In Praise of Lecturing
This is the season when parents go to school or to church to hear their children perform in seasonal plays and sing. There are also Santa parades down many main streets. Everyone knows that it is more exciting to "be there" in person than to watch it on some distant media. Likewise, our troops coming home from Iraq are being greeted by families who have been able to "Skype" their soldiers daily—but to have them actually present is so much better.
Therefore it is surprising that direct face-to-face speaking in a classroom is derided as inferior communication. An article in the December 6 New York Times even proclaims: "Death Knell for the Lecture."
For two decades, my students preparing to be biology teachers have walked into my office to report that another education professor has told them that cooperative learning or personalized programmed learning or some other fad has made lecturing obsolete.
I do not even need to look up when I say: "And what were they doing when they told you that?" A grin spreads across his or her face. The student leaves reassured.
Speaking is the most efficient method of communicating what is in a presenter’s mind to the listener’s mind. And we do it nearly all the time we are interacting with others. Straining our words through keyboards and keypads and other media slows down the process and reduces communication accuracy and efficiency. Even recorded or transmitted speech or music is inferior. Live concerts have far greater impact.
To be effective, any speaking including lecturing must involve a common experience base for both speaker and listener. This "speech chain" was laid down by early research at Bell Labs. If a listener lacks experiences to make the words meaningful, communication fails in both lectures and electronic media. So teachers supplement words with pictures and videos and labs and field work; only these last direct experiences really provide a rich basis for effective communication.
Lost experiences are a rapidly growing problem. Electronic devices are pulling a new generation away from sand boxes and climbing trees and otherwise directly defining the real world and how it works. As more students—especially boys addicted to videogames—sink into artificial worlds, they become oblivious to the natural world around them. Electronic media can be the major problem, not the solution.
Is there research to support lecturing being superior? This summer, researchers Guido Schwerdt and Amelie Wuppermann of the University of Munich published their analysis of U.S. 8th graders test scores in math and science. They asked the students’ teachers the percentage of class time taken up by students "listening to lecture-style presentations" rather than the popular problem-solving and look-it-up-online techniques promoted in education classes.
"Contrary to contemporary pedagogical thinking, we find that students score higher on standardized tests in the subject in which their teachers spent more time on lecture-style presentations than in the subject in which the teacher devoted more time to problem-solving activities.... Among this group of students, a shift of 10 percentage points of time from problem solving to lecturing is associated with an increase in test scores of almost 4 percent of a standard deviation—or between one and two months’ worth of learning in a typical school year."
So the next time someone tells you that lecturing is a poor way of communicating and learning, be kind as you ask them why they have chosen to tell you this—by lecturing?