Monday, October 08, 2007

Chalk and Talk

A few years ago I was observed in my college course. I was teaching an intermediate algebra class. My class was totally teacher dominated. I asked which homework problems needed to be gone over, listed them on the board and proceeded to go over them slowly, one at a time. I did not let the students write them out on the board and I did all the explanations myself. The evening supervisor who was in the room at the time loved the lesson. The students in the class understood all that had been gone over. My passing rate for the term was well above the average passing rate for that course.

Chalk and talk is a dirty expression in the high schools. Kids are supposed to sit in groups and discover answers themselves. They are supposed to explain the work to each other. I have found that this does not work. Often the work they put on the board is wrong. Kids cross out their correct answers to copy what someone else has done. After all, if it is on the board, it must be correct. Even when the work is correct, it is often illegible. And, some of my brightest students speak with thick accents and in very low voices, making it impossible for others to understand. I work with a population of students whose native language is often not English and accents make learning hard for them. My weakest students need everything written out for them. Group work does have a place, just not in the classroom.

I was not one of the best math students in high school. I just loved math. I worked hard and studied all the time. I redid every problem done in class until I understood the methods completely. I learned from following my teacher's models. Most of my students need to learn the same way. I always give extra problems that encourage the brightest to go beyond what I have showed them to find solutions. Many take what I have given them and reach beyond my wildest expectations. I know they are not losing out because of chalk and talk. I know that I am helping the weak ones by giving them concrete work they can practice with.

This whole idea of chalk and talk being bad came about when some politicians decided that everyone was capable of learning the same caliber of work. When so many failed, an excuse was needed. Chalk and talk was just that excuse. I predict, in a few years, we will return to the chalk and talk method as the only method that works. Do I agree with that? Absolutely not. In a classroom, many different methods are needed. We shouldn't dismiss group work or active student involvement then and we should not dismiss chalk and talk now.


17 (really 15) more years said...

PO'd, you really know how to push my buttons, lol. I am all for integrating all types of lessons in my classroom. What galls me is when I am told by administration that they "better not" see anybody teaching in the front of the room. Why do I have to be afraid when I lecture? Why do I have to feel like my career is on the line because I lecture and explain and question when I need the kids to learn content? I happen to be very good at Socratic questioning. The kids love it when I question them, and good answers and ideas come from that questioning. They learn the content, then they do group work to apply what they learned. Is this a crime? Would it be better for them to "discover" the answers, only to find out that half of them "discovered" the wrong thing?

OK- rant over- back to writing my differentiated lesson plans, for kids that need to take the same assessment as everybody else.

Pissedoffteacher said...

Differentiation is only done in my calculus class.

17 (really 15) more years said...

That's the only place it belongs.

JUSTICE not "just us" said...

A-hole adminstrators are so full of it! They talk about differentiation as if that is the magic bullet to take care of all the problems of our children. Well, Mr Adminstrator the Regents are not differentiated! There are many things that the students will have to do alone!

There is nothing wrong with lecturing and Q and A. Yes I agree that other methods should be used along with "chalk and talk". My skunk of a principal is on a mission to show his teachers the wonders of something called "backwards planning and asking Essential Questions" something he got out of some book somewherre. However, when you ask him to demonstrate the wonderful and magical lessons he envisions --HE CAN NOT DO IT!

I have asked to co teach with me and have it taped. HE HAS NOT RISEN TO MY CHALLENGE! I have asked him to teach a class of emotionally disturbed and unmotivated students with atrocious attendance and HE HAS NOT DONE IT!


These fruads and phonies that pass themselves as educators are what has killed education in this city.

17 (really 15) more years said...

Need to comment again, because this topic is such a bone of contention with me. I have written ONE differentiated lesson plan this week. I won't (make that shouldn't have to) do it for above level students (8th graders) who are taking the Regents- because to do so would be doing them a tremendous disservice - I got my AP to begrudingly agree to this. I also shouldn't have to do it with my special ed students, who are minimally functioning at best, and I'm happy to just get a little work out of them.

So, I like that idea- "if you don't like the way I'm differentiating instruction, please come in and model a lesson for me". Anybody want to take bets on the response?

NYC Educator said...

I agree with you that there's a place for chalk and talk, as well as whatever works for you, or me. It's preposterous to contend there's only one way to reach kids, and those who make such contentions are often back a year later with a new and improved pile of nonsense.

Just as people write differently, in various styles, people teach differently, in various styles. If it works, it works.

It's remarkable how the muckety-mucks have consistently failed to figure that out.

