helping the greatest number of students—knowing all the while that you won't be able to help all of them. (But that's what tutoring is for, either by the teacher or through an outside source.)

Overly praising students, especially those who under-perform, is especially counterproductive. It conveys the message that teachers have low expectations and reinforces the belief that near enough is good enough, instead of aiming high and expecting strong results.

Again, no argument here. This is old-school thinking, to be sure, but it's still around. Just think of it in a commonsense sort of way: over-praising is essentially a form of lying. When you over-praise, you're deliberately misleading a kid into thinking he did better than he actually did. Now, by no means am I saying that you need to be as brutal as Terence Fletcher from "Whiplash." There's no need to actively flay your students' fragile egos. But truth is always best, especially when you're dealing with young, open minds that are still forming their own self-conception.

To argue that some teaching and learning strategies are ineffective does not mean that there is only one correct way to teach. While research suggests some practices are more effective than others, it also needs to be realised that teaching is a complex business. Teachers need various strategies.

This is also true. As a teacher gains experience, he or she acquires an arsenal of strategies, some of which work well in a given situation, and some of which fall flat. That's the gamble you take when you teach: sometimes, you can't know what's going to work until you've gotten a clear read of the overall psychic situation. This is the flip-side of what I'd written earlier regarding how teachers eventually arrive at a preferred teaching method. They might end up with a favorite way to teach, but they rarely rely on that one method (which is normally an amalgam of methods) to the exclusion of all others.

In the early years of primary school, children need to memorise things like times tables and poems and ballads so that they can be recalled easily and automatically. Education is also about curiosity and innovation and there will be other times when rote learning will be unsuitable – for example, when students explore a topic that excites them and where they undertake their own research and analysis.

Depending on what is being taught, what has gone before and what is yet to come, whether students are well versed in a particular area of learning or are novices, and even the time of day, teachers must adapt their teaching to the situation and be flexible.

The problem arises when teachers and teacher education academics privilege one particular approach to the detriment of all others.

Strangely enough, this is how Donnelly's article ends. As conclusions go, it's not a bad one. In fact, I'd almost argue that it's trivially true. Teachers do need to be flexible (of course, so do students!). Children do need to memorize things while they're still kids and still trying to master the basics of, well, everything. Education is indeed about cool things like curiosity and innovation, and rote learning is indeed unsuitable in a wide variety of cases.

And that's what brings to me to where I disagree with Donnelly's article. To explore those disagreements, we need to go back to the beginning.

Seventy teachers from the UK were sent to Shanghai to study classroom methods to investigate why Chinese students perform so well. Upon their return, the teachers reported that much of China’s success came from teaching methods the UK has been moving away from for the past 40 years.

The Chinese favour a “chalk and talk” approach, whereas countries such as the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand have been moving away from this direct form of teaching to a more collaborative form of learning where students take greater control.

Given China’s success in international tests such as PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS, it seems we have been misguided in abandoning the traditional, teacher-directed method of learning where the teacher spends more time standing at the front of the class, directing learning and controlling classroom activities.

There's a lot that's being smuggled past us, in the above excerpt, that needs to be seized and violently unpacked instead of being unquestioningly waved on through Customs. First and foremost is the phrase "why Chinese students perform so well." I think it's safe to assume, based on what's said later in the article, that Donnelly means "perform so well on standardized tests." Once we expose that smuggled-in implication, we now bring everything Donnelly says next into the well-worn arena of "teaching toward the test," which is a topic in itself. Is high performance on standardized tests an indicator of life success? Answers vary. Widely. (That Google link is positively loaded with skepticism, but one article high in the search results posits a strong performance/success correlation.) If the correlation between test performance and success in college and/or in life is weak, then everything the Chinese are doing to get high scores on standardized tests is little more than solipsistic in its purpose. So what if you're good at taking standardized tests? The Chinese might convince themselves that this is some sort of objective measure of Chinese greatness, but in truth it isn't.

Donnelly's take on this is: " seems we have been misguided in abandoning the traditional, teacher-directed method of learning..." Further:

Debates about direct instruction versus inquiry learning have been ongoing for many years. Traditionally, classrooms have been organised with children sitting in rows with the teacher at the front of the room, directing learning and ensuring a disciplined classroom environment. This is known as direct instruction.

Beginning in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, teachers began to experiment with more innovative and experimental styles of teaching. These included basing learning on children’s interests, giving them more control over what happened in the classroom and getting rid of memorising times tables and doing mental arithmetic. This approach is known as inquiry or discovery learning.

Based on this recent study of classrooms in the UK and China and a recent UK report titled What makes great teaching?, there is increasing evidence that these new-age education techniques, where teachers facilitate instead of teach and praise students on the basis that all must be winners, in open classrooms where what children learn is based on their immediate interests, lead to under-performance.

