WiRT (pt 3) – What’s wrong with lecture?

This was actually to be part 2, but then I came across those videos before this post was finished. It would seem that this and the previous post completely contradict each other, but I think not. Read on.

The “lecture” – delivery of information from an individual to a group – is widely regarded as an inferior form of instruction, compared to Project Based Learning, discovery learning, and a host of other methodologies. So what is wrong with lecture as a means of instruction? The answer might surprise you: Nothing. That’s right, I said it. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with lectures. Allow me to provide counterexamples to common criticisms of the lecture format:

It is next to impossible to maintain attention for long periods of time

I do a lecture on the moon twice a year as part of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada NOVA series. This is a two hour talk, with a 10 minute break in the middle. There are about 50 participants of all ages (youngest was 11, oldest 80), walks of life, ethnic background, and socioeconomic status. It would really be harder to find a more diverse audience. And they are the most attentive group I ever have the pleasure of speaking to. Why? Because they are there by choice. They WANT to be there, and so they pay attention because it is of interest to them. (And FYI, I videoed most of my first talk and posted it on YouTube). The lecture format, in this setting, clearly works well.

Lectures are unidirectional – monologues, rather than dialogues

They can be, but don’t have to be. Using techniques such as Just In Time Teaching (JITT), priming with questions, and Socratic methods during a lecture the “audience” is involved, and there is a two way exchange of information – a feedback loop to target specific understanding.

Lectures do not promote the same retention as discovery learning

As I mentioned in the first WiRT post, good learning involves repetition, practice, observation, breaking down preconceptions, more repetition and practice, and teaching it to others. Discovery-based learning has a good deal of that built in. But as Dan Meyer noted (and, of course, now I can’t find the specific post), the conversion time from “traditional” instruction to student-led investigation is about 4 to 1. So, while discovery-based learning appears deeper and more lasting, it takes four times as long. If that amount of time was used for carefully constructed lecture-based learning, would there be as significant a difference?

In addition to the above rebuttals, there is also the concern that there are some things that cannot be learned through discovery means. Definitions, vocabulary, conventions, and really much of reality that is somewhat abstract and counterintuitive. How do we ensure students learn those things that are required without direct instruction, except by incorporating such rigid structure and guidance in the “discovery” that it becomes a farce? And if we are to put that much effort in, why not just lecture?

Also, compare a “lecture” to an “explanation”. What is the difference? Basically, none from the delivery side. You could give a virtually identical “explanation” to a small group of students as a “lecture” to a large group. The former would be effective and well received, but perhaps the latter less so. But if it is the same thing, is it the lecture that is at fault, or something else?

The humble lecture, I submit, is not itself the problem. The “problem” is that we as teachers have a responsibility to ensure that a disparate group of learners learn essentially the same thing at the same time. Some are ready, some are not. Some care, and some don’t. So if all lessons are presented as lecture, not everyone is on the same page, and not everyone will get out of it what is intended. The problem is the one-size-fits-all approach of factory-model schooling.

2 thoughts on “WiRT (pt 3) – What’s wrong with lecture?

  1. Sam

    Here’s a great video by Dr Eric Mazur at Harvard on traditional lecture vs cooperative learning. He seems to side with “lecture doesn’t work as well”, but there may have been other problems with his teaching besides the lecture part.


Leave a Reply