I’m sure you’ve read, somewhere, a rant against Boring Old University Farts Lecturing In A Monotone and thus Preventing Active Learning.
I must say, even though I took six years to collect an undergraduate degree, and heard a number of lectures while I was doing it (as well as experiencing various other types of classroom activities), I never heard anyone lecture in a monotone. In fact, my only experience with this was very recent. At a conference this fall, I heard someone read from a paper held close to the face, in a monotone, and I thought, “Wow, maybe this is the source of all those rants.” The speaker was quite animated in private conversation; I think the problem was poor eyesight and a laser focus on just getting the paper delivered, without any frills like eye contact or performative speech.
But I digress, as is my wont.
Anyway, according to this pedagogical theory, we university teachers are not supposed to lecture. We must engage our students in active learning, discussion, projects, teaching one another, all learning together. According to this model, the students learn more this way than they could from lecture. Also according to this model, students are independent thinkers, responsible for their own education, able to adjust their approach to their projects in accordance with their own learning styles.
It is not, at the moment, my purpose to critique this theory, though if you want to do so in the comments, or give links to people who have already done so, please do. I just want to note that the theory gives considerable agency to students.
OK. Now you have probably also seen the reports on how professional actors lecturing from a script get better teaching evaluations than the professor with the real expertise in the subject area. Well, of course we all like to be entertained; but doesn’t that experiment show that lectures can be both entertaining and informative? And further: students also report that they prefer lectures from professors—people whose expertise they recognize—rather than working with their peers, who don’t know as much as their professors. Students feel they are paying to learn from experts, not to try to teach each other.
Now, if we grant students agency, if we say that we trust them to know how they learn best and what they need, should we not then take their desire for lively, informative lectures seriously? A good lecture provides a framework for reading and writing (or projects and homework) done outside of class; it’s a starting point, raising questions for students to consider and try to find answers to, or a finishing point, rounding up answers and synthesizing the work that has (one hopes) happened outside of the classroom. Oh, but students don’t really know what’s good for them; we should force them to do the active learning projects etc. because that’s how they’ll learn more . . . . But if they don’t know what’s good for them, why must we then treat them as if they did?
Actually, I have spent my career thus far teaching almost entirely via discussion, with relatively little lecture, or at least, little that’s formally planned. My students have discovered that what they think is a simple question can easily wind me up for a 10-20 minute lecture. I can often predict at what point in the semester someone will ask the question that triggers the lecture on the Black Death, or on medieval demography, or various other topics that I can cover apparently extemporaneously. That is, I want to get those lectures into the class somewhere, but the particular day doesn’t matter; the questions are going to come up, and then I will let my tape unspool.
Such teacher-training as I had emphasized discussion, in part because we were dealing with small (17 or fewer students) classes, where it was easy to make sure everyone was participating, and in a student population where it was easy to devise good discussion questions and ways to get students to prep so that really informative, significant discussion would happen. And there’s nothing so much fun as going in and having a really good talk with smart, interested people about topics that interest all of us. That model worked quite well for me for a long time, even at my current job, where the classes are twice the size and the students are a very different population.
Times change, though, and people change, and students change. I’ve alluded here and in comments on other people’s posts to some of the changes I’ve been noticing this fall. In short: my students are smart, and certainly engaged in their own education (most of them), but definitely lacking in the kind of preparation, and the kind of doing-college skills, that I could expect nearer the beginning of my career. They seem to profit enormously, disproportionately, from lectures that give them a framework for their readings, and they are (many, not all) nearly helpless to even begin constructing such a framework for themselves, as I was expected to do in much of my undergraduate work.
And I remember (digressing again) wishing someone would provide such a framework: even though I was able to build one up for myself, I did, at that stage of my life, feel it might be a waste of my time to do so when I could have got one from a professor and used it as a springboard to get me further into the material. Am I glad I did the frame-building myself, was it useful after all? I don’t know. It’s what happened. It was my formation. I am the thinker, the scholar, the professor I am because of it; but I don’t think it was the best or only way that my education could have proceeded. It’s useful to build your own frames, but it can also be useful to start with a nice sturdy frame someone else has constructed and focus on adding the wallboard and the wiring. I guess it depends on what you think you’re teaching: how to frame a house, or how to finish it?
At any rate, while I think there are places for discussion, and for the kinds of projects that require students to frame and solve problems on their own, I also think that (a) there is a place for lecture, (b) lectures are not in and of themselves boring, (c) if we’re considering students as independent adult thinkers then we should pay attention to what they say they want and value, (d) they say they want and value lecture from their professors, and so (e) I should lecture more.