Don't Give Up on the Lecture

Teachers who stand in front of their classes and deliver instruction are not "out-of-touch experts"—they're role models.
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Students in a lecture class can give the impression of lethargy: Maybe a student sleeps in the back of the classroom, maybe others fidget and doodle. The students who are paying attention may be too focused on their notebooks to flash a look of understanding and inspiration.

Perhaps because of this negative initial impression, lectures are under attack these days. The Common Core standards place far greater value on small-group discussion and student-led work than on any teacher-led instruction. The term “lecture” is entirely out of fashion, as is the unqualified word “lesson.” On recent planning templates released by New York’s Department of Education, only the term “mini-lesson” is used. The term gets its diminutive status because of the fact that only 10 to 15 minutes on the hour are allotted for teacher-disseminated information, while the rest of the class period is focused on student-centered practice in groups or project based learning. But the mini lesson is not even accepted as the most progressive way of teaching. Champions of the "flipped classroom" relegate lectures to YouTube channels. In a recent interview here at The Atlantic, futurist David Thornburg declared that lectures created a depressing experience for him in school.

The tendency to see lecture-based instruction as alienating and stifling to student creativity is not altogether new. In Paulo Friere’s 1970 Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the lecturing teacher was cast as an arrogant imperialist. Alison King coined the flip expression “sage on the stage” in a 1997 article and, although more than half of King’s article consists of ideas for working small group approaches into otherwise lecture-centric courses, demonstrating that she was in no way looking to eliminate the lecture entirely, everyone from Common Core advocates to edtech disrupters has co-opted “sage on the stage” as license to heckle the “out-of-touch expert.” Nevertheless, there is immense value in lecture, and it must not be written off as boring and ineffective teaching.

In the 2010 study from Harvard’s Kennedy School “Is traditional teaching really all that bad?,” Guido Scwerdt and Amelie Wupperman tried to quantify the “sage-on-the-stage” model of education as compared to its counterpart, “guide-on-the-side,” in which a teacher designs an activity or learning experience for students and steps back from direct instruction. According to the data, students exposed to lecture more than other classroom activities showed more significant learning gains than their peers. The authors were careful to point out that this data need not be proscriptive. One of the study’s faults is that there is no way to account for the teachers who gravitate more towards lecturing because they excel at it, and those who encourage group work because they are comfortable managing such dynamics. 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. It is for these reasons I feel that lecturing can create a more democratic experience for students than a lesson that is entirely student-focused.

Mary Burgan, in her article for the Carnegie Foundation’s Change, has defended lectures writing that “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 in itself—regardless of the rewards of approval or popularity.” Richard Gunderman argues that the craft of the lecture is key to its value, maintaining that “Good lecturing is an art, and like other arts such as painting, musicianship, and writing, it takes real dedication and many hours of practice to excel at.”

For those who argue that such expertise is daunting to student confidence and the uniform pace diminishes student attention, Burgan points out that “being clueless in a discussion class is much more embarrassing and destructive of a student’s self confidence than struggling to understand in the anonymity of a lecture.” 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.

There is a reason TED talks are popular with students and adults alike. They are delivered on engaging topics, by engaging people, and they offer time for reflection by the audience. Ever since Susan Cain delivered her 2012 TED talk “The Power of Introverts,” the relative personality types introvert and extrovert have been all over the Internet as though the terms were just discovered. Especially since there is so much buzz around special merits of the undersung introvert, it is still surprising that the lecture format of learning is so commonly dismissed, and even disparaged. Is the teacher devoted to conveying serious concepts the best manager of a noisy, interactive classroom? Does it make sense to assume that a quiet student is always a disengaged student? There is no one method of education that fails across the board, only the occasional rigid ideology that criticizes “one-size-fits-all education” while discontinuing a few of the less popular sizes.

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Abigail Walthausen is a writer and high-school English teacher. She writes about technology and teaching the humanities at Edtech Pentameter.

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