'Would "chalk and talk" teaching and a "knowledge-rich education" work for every teacher and pupil? I'm yet to be convinced'

4th March 2017 at 12:03
Chalk and talk
I don’t fully buy into the idea that because a subject is intrinsically interesting, all a teacher need do is talk about it to inspire students, writes one teacher

Last Saturday evening, I was sitting in the Hampshire Hog pub in Hammersmith, surrounded by the movers and shakers of an emerging national movement that is as controversial as it is energetic.

I had just attended the West London Free School History conference. This was an event with the traditionalist teacher in mind.

Some of my best friends in the education arena were aghast at my attendance, wondering if I'd return looking and behaving like a 32-year-old Victor Meldrew.

"What are you doing going to that?" One asked. "Do you think that traditional teaching is an excuse for **** teachers who are devoid of better ideas?" asked another.

The conference attendees and speakers were teachers, bloggers and academics who want to transform the way teachers teach across this nation.

The sum of their ambition is a large-scale unadulterated return to, and I mean this as no affront, “chalk and talk” teaching. At its most blunt, the message is "just tell em", as coined by head of science at the Michaela free school, Olivia Dyer.

“I was to facilitate students in discovering the world around them,” she said of her own teacher training, in a speech last year. “Did it work? Did it hell! Just tell them!” she shouted, to a slightly stunned audience.

In a nutshell, their mission is to reimbue students with the depth in knowledge and understanding that, in their view, has been gradually flittered away by an emphasis on “wacky” teaching ideas and so-called gimmicks.

So, in the realm of history, cue lists of facts, quotes from some very high-brow historians and “historical narratives” (a posh way of saying, write a story like Simon Schama would).

Throughout the day, the arguments were put across with zeal: teachers shouldn’t waste time planning jazzy lessons when teaching from the front will do (this tweet from Hywel Jones, headteacher at WLFS, best illustrates this). Teachers shouldn’t spend time extensively marking with coloured pens when ticks and crosses would suffice.

Critics say their expectations are unrealistic: a return to children sitting under trees during their lunch breaks eating apples while reading Chaucer and giggling uncontrollably at the synonyms he used in certain stanzas.

A return for the Maverick teacher, lecturing for 60 minutes whilst engaging the students in the chanting of Latin phrasing. Their response, why not?

"Fun" and "engaging" are most definitely dirty words here. When one speaker on Saturday mentioned "group work", it was met with sneers of displeasure from some in attendance.

In the post-conference malaise, I enjoyed a chat with Christine Counsell, director of education for the Inspiration Trust academy chain. Earlier that day, she had executed the perfect keynote, a mix of brash elocution and subtle directives.

She mixed a passionate, arm-waving eulogy to "knowledge-rich education" with cautious overtures to "reach out" (a quiet recognition that this movement is still fringe and in its infancy) and "remain humble" (perhaps a word of warning for allies at the Michaela Free School, whose social media strategy seems to have taken much from the shock and awe of a certain American president).

She spoke passionately about teaching knowledge, students learning facts for memory and the role of the teacher getting a much-needed reboot.

As she talked, I couldn't help but think that to have been in her classroom must have been exhilarating – a “talk from the front” tour de force, providing an intellectual headache of the pleasurable variety.

However, I also wondered how many other teachers would be capable of holding a room like she did that morning with 30 teenage tearaways in attendance?

I must admit, the idea that one way is best, all the time, doesn’t sit well with me.

These teachers are firmly anti-technology, anti-group work, anti-student voice, pro-rigour, pro-simplicity, pro-didactic, pro-tradition. There isn’t much space for SEND or differentiation. This is about teaching to the middle. There is no sitting on the fence here.

I’m sure they know it’s going to be a real challenge for them to win over the “middle England” of the teaching fraternity to their ways, as most are happy that a little bit of this and a little bit of that works fine.

Nevertheless, they are now beginning to feel more and more confident that the tide is turning in their favour.

Michael Gove’s cut-and-thrust curriculum demolition circa 2011 put an emphasis on children learning facts rather than skills. He attacked progressive figurehead Russel Tarr for using Mister Men characters to represent Hitler’s henchmen and insisted that at least 50 per cent of everything taught had to be British.

And then came the Michaela free school. Its staff have transformed educational debate, not only in the corridors of power but at the chalkboards too. 

"Lessons are pretty simple," the amiable head of humanities from Michaela, Jonathan Porter said to me. "First 15 minutes, recap. Twenty minutes reading, some tasks and that's it really." 

The vengeance of chalk and talk is pulling in many of the great and good. Social media is the best example. 

“That may be well and good for me and you, but what about the teacher who is simply boring?” I asked.

“It’s fair to say that the role of the teacher is paramount in our school,” he replied. "We believe the role of the teacher is crucial when itcomes to explicit instruction."

So, what was my take on all this?

Well, mixed. I'm not going to be dunked in the river of knowledge and emerge born again any time soon. Nevertheless, there is much I do agree with.

These traditionalists want to create students who can answer broad and sweeping questions, not just narrow “yes” and “nos”. I think this is a breath of fresh air and runs counter to the current exam system.

They envisage "progress" as something much more grand and meaningful, not just what the government tells them it is. They may yet fall foul of Ofsted for this, as trends in their GCSE results become more apparent. Never the less, I like the vision.

As for the teaching style, that's where I have my doubts. My main concern goes like this: child A walks into class and sits in near silence for 60 minutes in nearly every lesson. I struggle to believe there aren't students who find this boring. (Although I must admit Jonathan did very kindly invite me to Michaela, where he says the children "love it").

While I believe him, is this more because of his own teaching talent than because of didactic teaching methods?

I don’t fully buy into the idea that because history, for example, is intrinsically interesting, all a teacher need do is talk about it to inspire students.

I’m also not sure about the notion that no one else cares about knowledge as much as they do. I’m yet to meet a teacher who doesn’t, from whatever tribe or persuasion.

All in all, this was a highly enjoyable and eye-opening day.

I must extend my thanks to Louis Everett, the head of history and organiser of the event. I also had a good chat with some of the history GCSE students at the school, who were as keen as they were polite.

I look forward to attending more events outside of my own box in the near future.

Thomas Rogers is a teacher who runs rogershistory.com and tweets @RogersHistory

For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue

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