The Value of Lecture in the 21st Century Classroom


All over Twitter and on edblogs many educators have been busy dismissing the pedagogical value of lectures. Citing statistics such as students only learn 5 percent of what they hear in a lecture and declaring that the days of lecturing are or should be over, these same educators are likely to tweet their praise of tedtalks , sometimes even in their very next tweet. Such is the paradox pertaining to lecture in this age of 21st century learning. On one hand our current educational climate has raised the lecture to its highest heights in terms of the privileging of ted talks and the explosion of flipped classrooms and moocs. On the other hand we are constantly being told that “lecture doesn’t=learning”.  Yet these statistics and statements flummox me as I believe they are misleading. A good lecturer would never expect a student to master the material from lecture alone. A good teacher would never rely on lecture alone. Lecture is only one of the tools teachers, especially humanities teachers, use to paint a picture for our students and create a coherent narrative, one which our students participate actively in crafting though their readings, viewings, and writings.

There is a place for lecture in the 21st century. The best defense of the lecture I have read comes from Richard Gundererman in The Atlantic. In his Article: Is the Lecture Dead, Gunderman examines the trend of eliminating lectures from medical and nursing schools during the past five years. With many medical schools limiting significantly the percentage of time a professor can spend lecturing, Gunderman launches into a thoughtful argument and states “recalling the words of Mark Twain, widespread reports of the lecture’s demise are somewhat exaggerated.”

Lectures, according to Gunderman, still have value as long as they are excellent lectures because

The core purpose of a great lecturer is not primarily to transmit information. To this end, other techniques, such as assigning a reading in a textbook or distributing an electronic copy of the notes, can be equally effective. The real purpose of a lecture is to show the mind and heart of the lecturer at work, and to engage the minds and hearts of learners….

A great lecturer tells a story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It poses problems that it proceeds to address, and it keeps learners in suspense, waiting to see how they can be worked out. Great lecturers often share responsibility for solving these problems with learners, working with them in real time to find a solution. Learners are not merely sitting and passively listening. Far from it, they are challenged and engaged, actively thinking and imagining right along with the lecturer as both struggle toward new insights.

I agree with Gunderman when he argues that not every teacher should lecture as not every teacher is a talented lecturer, and not even the most talented lecturer should lecture to the exclusion of all else, but the lecture is still a sound pedagogical tool with value in the high school classroom and beyond.

My own experience both as a student and a team teacher has taught me the value of the lecture. I still remember the excellent lectures I attended while an English major at UVA especially those of  Steven Cushman, Deborah McDowell, and Joseph Kett. Their lessons still inform my teaching today. I certainly learned more than 5% and have retained it for a decade and a half. I have also been privileged to team teach with some phenomenal and dynamic lecturers. In American Studies we spend sometime in each unit lecturing. While this isn’t my strong suit at all, I tend to be a better discussion leader and facilitator, we have found great utility in the lectures given by our most talented lecturer. Our lectures are successful because we don’t expect students to get the details and facts from the lecture. Instead our lectures help our students see the fuller picture, understand and be able to identify the story our curriculum is teaching. That isn’t to say that we are the only ones involved in creating a coherent story, and in fact our students spend a great deal of time learning how to craft their own arguments and narratives. Yet, through our lectures we are able to model the kind of factually based, interesting, well organized and executed stories we want our students to be able to recreate and retell in their pursuit of becoming educated scholars of American history and culture.

Although it isn’t the dominant form of instruction of our course,  at least in our classroom, and I hope in the classrooms of other teachers who are effective,  gifted, lecturers, the lecture is alive and well. ; and that is to the benefit our our students because they get to see what intellectual passion, command, and curiosity look like in action.  We get to model for them a skill that we hope they will leave our classroom with: the ability to sustain and tell a story that captivates, engages, informs and provokes an audience. That is definitely a skill not just for the 21st century, but for the ages.

For Further Reading:
In Defense of Lectures

Twenty Terrible Reasons For Lecturing (I obviously disagree with a few of these, but it is a well researched and written study presenting the opposite perspective.

Teaching in a 2.0 World: Why Tech Matters, but not as much as some would make us believe.


I am currently taking an online class offered by k12learning20 based on the 23 things program to introduce teachers to different Web 2.0 resources. Although I am already fairly fluent in many of these tools, I am very much looking forward to expanding my skill base. Our Thing 3 assignment requires us to complete a blog post on the meaning of teaching in a Web 2.0 world which is fortuitous because the questions presented have been bouncing around in my brain for a while now. This post is just the first part of what I am thinking of as a series examining my experience teaching in a web 2.0 world and the continuing relevance of the traditional tools of teachers.

First of all, I believe in technology and I believe that every teacher has not only the opportunity, but more the obligation to become fluent in the latest tools of the trade. My teaching has improved as a result of the resources and ideas I have gotten from twitter chats, my experience at edcamprva, and other professional development opportunities. Our American Studies class is very techie, and so is pretty much every class I teach. We use a variety of web 2.0 tools and our students have benefited from our increased knowledge.

All that said, I have to say that I think we are overestimating the impact of web 2.0 tools. Sure they are great and readily available, many for free even, but a good tool will never replace a good teacher and too much of the language bouncing around the educational world seems to suggest otherwise. I also worry about how quickly the standby tools of the trade i.e. lecture or even the idea of the teacher as the expert are so quickly dismissed as  20th or 19th century ideas that are some how no longer relevant in today’s 21st century world.  I disagree. I think that every teacher has a toolbox of things they do well some are cutting edge and some are older than any of us. The goal of education especially in the humanities classroom is to teach students to think critically, develop a level of cultural literacy, and frankly be able to retell the stories/histories that make up our curriculum and give each story their own slant. Web 2.0 tools definitely can help with that process, but so can great lectures, in depth reading, and other tools that have been around centuries. Furthermore, I refuse to believe that we live in a world where knowledge no longer matters.

I also believe that we have an obligation to our students to be fluent in their world and their world is certainly increasingly a web 2.0 world full of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr to just name a few. We, as teachers and really as people sharing the world with the generation of digital natives, should also understand and be able to participate in this world.

So what is the meaning of web 2.0 in the world of education? My answer: The tools available to us in the Web 2.0 world are what we make of them. It is  a world we need to own and share with our students, but not rely on to the exclusivity of all the other tools in the box. I’ll be writing on much of this in more detail in the coming weeks.