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Patrick Halbrook

Can We Rehabilitate the Lecture?

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What place should lectures have in classical schools? How much class time should be devoted to them?

One of the most common pieces of advice teachers receive is, “Stop lecturing so much.” Do a quick Google search and you’ll find news articles with titles such as, "Students Don't Learn from Lectures” and "Lectures Aren't Just Boring, They're Ineffective, Too, Study Finds.” In classical schools, where we want students engaging and actively participating and developing their rhetoric skills, there seems to be even less reason to devote class time to having the teacher talk.

I want to push back against this a little (maybe a lot) and say that lectures have been disparaged way too much—or at least, they have been disparaged for the wrong reasons. This is not to say that the college lecture model is appropriate for K-12 education (or, possibly, even for college), or that lectures should be the sole or primary method of teaching. But I believe there is a tendency to way too easily dismiss the value of a good lecture.

Here are some factors I think we need to consider:

  1. If we’re basing our opinions about lectures on studies, the results are not unambiguous. Consider this example from a study of college students: “Students prefer good lectures over the latest technology in class.”
  2. Anyone—young or old—will sit up and listen to a good story. We are all creatures who think in stories, and engage with stories, and typically spend many hours a week engrossed in stories. A lecture that is structured with the elements of a good story ought to catch the attention of students and resonate in a memorable way.
  3. If we live in a world in which preaching is one of the most important forms of communication, the lecture cannot possibly be irrelevant. I have a friend who likes to talk about the ineffectiveness of lectures. Ironically, he’s also a preacher. His job, which largely consists of preparing and delivering a lecture every Sunday at 10:30 in the morning, is one of the most significant and influential in the world.
  4. Learning by listening is a skill students need to develop no less than learning by reading. If we see the value in encouraging students be able to sit down with a book and read, staying engaged for longer and longer periods of time, why would we not prioritize the same when it comes to oral communication?

I wonder, then, if the biggest problem in schools is not that teachers simply need to stop lecturing so much, but rather that teachers need to improve their rhetorical skills to learn how to deliver more effective lectures. Maybe we should be more concerned with learning how to avoid being boring by improving how we implement this method, rather than assuming that the method itself is the problem. Perhaps the solution also includes communicating more clearly to students what they need to get out of the lectures, providing ample opportunity for formative assessment of what they have learned within a shorter time frame (rather than waiting two weeks to find out when they review their notes for a test). Maybe there is much greater potential in what could be done with effective lectures than most teachers imagine, but we haven't noticed because we've been too busy denigrating them as a necessary evil.

What do you think? Do lectures deserve to be disparaged the way they usually are? And if we’re going to keep them around, how can we make them better? What nuances do we need to introduce into this discussion?

Edited by Patrick Halbrook

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I agree with you, and wholeheartedly support using lectures in high school classes.

Here are some of my thoughts on lectures.

1. In my opinion, even a poorly delivered (but well prepared) lecture will usually be more useful than the "share-the-ignorance" round-table technique which is so widely encouraged in high school classes.

2.  Lectures require a lot more from the teacher than round-table type discussions, because the teacher actually has to be very well-versed in his/her subject: the teacher should have a grasp of the issues at hand, should have formed some sort of reasoned opinions, and should have knowledge of related information that can only be known by some sort of research (e.g. historical circumstances, fall-out, contemporaries), and should be able to order and relate this knowledge in an engaging way. 

3. I would say the most useful lectures are well prepared, are somewhat conversational in tone, include some of the speaker's personal opinions, and occasionally ask for class input.



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Lectures can be very valuable, but I think it is helpful to acknowledge that different kinds of lectures exist.

1. Dedicated lecture: the lecturer possesses great knowledge on the subject, and can hold the attention of the listeners with just his knowledge and rhetorical skill. e.g. A really fine lecture on the Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan.

2. Lecture w/discussion: the lecturer wants to bring out several ideas, problems, scenarios, etc. for the purpose of setting up guided discussion of the points. The difference between this type of lecture and a dedicated discussion is the amount of set up required. e.g. A historian wishes to have his class compare two historiographical approaches to a particular historical event. He may lecture on the event and/or the approaches, and there may be some preliminary reading done by the listeners, but his purpose is to set up the discussion and facilitate the discussion to follow.

3. Lecture w/application: the lecturer wants to teach principle or concepts that will be applied either during the period or at some later point. The difference between this type of lecture and the dedicated lecture is that the dedicated lecture may not have any objective beyond the communication of the knowledge. e.g. Lecturing on Aristotle's logos, ethos, and pathos in conjunction with audience analysis prior to having students prepare a speech.

There may be more, but these come to mind as scenarios we might call, "lecture," but which look difference and require different skills by the teacher.

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On 12/15/2018 at 3:33 PM, DianaC said:

1. In my opinion, even a poorly delivered (but well prepared) lecture will usually be more useful than the "share-the-ignorance" round-table technique which is so widely encouraged in high school classes.

This is a great point. I love round-table discussions as much as anyone, but only when the students are well-prepared for them. I've found that these discussions work the best with a well-prepared leader (teacher or student) guiding the discussion without chasing any rabbits. I don't want to waste anyone's time, and, unfortunately, I've observed some round-tables that resulted in a whole lot of nothing being accomplished.  

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8 hours ago, Cheryl Floyd said:

Have you all read the article Josh Gibbs has posted at Circe on Socratic versus Lecture?


And the response article: https://www.circeinstitute.org/blog/sage-table-response-gibbs



I've read both. Much of the difficulty (as seemed evident in both articles) consists of agreeing on a definition of "Socratic method." In a way this is odd because Socrates (in more than one place, I think) describes his dialectical method in Gorgias and Phaedrus when contrasting it with rhetorical method. I don't think many (if any) teachers mean what Socrates means, though, and fewer are equipped (or desirous) to practice the rigorous logical approach Socrates exhibits. So what it seems is that certain aspects of Socrates' exchanges within Plato's dialogues have been taken, adapted, and applied in classrooms with his name attached. Maybe there is some school of training behind one or another method (like Harkness), but I don't know how consistent is the outcome of such training.

I think that Socrates (at least the Socrates of Plato's literary skill) knew where he was going in most of his conversations, because he has very specific questions and ready responses to answers, which he seems to have anticipated. In other words, in order to conduct the sort of inquiry Socrates conducts, one must have done a lot of preparatory thinking, whether on one's own or in a group of like-minded thinkers, before being prepared to engage with an opposing viewpoint as skillfully and consistently as he does.

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