Chanting in Unison

E D Hirsch comments that we should acknowledge the superiority of individual instruction, while realising that it is not viable in a large scale education system, and so we must, if we do not want to neglect most of our pupils, teach the whole class. It is the only practical option.

But I think we can go further than mere pragmatic necessity in our arguments in favour of teaching the whole class together. If we are focused on drilling key skills and inculcating key knowledge, then whole class teaching offers powerful possibilities that are unavailable in one to one tuition.

With the whole class, we can chant in unison. I usually begin my lessons reciting a classic poem or a speech from Shakespeare as the class walk in. They join in lustily as they come through the door. They enjoy it, and it’s a wonderfully simple and effective way of gradually filling their minds with beautiful and well known examples of English literature.

The experience of reciting a poem together with the whole class is educationally effective and it is personally satisfying. The class is joined together as it comes in, not fragmented into separate worlds, separate conversations. Speaking something out loud is enormously helpful in the process of memorisation. We build a muscle memory as sportsmen do with repeated practice.

The chanting in unison doesn’t end there. Whenever there is something important, a key concept or piece of information, we chant it together a few times, whether it’s the dates of the Tudor monarchs, the four cardinal virtues or the definition of an abstract noun. We often end the lesson reviewing in this way too.

It’s simple and effective, satisfying and enjoyable. It’s very traditional, and from the bemused looks on the faces of new pupils at the start of the year, I would judge that it’s quite unusual nowadays.

Why has this method fallen out of use? Probably because it goes completely against the grain ideologically. It makes very clear that there is definite, fixed knowledge to be acquired, that the teacher decides what that knowledge is, and the teacher works to inculcate it in the whole class through repetitive drilling. Perhaps it puts people in mind of totalitarian programmes of indoctrination. But at the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves whether we really want our pupils to learn a clearly defined body of knowledge. If we do, there are few methods more simple, satisfying and effective than chanting in unison.

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