Anonymous said...

+1 on NYCEducator's comment. In my classroom, I incorporate both chalk and talk AND differentiated instruction. It's amazing how we're supposed to model certain behaviors to the kids yet we're not allowed to actually model it. Rather they're supposed to figure it themselves.

Catherine Johnson said...


this is a keeper

I can't tell you how desperate many of us parents feel over this issue. We are desperate to have a good, experienced teacher who knows what he/she is talking about stand up in front of a classroom and convey knowledge to our kids.


I taught college myself; my husband is a college professor; we know what it takes to create and deliver a good lecture, speech, or talk.

The Teaching Company collects and sells outstanding college lectures for God's sake.

And....ummm....what is it presidents do when they finish their terms?

Why they go on the lecture circuit, I believe.

Excuse me.

The chalk and talk circuit, I should say.

Catherine Johnson said...

The other thing that just makes (many) parents NUTS is the idea that, somehow, listening to an intelligent, educated, experienced adult speak knowledgeably about a subject he/she knows well is boring, while listening to inexperienced, uneducated peers speak superficially about a subject they don't know anything about at all is fun, fun, fun!

Catherine Johnson said...

backwards planning and asking Essential Questions


I'm off to have a good cry now.

Catherine Johnson said...

On a serious note, I do recall research (which I think was decent as opposed to pure malarkey) showing that peer work on math does have benefits. (I've got to find that study...)

I believe I've seen this phenomenon in the sets of twins I know.

Two of my son's friends are doing very, very well in the horrifically over-complicated "accelerated" algebra class taught here in our middle school.

I'd say these two friends probably have more natural aptitude for math than my son does; they are also having huge amounts of tutoring.

Nevertheless, it's obvious - and their mom describes this, too - that they are teaching each other.

This happens constantly.

When one doesn't know something, the other does -- and that "peer tutor," the sibling, is in the same school with the same curricula/teacher, etc.

The other huge advantage these two have is that they're ferociously competitive with each other, which is typical of male fraternal twins.

They were over the other day, and I had the impression, as I've had for awhile now, that one of them is better at math than the other.

I got this impression because that twin wanted to sit with me while we worked a word problem "algebraically" (meaning setting it up in two variables and using substitution.)

The other twin just walked away.

Turns out the twin who walked away is better at math!

I think the twin who worked with me probably did so in part out of competition with his brother.

So....I absolutely know I've seen some unique, "value-added" advantages to peer work.

How teachers make it work in class, I don't know, but I'm sure an experienced teacher can do so.

(somewhat sure....or is that wrong?)

Catherine Johnson said...

Most of my students need to learn the same way. I always give extra problems that encourage the brightest to go beyond what I have showed them to find solutions. Many take what I have given them and reach beyond my wildest expectations. I know they are not losing out because of chalk and talk. I know that I am helping the weak ones by giving them concrete work they can practice with.

We are desperate for this.

I don't use that word lightly.

My kid is one of "the weak ones" in an accelerated class.

The school's attitude is: tough.

He can always drop down to a different level.

That would be fine -- that would be GREAT -- if the school had a class at his level.

Instead the school defines algebra-in-8th-grade, which he can easily learn, as highly accelerated, a course appropriate only for the gifted.

The weak students are hammered, discouraged, demoralized, etc.

Parents keep them alive in the course by reteaching the content and/or hiring tutors.

AND LET ME STRESS: there is no course for them.

One of the weak accelerated students dropped down a level last year, and spent the rest of the year sleeping in class.

Now he's rejoined the "accelerated" track and is, again, struggling.

Catherine Johnson said...

Need to comment again, because this topic is such a bone of contention with me. I have written ONE differentiated lesson plan this week. I won't (make that shouldn't have to) do it for above level students (8th graders) who are taking the Regents

What we desperately need here is more options for acceleration.

My kid doesn't belong in a class with the "math brains" -- and they don't belong in algebra in 8th grade.

I'm not sure where they should be, but given their talent they should be taking geometry by now, at least.

Instead we've got the most mathematically talented kids in the school in with the "bright works hard" kids.

And the "bright works hard" kids are expected to keep up with the gifted kids or flunk.

The school has no interest - none - in whether the kids are actually learning the math.

They know the kids will all end up with good scores no matter what they do.

Catherine Johnson said...


way too much ranting

Pissedoffteacher said...

Not too much ranting--not enough. I'm really upset about cheating my bright students also. I have a few that are really good, but most are struggling and I have to gear lessons towards them

le radical galoisien said...

