Give & Take

A college professor and I remain friends on Facebook and this article appeared in my news feed this week. Part of what he quoted is here:

Those who want to abolish the lecture course do not understand what a lecture is. A lecture is not the declamation of an encyclopedia article. In the humanities, a lecture “places a premium on the connections between individual facts,” Monessa Cummins, the chairwoman of the classics department and a popular lecturer at Grinnell College, told me. “It is not a recitation of facts, but the building of an argument.”


The guy in the back reading the paper would totally be Snapchatting in 2015.

We commented back and forth. I argued that if the merits of lecture are learning to pay attention and listen to someone else’s argument, then it seems a waste of all the brainpower in the room. But we both agreed that students should learn to listen to others’ arguments. He made it a point to mention that modes of learning develop. Not all of us are naturally mathematical thinkers – does that mean we cannot learn to think that way?

I shared the article with Mike (Humanities) and he was poignant in mentioning that a society of only doers with a limited attention span could send us too far in the wrong direction. We should be able to listen to an author’s talk at the library, a comedian’s set, or a politician’s argument without needing constant stimulation. He said “sometimes listening and absorbing is the most important thing a person can do.”

We designed Innovation Lab to include many different ways to learn. In STEM, Sarah and I often start class with a few instructions and a reminder of what the ongoing tasks are. If they need direct instruction, we’ve given video links. Pausing and re-viewing are great features that are absent from traditional lectures. It isn’t that they aren’t asked to focus as a whole group within our program. After such experiences – and we’re proud they are so vocal with their reflection – someone will say “that’s not Innovation Lab!” or “that’s like regular school!” Are we reverting back to aging methods or simply including good practice in a more diverse rotation of strategies?

I think education is different for all teachers and all students. We have ways we learn well and ways of learning that make us feel uncomfortable. That discomfort could just be that it’s an approach to learnng we’re not used to yet and in this sense, I agree with my college professor. But I think the op-ed in the Times confuses the truly engaging lecture – a TED talk, a moving speech, or an author’s talk, all of which are firmly rooted in the best of the humanities – with a constant biweekly presentation to students.

I have long thought that many teachers and professors end up in academia because we are good at listening to others’ lectures and understanding their arguments. We’re used to being in control and crave the gratification when that perfectly planned lesson ends exactly how we wanted. But we built this program around students‘ passions, not our performances. Shouldn’t they be the ones on display?

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3 Responses to Give & Take

  1. Chris Winters says:

    Lecture is part of the pantheon of instructional techniques. It’s a form of input. The key is what we ask students to DO with the information received. What do they do to demonstrate understanding? What tasks do we assign that require them to analyze previous ideas against new concepts and formulate a position? Lecture without follow up can be entertaining but often results in superficial understanding at best. Lecture (I prefer mini-lecture) with cognitively complex tasks can lead to deeper learning.

  2. Mark Hines says:

    I guess I will be a little provocative here and ponder “In your course syllabus is there any stated learning outcome that specifies students must sit and listen (and if a little luckier lucky watch)?” In all likelihood the learning outcomes are what students know, do, articulate, create, synthesize…they are active stances for the learner. One method of conveying information is a “lecture” but it is a pretty piss-poor approach, for it implies one person going at a single rate with a specific mode is the appropriate approach for all learners in front of them (at a specific place time and day weekly). There is NO research I know that says that is the most powerful way to address the needs of all learners. They come in with different prior knowledge, different learning styles, different momentary needs, different attention spans, different everything. I think Eric Mazur at Harvard has done a beautiful job of dispelling this lecture myth in his work If you haven’t seen his “Confessions of a converted lecturer” talk here: or shorter version here:

    • Brian Walach says:

      I watched the abridged version and I think he’s fascinating. It’s great to see a traditional college lecturer make changes. That being said, STEM always gets the “oh, well there it makes SENSE to do hands on.” Art, music, science, math, etc. all benefit from learning by doing. The article I initially wrote about defends the lecture in the humanities. I don’t think they’re so different than the other areas of study. While the OUTPUT may be a lecture-based oral argument, I don’t think the INPUT has to be that way.

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