Monday, November 25, 2013


Lecturing is out. All the educational reformers are down on it, and their numbers seem to show that time spent working in small groups leads to more learning. The dissatisfaction with lecturing started with leftists, who thought it represented an authoritarian model of education, but it has now spread across the political spectrum; the new Common Core standards for elementary through high school education emphasize group work.

I have to say that as a student I HATED working in small groups with other students. Absolutely hated it. Except for science labs, I never saw the point and never thought I learned a thing from it. I wanted to learn from somebody who knew more about the subject than I did, not listen to my peers natter on about their own ill-informed opinions. I liked seminars, because I liked talking to my professors, but mainly I took lecture courses. I loved them. And I learned a vast amount in college. Looking back from 30 years later, I find that I remember a lot of very specific things from my lectures, but only one thing springs to my mind from a discussion section. (A debate about the origins of the Peloponnesian War, for certain readers who may also remember it.) I just asked my college student daughter whether she preferred lectures or discussions and she answered, "Discussion classes were invented by Satan to give stupid, ignorant people a chance to voice their opinions."

High school teacher Abigail Walthausen has a little article on the Atlantic defending the lecture as a teaching technique:
As a college student, I was often advised by well-meaning adults to sign-up for seminars rather than lectures in order to get “face time.” To be perfectly honest, though, the lecture format, far more than the noisy seminar, enabled me to think deeply about a topic rather than being distracted by poorly planned and redundant comments from peers (often aggravated by a teacher who is reluctant, for fear of being too top-down in terms of pedagogy, to deflect them). Besides frustration with the dominant participants in many a seminar class, I have also wasted time distracted by the anxiety that I had to race others to an appropriate comment in order to accumulate those necessary class participation points.
Like Walthausen, I did a lot of great thinking sitting in dim lecture halls. Lecturing is not enough -- people also need practice speaking and writing and doing things, but I still think reading and listening are great ways to learn. As Walthausen notes, TED talks are enormously popular. My dropout sons are among the millions of people who encounter mind-stretching ideas mainly at the TED web site, and they regularly tell me about cool talks they have heard.

I have a feeling that if we really understood this we would see that students are all different, and that some learn best with one method and some with another. That, after all, is the way most things work.

In my own teaching I try to mix lecturing with class discussion, typically about half of each. While I am lecturing I show lots of pictures, because I am an intensely visual person and can't remember what I can't visualize. So far this format has worked pretty well for me.

I am certainly not ready to give up on lecturing, and I was glad to read Walthausen's defense.


Abby said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response to my article, John.

pootrsox said...

Lecture vs whatever else...

If the lecturer is stimulating, on topic, has many specific examples, preferably with visuals and even sound bites then yes-- lectures have value for many learners. They are especially valuable if structured so that note-taking does not become a "so busy writing that you don't process what's being said" process.

If the instructor in a seminar or discussion-style class is afraid of what the students will think of him/her-- letting the students natter on and/or dominate everyone else, then yes, such classes lose their legitimacy as tools for most students' learning.

Then there are those of us who don't really process information until we discuss it. You know, the "I don't know what I think till I say it" folks. I'm often one of those.

In other words, great teachers usually use some of each style: lecture, visual aids, discussion. And group work, too-- because in the world of work these days, having the skills to work collaboratively is becoming more important. (Visiting my daughter for T'giving, I got to hear her on a conference call relating to an open house her department is running-- collaborative work in action.)

The lectures I remember most vividly are those where the professor droned on, reading from his (or her in one case) yellowed lecture notes, exhibiting deeply annoying verbal ticks. And I *am* an aural learner. I just learn best when I'm part of the exploration of ideas, not merely a passive note-taker.

NOTE: Group work needs to have both a purpose and a useful product to be valid. And the hard part for instructors is determining what to do about those group members who do diddly-squat.