If "points" are on the line for a correct student presentation, won't the quality usually be much better?

My precalc and calc teacher used to award extra credit points for *correctly* presenting a homework question -- with the extra credit (four full mark presentations for the equivalent of a test).

In French, we'd do group work where *everybody's* grade was at stake. If one article was used wrongly (if the class was supposed to present 15 sentences), then everyone's grade suffered. The result was an intense discussion (a real discussion) where errors got identified and corrected.

The problem with working on groups and whatever is quality control. The teacher was still a pretty strong referee, and I think my teacher would be smirking as we debated a contention of grammar that she knew the answer to.

In Singapore, we did have a lot of group work, but now that I recall, most of the collaboration was self-organised outside of the class room, doing homework collectively and so forth. Whenever group work was done in the classroom, it was always competitive. I suppose it never dominated the classroom. What I miss a lot is the lack of afterschool culture in most of America (or so it seems according to my perception, which I realise is biased as I am a migrant). The dismissal bell rings and the whole student body disperses and breaks up, and no one stays behind to tutor each other, no self-organised pre-exam study groups, nada. The only reason why you would stay behind is to play a sport or something, and even then it is never self-organised. Each year in Singapore before the final year-exams you are bound to see
great congregations of students in the national libraries' upper floors laid out on the floor preparing for exams, or in the food courts. It's also somewhat of a social gathering thing (because we eat, joke and have lots of side discussions) -- and yes, exam preparation is a social event for us but I remember them being of great help to me.

What peeves me is that American educators seem to think that education ends in the classroom, and maybe continues in homework. Teachers simply seem to want to leave the school after the bell rings, along with the students. There are no night remedial sessions (well, the only time one was organised at my school was organised by my calc teacher by to prepare for the AP Calc exam), people stay back only to prepare for tests or if they have done some sort of trouble and the CCA's are so short it's a joke.

I was helping a bunch of fellow migrant students this morning and it struck me that the teacher hadn't seemed to communicate the concepts effectively. Their teacher had never taught them how to use bar models to visualise algebra problems. These kids are in ESL, so they are already at a disadvantage in terms of language, and it was only a fellow student (especially a fellow migrant) who could slow down and discuss the concepts to them using simple and clear English (isn't it ironic that the "Everyday Math" textbooks don't use Everyday English?) and give constant examples to reinforce concepts.

They needed way way more than the forty minutes I gave them, but by using bar models I was able to make them understand a concept their teachers had been struggling to teach them for months. (Bear in mind I wasn't even a bar-model-using person when I did the Singapore PSLE in 2002.)

Anyway, group work can be useful, along with peer tutoring, if the school won't even arrange general afterschool remedial sessions (as in formal remedial classes, on top of the existing class, not simply changing them to another track or having them informally stop by after school).

le radical galoisien said...

Also, I am probably being way off topic already, but I wonder if the ESL programmes in white-as-sour-cream Maine are having problems effectively teaching students (for subjects other than English), I must wonder about the situation further west and south. I was only in the ESL programme for two years, even though I was fluent, (albeit with dialectical differences of Singapore English that could be resolved with immersion) but I was compulsorily retained in the programme anyway because if you were an Asian born in an Asian country, apparently they catagorised you as automatically needing mandatory ESL attention. The whole experience left a foul taste in my mouth. This was first and second grade of course, and perhaps I simply have a biased view based on a narrow experience, but then the ESL instructors in my high school don't seem to do anything to resolve language problems in classes other than English, and it seems the school tries to hide the different tracks of students from each other as much as possible.

Track, differentiate, stream, n'importe quoi, whatever, fine. But don't cut off the interactions between different levels of students. I am quite opposed to rampant streaming after witnessing various problems with it in Singapore (that are tempered by group interactions; differently levelled kids found themselves studying together), but if it is to be done, the school should try its best to temper the isolation and stratification of students.

(Like you know, encouraging an afterschool culture and student-tutor interactions.)

Pissedoffteacher said...

First off, I agree that group work has a place, just not in the classroom. It is great when kids get together to study. I encourage that in my classes by giving "take-home exams" quite often. As for teachers leaving when the bell rings, you really can't blame us. We alll have families and lives outside of school. While my job and teaching is important, my committment to the rest of my life is also important and being a teacher does not mean sacrificing everything else.

I don't know much about our ESL program except that kids are pushed out of it before they are ready. Many of my students would choose to remain in it longer as they know their English skills are in need of improvement.