Timeless and Timebound: Schools and Teaching in the U.S.

The pandemic is over even though the virus continues to make Americans ill. During those pandemic months, most schools closed for varying periods of time. Covid-19 delivered a shock to the American school system of 13,000-plus districts, nearly 100,000 schools, over three million teachers, and more than 50 million students. Unlike localized earthquakes and other natural disasters, Covid-19 shut down most U. S. schools. But by early 2021, those shuttered schools had reopened.

Other than wearing masks, using disinfectants, practicing social distancing and other measures, schooling and teaching as we know it, returned to a new normal. Timebound by the pandemic, nonetheless, the practice of schooling and teaching was, and remains to this day, timeless.

Consider post-pandemic photos of classrooms in 2022.

“Aldine ISD teacher Danny Siegel or “Mr. Siegel” is one of the district’s newest middle school language arts teachers (June 2022)”. Credit: KHOU 11

“Kindergarten teacher Ana Zavala, at left, instructs students amid the COVID-19 pandemic at Washington Elementary School Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022, in Lynwood, Calif…..” (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

“Students during Venecia Proctor’s 4th grade language arts class at SCAPA, the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, on Lafayette Parkway in Lexington, Ky., Monday, Oct. 17, 2022. Brian Simms bsimms@herald-leader.com”

Social Studies Classroom at Enterprise High School (Enterprise, Alabama)–photo taken by Nick Brooks

These photos surely reveal the practice of masking–a timebound fact–but beyond that, the teacher is at the front of the classroom talking to the entire class while elementary, middle, and high school students listen, take notes, and respond to teacher questions. This way of teaching is, in a word, timeless (see here here, and here).

What do I mean by “timeless?” Consider that teacher talk historically has exceeded student talk by percentages of 85 to 15 and 75 to 25. In fact, researchers who have studied English as Second Language teachers even recommend that the ratio of teacher-talk to student-talk should be 70% to 30%.

Of course, there are more classroom practices in teachers repertoires beyond talking about content and skills. Most teachers draw from a kit bag of methods such as arranging small group work, having students converse in pairs, assigning students to do independent research, putting students into situations where they role play different historical and fictional characters, setting up classroom debates on an issue, administering quizzes and tests, giving students books to read and report to the rest of the class, and, of course, checking overnight homework. Teachers do a lot more to get students to learn beyond lecturing.

Even with these varied activities that teachers have at their fingertips, the timeless pattern is that teachers talk far more than students. One should expect that, of course, since the teacher possesses content knowledge and skills that students lack. That is why she is hired to teach the young. So teacher talk dominating lessons is timeless.

For those boosters of student-centered teaching, however, this timeless fact is a challenge. Advocates for more student talk during lessons want teachers to talk less and students talk more (see here and here) They seek to alter this timeless fact; they want student talk to be at least equal to teacher talk.

But in 2022, while teachers may be more aware of the volume and distribution of talk in their classrooms during lessons, altering this timeless fact is a Gibraltar-like task.

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