In defense of the lecture

This semester I’ve been participating in a faculty book club on Learner-Centered Teaching.  In many ways, probably the best book I’ve read on college teaching– and I’ve read a lot.  The phrase that really sticks with me is “the one who does the work, does the learning.”  Implication: students passively absorbing a lecture just aren’t getting as much.  This book fits in with much of the research calling for teachers to be more “guide on the side” than “sage on the stage.”  One question I brought up during our discussions was, “what if you are really good at lecture and only average at facilitating discussions and small-group work?”  I.e., me.  Sure, I can improve at being a “guide on the side” with work, but I’m quite sure I’ll never be as good at that as I am at giving a lecture (which, at the risk of being immodest– a risk I frequently take– I’m pretty damn good at).  Comparative advantage suggests I should therefore lecture.  But what if students really would learn more from me as an average facilitator?  Hmmm.  I do like to think– and don’t think I’m fooling myself– that in my lectures, which are highly interactive, the students are decidedly not just passive consumers of information and that they really are doing some of the “work” of learning.

Thus, I was particularly happy to come across this piece in the Atlantic defending the value of the lecture:

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? [emphasis mine] 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…

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…

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.

I really don’t think we need to be either or when it comes to good teaching.  In my Intro class yesterday I delivered a bang-up lecture on Civil Rights in which I guarantee you nearly every student in the large lecture hall was engaged and in which they actually learned some key concepts about Civil Rights that they will be able to recall in the future.  In my afternoon class, the whole period was small-group and whole-class discussion about women and men’s changing roles in society and the workplace.  I felt great about both classes yesterday.  I think that as long as a lecture is a dry recitation of facts, sure it has to go.  But I think a dynamic, engaging lecture from somebody who knows what their doing should always have a role (though, surely not the sole one)  in education.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

3 Responses to In defense of the lecture

  1. John F. says:

    I think the puritanical model of education where the notion of “work” is the defining characteristic is where education breaks down. Education is not work, it’s a challenge; a challenge to preconceived notions or for the consideration of previously unexplored areas of thought. The reason why TED Talks (and your lectures) are so engaging is because they challenge the student to see things from another perspective, or to consider a perspective they previously spent no time on; to question the nature of the problem or issue without simply being handed an answer or fact within the narrow context of the lecturer’s perspective. It is only when students are challenged to critically analyze that true learning is inculcated and lasting. When a teacher accomplishes this great feat they leave a lasting legacy beyond the minutia of the topic being addressed.

    Children are born into the world curious and open to possibilities and are taught to close off their minds in order to put concepts in narrow, comfortable, neat little boxes. A true teacher (at least of young adults) guides them through opening these boxes to reinvigorate the process they were naturally born capable of doing. I imagine some of the resistance that you may experience, especially in critiques of your methods i.e. your little “l” liberal approach, is that some have been taught this compartmentalizing lesson so well they don’t appreciate the challenge to their well-learned prejudices. And for those of us who do, true learning is affectuated. So, thanks.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Why thanks, John. Though, what the author (and I) mean by do the “work” is to actively engage, think about, and process information. As opposed to just writing down a bunch of facts about the Senate, or whatever. I think, perhaps, that all else being equal it is harder to get students to do this “work” in a lecture, but that a good lecture certainly makes it happen.

  2. H. Jenrette says:

    Many years ago when I was an undergraduate, I hated group work, just hated it.
    All group members are not equally motivated or even capable. I thought I ended up doing most of the work because it was the only way I was going to be in a group that produced a decent product. Maybe it’s different in the workplace with the job at risk.
    I loved classes with good lecturers. Their depth of knowledge opened up new information and even better opened new to me ways of looking at the material. Especially when there was some interaction between the lecturer and the students.
    What benefit is it to a student who wants to learn in depth to have a well qualified professor and then be expected to learn from other students who know no more than I do? And often weren’t as interested in the material as I am.
    If you want to learn something or to see the possiblities, choose a mentor who is excited and learned in his field.

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