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.