Chalk talk? inquiry? technology? what really matters?

In our #INF530 course we are exposed to a wide range of thoughts and ideas. Some Facebook groups, twitter feeds, paperli, google alerts yadayada throw even more at me.  One that is currently doing the rounds is whether chalk and talk is better than all this new fangled (from the 70’s no less) participatory and inquiry learning stuff.  After all, look at the Chinese! Look at the Pisa results.

One of the most significant videos I have watched in the last few years was “The classroom experiment” I don’t like learning through watching videos generally, as I can read way faster than I can watch and listen, so I get bored and distracted, so it’s quite something when I say it really is worth two hours of your time.

In the last 7 years, my children and I have gone through various extremes of educations. They’ve had liberal PYP type inquiry learning, and chalk and talk rigorous structured learning with continuous high stakes assessment in the Chinese system.  I’ve spent 2 years full time studying Chinese at university and I’ve spent nearly 3 years doing two masters degrees by distance learning. 
I spend a lot of time talking to teachers and students and my own children, and reflecting on my own learning.
On Friday one of my teacher friends was telling me about the debriefing she’d had with her Grade 12 students on their final day of school before study weeks and exams.  She’d asked them what was really important in a teacher, in the classroom setting. What really mattered.  Was it inquiry, was it content, was it technology, was it the way the space was organised. Was it giving everyone a voice, was it content or thought or frequent testing or never testing or something inbetween?
Without fail she said, every single student said none of that really mattered. The only thing that really mattered was whether the teacher really cared about you and your learning or not.  Knowledge and passion for the subject came next.  And they then went to name teachers with widely different teaching philosophies and personalities that embodied that caring they were talking about.  And the fact that they really really wanted to work hard and succeed to show the teacher that the caring was mutual.
We were then talking about how to make sure you reach each and every student in your classes, particularly if they classes are big and some students are naturally more dominant than others. She was saying she teaches nearly 80 students directly and more than 100 indirectly, and she keeps a list of each and every one, and each week goest through the list and makes notes on conversations she’s had with each and if she’s not had a personal conversation with one of them, makes sure she does so the next week.  She said how easy it was for students to slip through the cracks. Especially if they were shy or unassuming or didn’t participate easily due to language or cultural barriers.
When I was studying Chinese I had a lot of struggles.  It was difficult.  It was really really really hard. I had a lot of smart alecks in my class (watch those videos above!), I became quieter and quieter and lost my voice. And because I wasn’t speaking, I couldn’t speak and it became more and more difficult to speak. Then in my second year I got a really old teacher.  He was well into his 70’s. He’d been doing this for years.  He lined us up into the traditional classroom, all facing forward.  And we went through the material methodically.  If we had to read, it wasn’t on a voluntary basis. He started in the front and each and everyone had to read one sentence and then we’d move on to the next student. If our pronunciation was not up to scratch he’s say “ting bu dong” (I hear but I don’t understand” and gently but relentlessly correct us until we got it right. Same would happen with working through questions and assignments. If someone tried to jump in or interject or interrupt or mock or any of the other crap that had been going on up to then he’d look up fiercely and out stare them and we’d go on. 
I passed chinese. It was never easy for me no matter how easy studying had been to me before. I learnt first hand what it was to struggle as a student. I learnt how shame and fear could negatively impact on learning.  And it changed my views completely on who deserved to be heard and to participate in a classroom.  You know that cartoon about privilege?  It’s not just about class or race or financial privilege.  Is also about learning and knowing how to learn. About whether you as a child were cultivated or left to nature (see JP Gee).  
I think about it often.  The right of every child to learn content and learn to think. About how are assessments, or teaching, our scaffolding our assumptions shape how far they will go. The explicit and the implicit things that stand in their way and our way of making the way clear. And how we don’t even know sometimes that or what we are doing wrong. 

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