I’ll quite happily admit it: we used the textbook in History this week.

*pause for outrage*

OK so my Year 9 students used the sources in the textbook relating to the changing role of women on the Home Front in Australia during World War Two. They had to answer the various questions relating to what the source said about women and their roles at the time (content, perspective) and also think about the sources themselves (type, origin, motives, audience), whilst also assessing them for usefulness and reliability. Several layers of analysis all working together.

By setting them quite a significant amount of source analysis work, without me doing my usual song-and-dance routine introducing the topic and making sure they had “the basics” before launching into [insert student-centred activity here], it allowed them to do what I really hope all students of history begin to do by Year 9 (if not earlier): ask questions.

They asked questions of the sources, they asked questions of each other, they asked questions of me. To their great frustration, I didn’t give them any answers. I just asked more questions. Or perhaps I suggested that someone else in the class might have already thought about it… so go ask them.

What began was a classroom full of discussion, debate and argument over almost each and every source. This wasn’t a lawless wasteland of learning where teachers from surrounding classrooms felt the need to rush in with fire hoses and stun guns, despite only being separated by a not-very-soundproof-at-all glass wall. This was a steady and reasonable hum of conversation and interaction with me simply poking and prodding the conversations as I moved from cluster to cluster.

Yes, I had to prod some students to remain on task if the conversation wandered over to One Direction territory or what they were up to on the weekend, but I’m not fibbing when I say that the vast majority of kids were actually arguing over what the sources said – might have said, should have said, could have said – about women at the time.

Student A: “But that’s totally sexist to say that about women!” 
Student B: “Yeah but like it was published in a newspaper so maybe people didn’t care about that. And MAYBE that’s their point! They didn’t WANT women out of the kitchen!”

Student C: “This source is a picture… like a photo”
Student D: “No wait, it’s a cartoon which is totally different because it’s just someone’s opinion!”
Student C: “But their opinion can be right, can’t it?”

Learning doesn’t happen between the teachers’ pen and the whiteboard, or the projector and its screen. Learning doesn’t happen when a student has a workbook full of writing that they can’t recall having written. Learning doesn’t happen when the learner is silent and compliant and merely the receptacle of knowledge. Learning happens when the learner is forced to think, challenged to rethink, made to interact and encouraged to be productively wrong.

Too often we restrict conversations because it’s hard to document as evidence of learning for accountability’s sake. I think as educators we can take a professional stand to say that in a world of global hypercommunication, thinking and learning can – and should – be recognised in a variety of forms.  Don’t make them shut up for the sake of it.

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