This gets us to the heart of my disagreement with Donnelly. As a language teacher, I can't fathom teaching English via lecture. This is, to quote Vizzini, inconceivable. Right or wrong, I see all teaching through the lens of language teaching, so it's hard for me to imagine that other subjects can be more effectively taught through lecture. Deprive students of the experiential component, and the lessons become less real and relevant to them. Can you teach your kid to ride a bike by reading about biking from a book? Can a student learn to speak English by hearing English and remaining silent for years, developing a large mental library of passive vocabulary while allowing his active vocabulary to atrophy into nothingness? Can a student of history truly learn about history as a living phenomenon if he never has the chance to discuss any history-related issues, or to form his own thoughts about the US Constitution while flipping through a copy of it, or to participate in a mock parliament or model UN?

Teaching with an experiential component is as old as the hills—it's not merely some airy-fairy fad from a few decades back. Zen Buddhists constantly harp on the importance of experience as a way of grounding ourselves in the reality of this moment. Experience, whether or not you're in a Zen frame of mind, is fundamental to all manner of understanding. In fact, Catholic thinker Bernard Lonergan, in formulating his own cognitive schema, laid out life this way: experience, understand, judge, decide. For Lonergan (and for the rest of us, really), it all starts with experience. In one grad-school course on narrative ethics, we discussed the relationship between narrative and theory: narrative can act as an effective vehicle for theory because narrative enfleshes—makes experiential—those aspects of theory that we wish to convey. If I want to teach a moral maxim, for example, I can tell a story like "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" to do this. The narrative provides our experience-hungry minds with characters and events that we can latch on to, something "tangible" in which we can ground our theoretical notions. Without this, the theory itself is dry, ethereal, abstract, and even skeletal: it's hard to relate to. Experience incarnates principles. In Buddhist language, it's form articulating emptiness. These notions aren't new at all, and they certainly aren't the product of feel-good liberalism. If anything, they're solid, time-tested ways of passing on knowledge and technique.

Donnelly glosses over the dangers of passivity in the classroom. Many students are already demotivated when they first arrive in class: they have to be there, therefore they don't want to be there. They're all set to be passive, and in Korea, with its hierarchical social structure, students expect the teachers to be dispensaries of knowledge, fire-hosing information into young brains while the students do little more than nod and take notes. This is deadly when the goal is to learn a foreign language. The Korean tendency is to be quiet in the classroom, but you can't learn all four language macroskills—listening, speaking, reading, and writing—without actually practicing them. And since giving students as many opportunities as possible to talk is paramount, a language teacher's thoughts will naturally drift toward crafting in-class activities, like my round-robin technique, that get students producing at length for extended periods of time.

Donnelly's article is a bit of a puzzle, as should be obvious from my deconstruction of it. His conclusion strikes me as solid and easy to agree with, but his opening insights are ones I disagree with. Whatever point Donnelly is trying to make gets muddled in the writing; he starts one way, but ends up somewhere he probably didn't intend to go.

This was the first time I'd ever heard the term "chalk and talk" used to describe traditional, teacher-centered forms of teaching. Donnelly has done nothing to persuade me that teacher-centered pedagogy is more effective than student-centered. One famous commenter at Instapundit, Bill Quick (who is a pundit himself, elsewhere in cyberspace), left this remark in Glenn Reynolds's comments section:

It turns out that having teachers teach ignorant students produces better results than having ignorant students teach themselves. Who could have guessed?

Mr. Quick has little faith in students' ability to rise to the challenge of taking the reins in their own learning, and little understanding of a teacher's role in a student-centered classroom. I'll once again point you to the incredible John Hunter, a fantastic teacher in Virginia who uses the most amazing student-centered approach I've ever heard of to inspire his students to think deeply about a number of important life-issues. Mr. Hunter is my answer to Kevin Donnelly. I'd canonize that teacher if I could. He, better than anyone I've seen, embodies the ideal of task-oriented, student-centered learning that I strive to realize in my own classes.

"Chalk and talk" smacks of the Industrial Revolution's assembly line—a critique that I first heard from Sir Ken Robinson, who is one of the most popular TED speakers out there.** It's disappointing to see Glenn Reynolds, et al., trumpeting a Dickensian factory for mediocrity as the future solution to present educational problems. Fuck that, I say: give the students room to breathe, space to think, and a chance to explore.

*I see evaluation as more of a parallel process than as an actual part of Bloom's pyramidal cognitive structure. The example I've given before is that of a baby spitting out food it doesn't like: the spitting-out is an evaluative moment, and since it's a baby we're talking about, it should be obvious that the baby was able to have that evaluative moment without having had to go through the labyrinth of high-level cognition. For a baby, it's as simple as yum/blech, all thanks to its innate wiring. Bloom's Taxonomy, in its modern form, keeps evaluation inside the pyramid, but places it second, between analysis and synthesis.

**I've also noted the irony that Robinson, who talks all the time about disrupting old educational paradigms to create newer, more effective paradigms, use the old-school lecture format of a TED talk to make his point. Kind of funny, really.



