Save the Lecture

Teachers today are frequently told to avoid lecture for more project-based learning. The catchphrase of the era is that teachers should move from being the "sage on the stage" to the "guide on the side." Teachers are urged to be "learning designers" or "learning facilitators," which is another way of saying that the teacher should try to reduce his or her visibility within the classroom. The arguments for this trend are what you'd expect -- concern over waning attention spans, student boredom, and the possibilities opened up by more hands-on, collaborative projects.

But Abigail Walthausen urges teachers not to give up on the lecture. Writing recently at The Atlantic, she notes a 2010 Harvard study that revealed "students exposed to lecture more than other classroom activities showed more significant learning gains than their peers." While the study didn't suggest that lecture was always the preferred option, it leads Walthausen to ask:


If the community of educators has agreed to value student learning styles, why not allow adults the freedom to play to their own strengths as well? I certainly know that while I am articulate in facilitating student discussion, my communication breaks down and I am a weaker teacher in a noisy room. For my high-school students, I know there is great value in teaching them how to use their notebooks to respond as I talk--it gives many of them lead time in developing questions and comments that they can be proud of contributing to discussion later in the class.

I don't know many teachers who prefer lecture alone, but I do know many teachers (including myself) who find it valuable. There are a few reasons why lecture is helpful. Without being exhaustive, here are four:

(1) Efficiency. Sometimes, lecture is the most efficient way to communicate a lot of information or a complex concept. A thirty-minute lecture can often achieve far more in a shorter amount of time than a group project or private reading.  

(2) Explanation. Lecturing gives teachers the chance to explain or unfold a difficult concept. When I review proofs for God's existence, for example, lecturing gives me the chance to explain the ideas step-by-step. I know I have my students' attention (granted, some might not be fully engaged), and I can ensure they access the arguments through the language and the reasoning that is most effective and proper. Lecturing also allows for immediate flexibility: if, for example, a number of students are not understanding something, I can switch the language I'm using or offer different metaphors or use better examples. I can tweak the presentation based on immediate feedback.

(3) Focus. Lecturing allows teachers to direct students to the most important material. In a semester or two of class, a lot of interesting material simply cannot be covered. An Old Testament class, for example, cannot cover the entire Old Testament, in all its depth, in one semester. Lecture allows me to reinforce the material that is most crucial, and it allows me to summarize large chunks of text that I cannot -- because of time -- expect students to read.  

(4) Commonality. Lecturing gives students a common language and reference point. This is helpful when they begin to collaborate or study together. For example, if I lecture on allegory and the Old Testament, and I talk about historical versus spiritual truth, I can ensure that all of my students will use the same terms. It then allows them to talk to one another about the same concepts without confusion or distraction. 

Those are a few reasons for the value of lecture, but I leave you with a passage from Walthausen which highlights another, and which I think is one of the most important: "Mary Burgan, in her article for the Carnegie Foundation's Change, has defended lectures writing that 'teachers are irreplaceable as models of knowledgeable adults grappling with first principles in order to open their students' understanding,' but also that a 'passionate display of erudition [is] valuable itself--regardless of the rewards of approval or popularity.'"

I couldn't agree more.

See Walthausen's full article here.  


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Vince Killoran
4 years 6 months ago
The article ignores a vast amount of research in cognitive psychology on learning on why expert teachers are moving away from lectures. The story makes the movement away form lectures to be a fad or a trend and not based research and data on learning. The Harvard study authors found that increased lecturing led to increases of only around 5% of a standard deviation in student test scores, and results for high- and low-achieving students were not statistically significant. Also, the "test" in question only measured factual knowledge, not problem-solving skills. (They are up-front with these facts.) So even the evidence in lecture's favor isn't extremely compelling, A study from the Stanford Graduate School of Education proclaimed the advantages of "hands-on" approached to instruction, of the efficacy of the "flipped classroom". It happens that this study focused on comparison of techniques for teaching neuroscience. The findings were featured in the April-June issue of IEEE Transactions on Learning Technologies.


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