In Defense of Lecture... Well, sort of

My former advisor, Matthew Booker, sent me an interesting blog post by Grant Wiggins about high school history teachers and lecturing in class. According to a survey conducted by the website, history teachers were more likely to lecture than teachers in any other discipline, with a majority lecturing for half the period or more (sometimes the whole period).

 Wiggins basically comes down on the issue of lecturing by saying that there are better ways to achieve our pedagogical goals as history teachers, and most of what we want to convey in lecture can be conveyed to students via printed materials. He even goes so far as to assert that he “can only see two good reasons for lecturing at length”:

1.     “You have done original research that isn’t written down in a book”

2.     “You have rich and interesting knowledge based on research that can overcome confusions and missing elements in the current course”

 I have mixed thoughts about lecturing. In class, there is no way to convey as much information as quickly as we can through lecture. For sure, students can and should get some (or perhaps all) of that information via their readings. But readings are not interactive. And it is hard for textbooks to model critical thinking and demonstrate how to analyze and use evidence to build historical interpretations—skills highly valued in our discipline.

 My thinking on lecture changed dramatically my last semester of TAing for a professor in her last semester before retirement. Even in a 70-person lecture class she made it a point to draw students into discussion while lecturing. The mix kept students on their toes but also disseminated lots of information. Part of her success was because she was very good at it, but the technique was great. Since then whenever I lecture I always use this interactive approach.

 My guess is that many educators find lecture a necessary evil. One defense I will make of high school history teachers lecturing is this: Frequently those history courses have 30+ students, and when you have that many high school students in a room a lot more of your time becomes classroom management than teaching. If we (as a society) could do a better job of getting that number down to 15-20 (or fewer!) students then teachers would have more flexibility to do collaborative activities and have more interactive discussions.

Anyway, all that to say, straight lecture probably is not the best classroom practice, even if it is sometimes seems necessary. However, mixing lecture with discussion, Socratic-style teaching, historical role-playing and games, etc. can be effective, in my opinion. Mixed methods help keep students interested and can cater to different learning styles. And, to be honest, it helps if you are good at it. We have all sat in classes with good lecturers who we wanted to hear talk and in classes with bad lectures where we probably nodded off.

 When lecturing becomes less about conveying information and more about involving students in the creative aspects of the historical discipline then it is worth including in our classrooms. Please leave supporting or dissenting opinions in the comments! I am very interested in hearing what others have to say.