My problem with lecturing is that I’m not sure anyone remembers what I have to say.


The first class I took about how to be a teacher started with a quick reflective exercise. The professor prompted:

Think back to a time that you actually learned something and remembered it.

I actually thought about tying knots. I had started rock climbing a couple of years prior, and remembered being taught how to tie a figure-eight knot in order to lower myself off of the top of a route. My climbing partner let me hold the rope as we were bolted in next to each other at the top of a wall, and verbally explained what to do. I crossed one strand over the other several times, tied myself in, and lowered myself down. With some coaching, I did it myself.

The professor then asked:

How were you taught to do this thing? What approach did your teacher take?

Something occurred to me just then, and in fact now forms the basis of my approach to teaching: I learned by actually interacting with the material. My climbing partner had not given me a book on tying knots, explained to me how to tie this particular knot, and then expected me to perform. Had she done so, I’m convinced I would have fallen 50 feet and really gotten hurt.

So this is why I try to avoid lecturing to my students. One, I’m not particularly interested in hearing what I have to say in this context. I’m more interested in what my students think. (And frequently, they change my mind!) And two, I’m not really convinced that my students really learn much when I talk at them. Sure, they’ll likely be able to copy down my brilliant musings and regurgitate them on a multiple-choice test. But will they really form those new neurons that you’re supposed to when you learn a new thing? I’m not sure.

I have sat through many a beautifully written and expertly delivered lecture. Lectures on theories of art history, lectures by esteemed experts on Dickens and Le Corbusier, and lectures by attorneys who regularly present arguments before the Supreme Court. At the time, I felt that I was in the presence of intellectual greatness and I truly enjoyed every moment. But do I remember much of what any of those lecturers had to say? Well…

“Avoiding the Lecture” forms part of many pedagogical approaches, including the Flipped Classroom, Project-Based Learning, and Student-Centered Teaching in general. It’s implied in constructivist ideology, which in pedagogy suggests that students should be given the opportunity to construct their own meanings and understandings. In History, it might look like asking students to interpret source material in discussion rather than dictating what sources mean, or it might look like assigning an open-ended, interpretive assessment, rather than giving a multiple choice test that assesses how well students have listened in class.

Today for example, we learned about how slavery formed part of the Constitution as ratified in 1789. Instead of explaining to my students how each of the concerned Articles formed part of the legal edifice of human bondage, I assigned an Article to each of several pair of students, and asked them to explain to me the relation of the law to slavery. Admittedly, I borrowed the lesson from the Gilder Lerhman Institute. But I did so because it squares with my understanding of how students learn.

Alright, so I’m sure folks will quibble with me on this one. You had an amazing History/Literature/Psychology/Calculus professor who expounded so expertly, so poetically, that you retained every detail and you are a better person for it. (Maybe it’s not lecturing; it’s me!) If this is you, tell me in the comments! I want to know!



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