[Archives] Is lecturing underrated?

[Archives] Is lecturing underrated?

I maintained a blog from 2007 to 2013 and, although I'm a very different person from the person who wrote those blog posts, there are a few posts in the archives that I want to bring to this space because I am either particularly proud of the content or because I want to be able to refer back to the person I was when I wrote them.

This post was originally published on June 15, 2007.

I'll confess that I've been as guilty as the next person when it comes to stereotyping "lecturing" teachers as not being motivated to do something interesting, but I will admit that in those cases I'm thinking of lecturing a la the classic "Bueller? Bueller?" sense of the word. In instances where lecturing is ineffective, it's generally not the choice of lecturing as an instructional method that's at the root of the problem. Actively engaged students act out in class far less than passively engaged or disengaged students. So if engagement is the goal, can a lecture get us there?

I started to do a little research on some people who have reputations for being highly effective communicators, including Steve Jobs, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. What makes these folks such engaging speakers? I mean, aside from a Keynote slide deck projected behind Steve Jobs, they aren't using technology at all, but people listen. After watching Steve Jobs captivate a full house at his WWDC keynote this past Monday, I started to get a clear sense in my head that not all lectures are created equal. (The WWDC keynote is not posted yet, but to get an idea of Steve in action, check out the QuickTime movie of his keynote from MacWorld in Janaury.)

Lecturing is arguably still the most common form of instruction in the high school, and the most common method for administrators to communicate with their staffs so it's not going away any time soon. What I'm planning to do over the next few posts is to really flesh out what makes a lecture great versus just ho-hum; one where your audience - be it teachers at a staff development or students in your class - is intently focused you and your message rather than on the clock so they can count the minutes until they get to bolt for the door. There are a ton of great resources out there already so I'm not going to re-invent the wheel. But I do plan to do some meta analysis of what I've found so you don't have to.

To get started, I think it's important to acknowledge that any method of instruction will lead to boredom and a lack of engagement if it's the only method we use. But if variety is the spice of life, lecture just might be the meat and potatoes.

We hear a lot of perhaps overgeneralized arguments against lecturing: Students may not be actively engaged in the learning process ("I'm bored in Mr. Jones's class..." or, my favorite, "We never do anything in there..."), students may not be effective note-takers and as a result may miss some important content, and of course there are others.

On the positive side, though, there is no substitute for a verbal explanation of difficult content. In my teaching career, I came across few students who could learn trig or statistics simply by reading a textbook. There were a few, mind you, but the vast majority of students need some explaining.

Additionally, a good lecture can be engaging and motivating. If the instructor is passionate about his content, that passion will be evident to students.

So as you prep for your next lecture - be it to a high school sociology class or a group of colleagues - here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Build in "audience participation." As we know, highly effective educators always know where their students are in terms of their grasp of the material. If you're not regularly soliciting some form of audience feedback, you're not going to know if they're hearing what you want them to hear, or something completely different. And here's a hint-within-a-hint: Use positive presuppositions to get the most valid feedback. In other words, asking, "What questions do you have for me to this point?" is more effective than asking, "Are there any questions?" because the former assumes that your audience will have questions - you're just opening up the floor for them.
  • Give yourself a rough outline and stick to it. Man am I guilty of this one! "Meh," I've said to myself, "I've covered this topic a million times. I don't need 'lecture notes!'" Invariably, I'll either leave out some key point I'd meant to communicate, or - worse - gone "off topic" on some tangent that a student baited me with or that I wandered onto on my own. The better you know your topic, the fewer notes you'll likely end up needing, but it's better to have something to keep you honest.
  • If you're going to use a slide deck, please - for the love of all things sacred - don't read from it. I know this. I believe this. But something happens when I'm standing in front of a room full of faculty ready to be anywhere but at a staff development session and it's awfully tempting to fall back into reading what you wrote on those slides. Hit the highlights and offer to email the slides or post them online somewhere so people aren't frantically trying to copy them down while you're speaking. I'll talk a little more about some slide deck suggestions and pet peeves in another post.

That's enough to get me started. Sometimes I read what I've written and think, "Everybody knows this stuff!" And while that may be the case, sometimes the very act of typing it in and editing it for posting helps me keep them in mind as I prepare to start a new year at a new school.

Resources for this post and recommendations for further reading: