To lecture or not to lecture

It’s Sunday night, and I should be grading. But two articles popped up on my Facebook newsfeed this weekend and they’re on my mind, distracting me. So I’m writing here, to help me process my thoughts (and hopefully to have a more productive grading session soon).

Both of these articles deal with college lecture. I am not a college professor, I teach high school students, so the setting is different, but lecture is something that I have struggled with as a relatively new teacher, both in implementation and philosophically. Annie Murphy Paul wrote an article about whether college lectures are unfair and inherently biased towards white, male, affluent students. Paul’s article points out that many studies have shown that “active learning” benefits all students, but particularly women, minorities, and low-income students. Her parting question is “Given that active-learning approaches benefit all students, but especially those who are female, minority, low-income and first-generation, shouldn’t all universities be teaching this way?” And I will say honestly that overall I agree with Paul’s assessment, at least for the sciences. When students interact directly with the concepts that we are trying to teach them, they have concrete experiences to draw upon when organizing their knowledge in their own brains. And perhaps particularly for science, where students’ lived experiences can be so different from one another, having a shared classroom experience to draw upon can help immensely when students are asked to apply knowledge to a new scenario and defend their line of reasoning.

Molly Worthen recently wrote a rebuttal defending the college lecture course. Worthen’s article seems to be primarily defending lecture in the humanities. And I honestly cannot comment on that- I did not go to a liberal arts school, I majored in engineering and was at a small school where my classes were about 30 students and “lectures” were mostly the professor working out example problems on the board. Worthen, however, points out that lecture can teach comprehension and reasoning, and says “In the humanities, a good lecture class does just what Newman said: It keeps students’ minds in energetic and simultaneous action. And it teaches a rare skill in our smartphone-app-addled culture: the art of attention, the crucial first step in the “critical thinking” that educational theorists prize.”

I find Worthen’s article particularly intriguing because she speaks about how the humanities are often called upon to follow the lead of the sciences in terms of teaching methods. My gut response to her article was “well, those lectures sound amazing” but also “is there something different about the nature of science vs. social science that would make lecture more appropriate in one setting vs. the other?” (I’m inclined to answer my question with “yes”, but I honestly don’t know the answer.)

The more that I read and think about education and education policies and pedagogy, the more I realize that what we would really, really like is some “magic bullet” that will work for all students regardless of anything else. As if there is some mythical perfect instructional strategy that will work across the board. But I don’t think that such a strategy exists (I do want to be careful here, because this type of thinking can easily translate to “well, those groups of students need direct instruction but these students can handle open-ended, inquiry-based learning” which is a dangerous line of thought to go down.) At this point in my teaching career, all I can really say is that one format does not seem to work all the time [in terms of topics and where students are at developmentally rather than in terms of different student populations]. I struggle with lecture in my science classes because there is a lot of evidence out there that lecture is not an effective way to teach (science, at least). I also struggle with lecture because I don’t think I’m very good at it. But even with all the small group work that we do in my classroom (things that would be readily labeled as “active learning”), I still want to have whole-class discussions (would you call it a lecture?) to bring students back and help them put together the big picture of what they’ve been working on in their small groups. And the small-group to whole-class transition is one of the places where I struggle as a teacher. But it’s sometimes necessary, and maybe right now it’s because of time constraints and a huge curriculum map, to just tell them how to do something or what something means.

So I guess I wouldn’t throw lecture out entirely, that would seem like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But I do think that we as teachers need to think more carefully about our lectures, to make them into the engaging experience that Worthen talks about. And I would like to revisit the term “active learning”, because I find it incredibly hard to always know, just from looking at a student, whether they are “actively learning” or not. Even an activity that is designed for active learning can quickly become passive for students. And an activity that seems to be passive on the surface (such as a traditional lecture) can be very active if the student knows what to do with it. So, then, how do we teach students to be active learners regardless of the format with which they are presented the material? That’s my real goal as a teacher. And I’ve been trying (harder? again?) this year to help students navigate groupwork, to help them engage in their small group settings and make small groups productive. (There was also an Atlantic article about how schools are overlooking introverts with all the emphasis on group learning… As an introvert but also a believer in group learning, I have thoughts on this one as well, but it will have to wait for another night. Grading calls.)

One thought on “To lecture or not to lecture

  1. This line of thinking is all very interesting to me (maybe not surprisingly). What I’ve been thinking a lot lately is the difference between “active learning” meaning touching materials or even working in small groups versus “active learning” meaning a high value and emphasis on student-to-student discourse. The more I think about my own teaching and my observations of others, the more I think that discourse is really the key. It definitely happens a bit in the small groups, but I think the bigger goal needs to be quality, useful student-to-student discourse in those larger, full class discussions that you mention.

    I was actually thinking about this earlier today in the context of using whiteboards. I think a lot of people use them as large, easy-to-erase paper—and that’s definitely part of why they are great. But I think the real value of them is as a tool for structuring discourse in the classroom that isn’t managed or directed by the teacher. Okay, I could go on forever here, but I’ll stop for now. Great post. Thank you! 🙂

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