  1. (Addofio here.) Yipes, this hit about sebenty-eleben of my buttons simultaneously. I guess you can retire the teacher educator, but she won't stay dormant forever. Too much to say for a comment, too much to say before all my morning tea is in my system. But one thing: Lecturing is a form of getting information in. Reading is another. Direct observation a third. And when you're just going for transfer of information, that's about it. So, sometimes, and for some people, and for some kinds of material, lectures are effective if well-done. However, there is also research that indicates that the average can only pay peak attention to someone speaking for about 20 minutes (please don't ask for the reference, I'm retired)--so in the classroom, where you care about retention and not just entertainment, keep them short, and vary activities

    One more: ALL education is political. There is no strictly neutral methods or content. Lecture/direct instruction lends itself well to more authoritarian political/cultural systems--let me tell you exactly what to think and how to think about it, I don't rely want you thinking for yourself. People advocating lecture/direct instruction have just as much of a political agenda as people advocating any other approach. Including me, of course.

    Lots more to say--I have entire papers written on this (for class handouts--not published)--but this is long for a comment, so I'll quit.

  2. I'm just glad that somebody bothered to comment. I wrote my heart out on this one and was disappointed to see no reaction whatsoever. This is probably because most of my five constant readers aren't teachers, and thus have little to add.

    Oh, and I agree that there's no neutral form of teaching: all pedagogy reflects some sort of agenda and/or ideology, be it political or related more to one's biases about how we learn, what language is, etc.

  3. There is one key ingredient to teaching (and learning) that you have overlooked--passion. I've had classes where teachers droned on and on without any real passion where I've come away learning next to nothing (except what I needed to learn to pass the class) while I've had others (mostly with active real-life experience in the field they were teaching) that were able to inspire and ignite passions in many of their students just by lecturing alone.

    Sadly, students are being screwed over by a political and economical system that rewards teachers who play the political game while crushing passionate teachers who are a threat to upsetting the current economical educational model. Hell, every student in the world can now have access to the best teachers the world has to offer in 2015 (a la Spock in the first "Star Trek" reboot) via the Internet with local teachers acting as assistants with more time to focus on the slower learners while those that get it can proceed at a faster rate, but this threatens the current governmental bureaucracy of a nightmare that is the reality that comprises most of this world's educational systems.

  4. John,

    Passion certainly has a place in teaching, and if that had been the focus of my essay, I'd have mentioned it. As it was, I was responding to an article that discussed method.

    I generally take the importance of passion as a given. Uninterested teachers fail to inspire: true enough, although I'd add that the flip side is that students aren't zombies: they come into the class with their own free will. An excellent student can still learn much from an uninspiring teacher; in fact, I'd say that the student's disposition is more important to the student's academic success than is the teacher's passion.

    As I've written elsewhere, it's humbling to realize how little influence teachers actually have over their students' futures: stubbornly unmotivated and intellectually dim students will always remain at the back of the pack despite most teachers' best efforts to help them, while students of excellent character—who are bright and ready to soak up any and all information—will learn well no matter who the teacher is.

    I've noticed that it's the stupidest students who groan, "This is stupid!" when they don't want to do an activity. Smart students, by contrast, find nothing stupid, because they wisely understand that every moment is an opportunity to learn.

    The ideal combination, of course, would be a teacher who's on fire and a classroom full of students who are equally passionate, but we rarely live in such a world. C'est la vie.

  5. "they come into the class with their own free will."

    I have to adamantly disagree with you on this point as children are "forced" into a pay-less 7 to 8 hour job at an extremely young age (as young as 3) as a student and forced to continue on with this job for the next twelve to upwards of twenty-something years by governments/society/the fracking game of life. I know I had no choice and could have lived without 2/3rds of the grossly incompetent teachers that made up my rural school district in Texas where football was "so king" that many of my teachers were coaches who couldn't even teach sports worth a damn much less English, mathematics, and the sciences that they also didn't/couldn't teach but sat in as nothing more than babysitters.

    I understand now (not at 4 or 5) that learning is a necessity to both the individual's and a nation's/world's survival, but to have the system so rigged by political economics that it is nothing more than a
    unionized monopoly that benefits one political party (in the U.S.) is grossly unfair to young, naive children who deserve the best education available for their decade (and more) of indentured servitude to the state. But it is all about the money.

    John Stossel explains it better than I can as he did way back in 2006 and again, more recently, in 2013 in a video that will blow your mind about the dysfunctional educational system that kids are forced to partake in.

  6. "I have to adamantly disagree with you on this point as children are "forced" into a pay-less 7 to 8 hour job at an extremely young age (as young as 3) as a student and forced to continue on with this job for the next twelve to upwards of twenty-something years by governments/society/the fracking game of life. I know I had no choice..."

    Please note that I wrote "they come into the class WITH their own free will," not "they come into the class OF their own free will."

    I agree: coming to school normally isn't a choice (except, really, it is: a kid can rebel, can't he? he can kick and scream and run away from home, or he can flat-out refuse to participate in any class activities). My point was that kids have as much responsibility for their own education as do teachers. The teacher can't telepathically reach inside a child's mind and control his actions; the student must meet the teacher halfway.

    It's very Korean—and very mistaken—to think of kids as passive clay to be molded by the teacher's will. The students aren't clay—not even the littlest of kiddies. They have distinct personalities, distinct desires, distinct hopes and dreams. They do indeed have the power of choice, even within the classroom environment. They can choose to work or not; they can choose to pay attention or not. They're not victims of brain chemistry or fate: they're free entities, and they make life-altering choices all the time.



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