Beyond the Lecturing Debate

Detail of Cicero Denounces Catiline by Palazzo Madama (1889)

I consider all of the following propositions accurate:

  1. Lecturing represents a time-honored tradition of passing on knowledge through speech.
  2. Lecturing gets in the way of learning, big time.
  3. Lecturing serves as a convenient punching bag for advocates of other approaches.
  4. Nothing would benefit higher education more than for more teachers to give up lecturing as much as they do and explore other approaches.
  5. Lecturing—as one tool among many—can be practiced well or poorly and serves some purposes better other than others.
  6. Lecturing as a subject of debate offers an opportunity to clarify some things about teaching.
  7. There is no such thing as lecturing. There are many different things that get lumped together under that one term.

If these statements appear contradictory, that may be less because they are than because we often hear only the pro- and anti- positions in debates about lecturing. Recently, I voiced a more nuanced perspective in TheAtlantic.com (“To Lecture or Not To Lecture?“) and on Wisconsin Public Radio (“Lecture When It Works, Don’t Lecture When It Doesn’t“). The purpose of this post is to share those two items and add a few comments. (I almost titled this post “Ten Things I Wish I Said on the Radio.”)

In the essay in TheAtlantic.com, I put forth that we ought to consider method in light of context—that is to say, purpose, limitations, implementation, and evidence. Such a view by no means originates with me. In the same spirit, for instance, G. Gibbs writes, “there is far more lecturing going on than can reasonably be justified by the evidence concerning the efficiency of lectures, especially bearing in mind the nature of the educational goals we claim to be striving for.” It is the ongoing misunderstanding and misuse of lecturing that justify continued discussion.

While lecturing may not have an inherent problem, it certainly does have a historical one. Because it has been the default method for so many for so long, it has been used unreflectively and poorly more than any other approach. One could imagine the small group discussion or the online discussion forum eventually getting to the same place.

To avoid talking at cross purposes, as often happens in debates about lecturing, I propose we distinguish between lecturing (with a lower case l) and Lecturing (with a capital L). The one represents a method, the other an entire approach. The one represents a brick, the other an entire building made only of bricks. Some who lecture do so on occasion and on purpose. Others lecture as if lecturing were synonymous with teaching. They Lecture. Unreflectively, regularly, and at length.

The difference does not have to do with lecturing ability, with charisma, or with the selection, organization, and presentation of material. I’m not distinguishing between lecturing poorly and lecturing effectively. I’m distinguishing between a tool that can be used for teaching and a way of teaching that, in effect if not in intent, makes that tool a purpose unto itself. A mediocre lecturer may, with intentionality, deliver a lecture that gives students just what they need at just the right moment. Inversely, a captivating lecturer may, without intentionality, deliver lecture upon lecture that accomplish little.

While lecturing may suit a range of pedagogical purposes, Lecturing suits itself. Of course, we would be hard put to draw a precise line separating the two. But we might  imagine lecturing/Lecturing lying along a continuum. The trick is to not trick ourselves into thinking we are only lecturing when a more objective observer would find us actually Lecturing.

lecturing / Lecturing continuum

Since lecturing has been the most common default for hundreds of years—since lecturing has been in effect synonymous with Lecturing—it is understandable that it has come “under attack these days,” as Abigail Walthausen complains. But neither attacking nor defending lecturing outright makes sense. We should not be against lecturing per se but against default-based teaching.

In sum, I find two scenarios difficult to imagine. I find it difficult to imagine many teachers reading the scholarship on and seriously experimenting with alternative methods—active learning, collaborative learning, problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, the flipped classroom, discussion method, case study method, writing to learn, and so on—and then making an informed decision to lecture extensively, relentlessly, solely, or in a traditional manner. I also find it difficult to imagine many teachers doing all of that and then making an informed decision to never lecture again.

Detail of Cicero Denounces Catiline by Palazzo Madama (1889)
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3 responses to “Beyond the Lecturing Debate

  1. In an article “Curmudgeonly Comments Concomitant to Corrigan’s ‘To Lecture or Not to Lecture?’,” online as a 2.9 MB pdf at http://bit.ly/1nA6z5e, I borrow from and supplement Corrigan’s “Atlantic” article “To Lecture or Not to Lecture?” and his present blog entry “Beyond the Lecturing Debate” to include discussion of the following: (1) Lecturing is prevalent but “active learning” is advised by researchers. (2) Nevertheless, some academics defend “lectures.” (3) But such academics often advocate lecturing *along with* “active learning.” (4) Corrigan distinguishes “lecturing” from “Lecturing.” (5) Physics education research emphasizes *higher-level learning* and distinguishes “lecture” from *passive-student-lecture.*(6) Positive and negative depictions of the lecture.(7) Depictions of “active learning.” (8) Literary and YouTube criticism of the passive-student-lecture. (9) Nine anti-passive-student-lecture articles. (10) Twelve pro-lecture articles or books. (11) Should One Lecture or Not Lecture?

    • Richard, Thanks for quoting my pieces in your article and for sharing the link to it here. I hope folks will click over to it and read it. The pages of references (and your annotations on some of the sources) offer quite a resource.

  2. Pingback: Beyond the Lecturing Debate | Ideas for Teachin...·

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