To Lecture or Not to Lecture?

That is not the question. Teachers should focus on finding the best way to teach a particular skill, rather than dismissing or embracing one method outright.
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Dr. Juarez holds forth from the front of the classroom. Saying important and interesting things. About the distance between stars. Or the development of the sonnet. Or what makes a good interview question. Saying what she has to say cleverly. Eloquently. Clearly. Working through fascinating problems. Adding just the right bits of information. Driving her point home with a bit of wit, a touch of passion, just the right metaphor, the right photo overhead, the right analogy. Thomas sits on the front row, jotting furiously, glancing up at the board, back at the notebook. Maybe working through the concepts on his own terms. Maybe just writing things down to memorize for the test. Kayla sits a few rows back, casually working on her smartphone. Maybe taking notes. Maybe shopping for a gift for her sister. Sitting near the door, Shauna stares at the ceiling, her legs stretched out over several chairs. Maybe pondering the meaning of what’s being said. Maybe not.

It is odd that such an ordinary scene—the classroom lecture—would be the subject of sharp debate. But discussions of lecturing touch a nerve for people. All those “maybes” lend themselves to quite different interpretations. Detractors see lecturing as an outdated and outmoded approach to teaching, one that does not work and that, in fact, hinders many students’ ability and motivation to learn, except in shallow ways. These people advocate more active and interactive approaches. But supporters of lecturing don’t buy it. They see lecturing as a traditional and honorable method for passing on knowledge, communicating one’s passion for one’s subject, and modeling how to think.

In terms of how most teachers teach, those who support lecturing have the upper hand by far, especially in higher education. Lecturing remains, as Wilbert McKeachie, a professor emeritus at Kansas State University, notes, “the method most widely used in universities throughout the world.” But in terms of what theorists and researchers of education have to say, supporters of alternative methods pretty much have things in the bag. “Active learning” and its cousins serve as the paradigm for most who study teaching and learning, as reviews of the research literature attest (e.g. Donald A. Bligh’s, Michael Prince’s, and Julia Christensen Hughes and Joy Mighty’s on lecturing, active learning, and teaching and learning in higher education, respectively).

This situation makes the recent wave of defenses of lecturing all the more noteworthy. Examples include Barry Strauss’s “Big Is Beautiful,” Abigail Walthausen’s "Don't Give Up on the Lecture,” Adam Kotso’s “A Defense of the Lecture,” Moselio Schaechter’s “In Defense of the Lecture,” and Mary Burgan’s “In Defense of Lecturing.” In some ways these apologia accentuate the dividing line in the lecturing debate. They praise various aspects of lecturing, while criticizing alternative methods. These rhetorical moves reinforce the idea of a two-sided debate, lecturing vs. not lecturing. Their skirting of the research on the subject puts them on the less convincing side, in my view. But, more importantly, these writers also often point productively beyond the debate altogether, particularly when they qualify their arguments.

It turns out that these supporters of lecturing do not favor always, only, or just any kind of lecturing. Instead, they advocate skillful lecturing on purposeful occasions, as part of a repertoire that includes other teaching practices. Halfway through his essay, Strauss discards the lecturing/not lecturing binary altogether: “Different subjects, different people, different moods, all require different modes of teaching.” Others point in similar directions. Walthausen clarifies that she does not mean to promote lecturing outright but rather to argue that it shouldn’t be ruled out “across the board.” Lectures are only useful, Kotso adds, when “used in a conscious way.” They are only good when they are, well, good, insists Schaechter. After pointing out problems she finds with several alternative methods, Burgan ends on an inclusive note. Good teachers, she stresses, can help students learn “whether they lecture or conduct discussions.” Several of these writers take it for granted that lecture should lead to discussion.

Though often tucked out of the way, these caveats change everything. What is pitched as a two-sided debate—with “attacks” and “defenses”—turns out to be a disagreement with a lot of common ground. Looking back several decades, James Rehm,  executive editor of The National Teaching & Learning Forum, points out that discussions of lecturing and alternative methods have not always been so polarized. Supporters of lecturing rarely advocate only lecturing. Supporters of alternative ways of teaching rarely advocate never lecturing. Even the most lecture-based classrooms usually also involve readings, exams, question-and-answer, some discussion, sometimes even writing. Even the courses that most eschew the lecture model likewise involve moments of telling students things, however informally, briefly, open-endedly. If lecturing means telling students things, most teachers both lecture and do other things than lecture. The difference is a matter of degrees.

It is not helpful or inevitable to frame discussions of lecturing as a binary debate. Jason Stacy, a professor at Southern Illinois University, writes in his proposal for interactive lecturing that “teaching is not an either/or proposition.” But does that make disagreements about lecturing superfluous? Should teachers just teach as they like, lecturing, not lecturing, or doing a bit of both? Not quite. To lecture or not to lecture is not the question. But other questions remain. In a letter to the editor responding to Stacy’s essay, Arthur Green—a social studies consultant for New York City’s department of education—spells out clearly what teachers should ask and answer in selecting and justifying the way that they teach: “The decision as to pedagogical strategy relies heavily on the purpose of the particular instruction, the time available, the ability level of students, and the personality of the instructor. . . . What do you want to teach and why do you want to teach it? . . . How do you intend to structure your instruction so that students will learn what it is you want them to learn? How will you determine if learning has occurred?”

These questions lay at the heart of an approach commonly known as “backward design.” One begins with the end with what one want students to know and be able to do at the end of a course or curriculum and then works backward to figure out how best to get there. Backward design and related ways of thinking about teaching weld method to context, that is, to purpose, limitations, implementation, and evidence. Lecturing neither works nor does not work in any universal way. In certain situations and for certain ends, certain ways of lecturing may be shown to work. Others may not. The same goes for any method.

If we want to teach the Pythagorean Theorem, for example, we should first ask about our purpose, about what we want to accomplish. Do we want students to remember a2 + b2 = c2?  “Plug and chug” numbers through the formula? Solve real life angle-related problems? Understand why the theorem works? See what it illustrates about geometry as a whole? Appreciate the elegance of triangles? If we want students to remember the formula or use it on a test, giving a striking mnemonic and a quiz or a demonstration followed by drills might work just fine. If we want understanding, appreciation, or application, we might try a lecture. We might also try a reading, a video, a discussion, an essay, or a project asking students to design a birdhouse with a sloped roof.

We also should ask about what limitations we face. These include how many students we have to teach, what they already know about formulas, proofs, and shapes, and how much time, space, and materials we have available. Likewise, we should consider the implementation of whatever method or methods we use. “Lecturing can be done well or it can be done badly,” writes Stacy. The same obviously applies to other ways of teaching as well. How we do what we do matters. Finally, we should ask what evidence supports our decision, with respect to existing research and with respect to what we can document with our own students. Evidence matters because, as Harvard physicist Eric Mazur found out the hard way, a method may make sense, feel good, and win the approval of teachers and students and still not accomplish its intended purpose.

If we ask these questions carefully, we may sometimes come back with “lecture” as an answer. When we do, we should go ahead and lecture. And, as those who defend lecturing rightly insist, we should craft our lectures diligently and present them skillfully. Much has been written on ways to do that, including working moments of “active learning” into lectures. But often, when we ask these questions carefully, we will not come back with “lecture” as an answer, especially since there is little evidence to support the notion that lecturing regularly and at length helps many students understand concepts, become more interested in a subject, or develop thinking skills. In those cases when we do not find lecturing to best support our purpose, we should explore other options.

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Paul T. Corrigan is an assistant professor of English at Southeastern University. He writes at Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

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