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Teaching with your mouth shut and other things that happen in an inquiry-based classroom

I still remember how great that day was. I had rocked it in all five sections of my 8th US history class. I spent 55 awesome minutes each period highlighting the causes of the American Revolution. And. I. Killed. It. The kids clearly couldn’t get enough. They were so busy copying down all of the notes I had provided for them that they didn’t have time to ask any questions.

The French and Indian War. Proclamation of 1763. Stamp Act. Some other Act. Maybe two, not positive cause I was on a roll. Something, I think, about the Boston Tea Party. Pretty sure there was something about Crispus Attucks and that guy who kept yelling about liberty or death. Seriously. This lecture was on fire. And I left the building that day convinced that my kids walked out smarter than when they walked in.

Except . . .

they probably weren’t smarter. Maybe better copy downers. Better taker noters. And for sure a whole lot better at not interrupting the teacher when he was talking.

But smarter? Nope.

How do I know? The research says so.

Early on, I didn’t know better. Almost all of my learning experiences in middle school, high school, and college social studies courses revolved around a lecture. There were no real alternatives provided in my pre-service ed classes. And I started teaching long before established mentor programs got cranked up. Lecturing in a social studies class was just the way things were done.

But I should have known better. Cause the research was there. It still is.

So. What does the research tell us about the effectiveness of lecturing?

Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth and other ed related books, does a great job of addressing those questions in a Washington Post article from a few years back. (If you’ve passed your limit of free articles, try this PDF.)

Head over to read more. Spoiler alert . . . too much lecture and direct instruction is a bad thing. Along with a variety of other citations, Kohn highlights research by Donald Bligh:

The heavy reliance placed upon lecturing and its frequent use as an all-purpose method are unjustified in the light of evidence. It’s possible that thought may take place during lectures but . . . the traditional style of continuous exposition does not promote it in such a way as to justify lecturing to achieve this objective.

And I love this Kohn passage:

To question the effectiveness of lectures is not to deny that teachers know more than students do, a common straw-man objection offered defensively by traditionalists. Rather, it suggests that having someone with more information talk at those who have less doesn’t necessarily lead to that information being retained by the latter.

And the more ambitious one’s goal, cognitively speaking, the less likely one is to reach it by having students sit and listen. This is true because we are not empty receptacles into which knowledge is poured; we are active meaning makers.

How “ambitious . . . cognitively speaking” should we be? Our state standards, and those of the National Council for the Social Studies, seem pretty clear. Historical thinking. Problem solving. Using evidence. Working with others. Communicating solutions. Our end in mind is active, engaged, and informed citizens.

That’s pretty ambitious. Cognitively speaking. Way more ambitious than the goal I had for my middle school students.


What does work? What can we do instead of talking so much?

Inquiry Based Learning.

A 2014 meta-analysis of research studies found that “active learning leads to increases in examination performance that would raise average grades by a half a letter, and that failure rates under traditional lecturing increase by 55 percent over the rates observed under active learning.”

The idea of Inquiry Based Learning isn’t new. But it can be uncomfortable at times. It requires us to teach with our mouths shut and to encourage our students to ask questions, make mistakes, and learn by doing. For many of us history nerds, keeping our mouths shut can be hard. Cause we know stuff and want other people to know the same stuff.

Try these quick hitters to see and read what this can look like in practice:

And I’m a huge fan of the Inquiry Design Model created by Kathy Swan, S.G. Grant, and John Lee. Get some ideas of what that can look like:

Need a visual? Get a detailed infographic from Model Teaching by clicking the image:

And when you have a few extra minutes, grab this book by Donald Finkel for some in-depth personal professional learning:

Published in 2000 for those in higher ed, Teaching with Your Mouth Shut still has some powerful things to say about teaching K-12 social studies in 2021. Beside loving the title, I love that Finkel starts by saying that we need to

no longer assume that good teachers are like good actors and that great teaching entails putting on a great performance.

How freeing is that? We don’t need to be great lecturers on a stage. What we do need to do is find ways to create a culture where kids are solving problems, using evidence, and sharing solutions.

He continues by defining his idea of good teaching:

Good teaching is the creating of those circumstances that lead to significant learning in others.

In other words, good teaching is shaping your classroom into an environment that’s conducive to learning. Lecturing for 55 minutes to 13 year olds? Not an environment conducive to learning. Throughout the book, Finkel shares both broad and specific ways this can happen. Rather than us doing the talking, he suggests:

  • that we let books, primary sources, and other pieces of evidence do the talking
  • that we let students do the talking
  • that we let their writing do the talking

Finkel suggests that instead of talking to our students, our role becomes one where we:

  • organize the inquiry
  • help students understand the evidence
  • provide the tools and supporting the skills needed to use the evidence
  • evaluate student thinking
  • participate in the inquiry with our students

My biggest takeaway from the book is that when we teach like this we honor our students and create a much more democratic environment in our classrooms.

Looking for more?

I’m hosting a four part series full of inquiry learning resources, strategies, and tips – all designed to support critical and historical thinking in your students – starting later this month. We’ll meet for 80-90 minutes after school each month between now and December, walking away smarter each time. Pick the time zone that works best for you!

Looking forward to learning together with you!

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