Considering the Benefits of Lecture

One of the rules I was told during my student teaching placement was, “we don’t use the word lecture, they are discussions.” This placement was at a middle school in an area with growing gang problems and trouble with student engagement. The thought was that ‘discussions’ would better engage students. Not a bad idea, but here’s the thing, calling a ‘lecture’ a ‘discussion’ doesn’t make it one and even if it is a discussion that doesn’t solve the issue of student engagement.

I’ve read two a pieces recently that made me consider lectures, Teach Like a Pirate and this interview with Jordan Shapiro. Both pieces have a similar sentiment that lecture isn’t inherently bad, student engagement is the key and engagement doesn’t just happen based on the activity or technology alone, but on the teacher.

In general lectures are appropriate for some activities and unnecessary for others. When we learned about metals, semi-metals, and nonmetals this year it made more sense to have the students investigate their properties and compile the information on their own. When I talked about electron energy levels and fluorescence/phosphorescence giving a lecture on PearDeck let me show my enthusiasm for mineral samples, display one off my ‘vintage’ My Little Pony toys as an example (its from my childhood, I bill it as an expensive collectible, which I doubt it is), and display my general interest in understanding how concepts we often take for granted work.

People talk about lectures as being a poor instructional choice because, when you think back to school, lectures are not the activities you remember. To those people I say, “Maybe you just had teachers who were not engaging”.

My sister still talks about the impact of a lecture in 8th grade History about the word ‘tolerance’ and how that shouldn’t be our end goal.

I had a teacher in 6th grade who, as a brief part of a math lecture, showed us that a triangle maintains the same area if you slide the one of the vertices parallel to the opposite side. (A really basic idea because it just reinforces the idea that a=1/2bh and thus height and area would remain the same). But I left obsessed with the idea and went home and spent the afternoon considering how this same idea could be applied to other shapes.

I could talk about one of my Physics professors in college who would spend the Friday lecture talking to us about stealth aircraft and aircraft carriers and explain the physics to all of it.

Or I could wax poetic about my high school MUN/History teacher who held us entranced by the lectures that she gave every day. Or her stories about locking herself to an elevator in Berkeley during her wild days.

And maybe that is the key. A lecture needs to engage, but to do that it needs to ignite a passion to know more or a desire to listen to the story unfold. These lectures were not engaging and memorable because they were ‘discussions’, but because of how the teacher conveyed the material and made it important.

Not every lecture will catch every student, and we shouldn’t be presenting all material that way. Like any instructional strategy we should consider when we use it and why. But we shouldn’t see it as a word that needs to be banned from our vocabulary or a practice that should be abandoned altogether.


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