Productive Questions As Critical Thinking

1. What Alternatives Are We Rejecting When We Lecture?

2. What Makes Us Think Lectures Are Effective?

3. What Assumptions Do Supporters of Lecturing Make?

First, a confession-- although I have a reputation as a non-lecturer, I am decidedly a lecturer. By "lecturer", I mean someone who delivers several uninterrupted paragraphs to a group of learners.   In fact,  my reputation in that regard can be Exhibit A for the problem.  So frequently do college teachers lecture that anyone who at any time does something else will be labelled an inquiry-oriented teacher. To most observers, doing anything ever in a classroom other than lecturing is strange, worthy of note and special designation.

My interest in this set of questions is based on several things..

A. I have never heard a systematic explanation for a practice that is replicated decade after decade.  The result is that generations of learners quite understandably think teaching and lecturing are synonyms in their minds. Many of us have bought the tapes of The Great Courses sold by The Learning Company. They promise that the courses will be delivered by the very best teachers, and what do these teachers do on the tapes-----non-stop lecturing.

B. While some lecturers are more knowledgeable, entertaining, and rhetorically skilled than others, even the best lecturer is engaging in a practice that makes little sense to me.

C. I listened in amazement a few days ago as a lecturer explained to an audience of several hundred the history of western France,  The lecture was fast, full of words and facts that I am positive few in the audience had ever heard. Details were stuffed on top of one another. I kept wanting to shout---Do you really think anyone will have an accurate and thoughtful understanding of what you are saying?

4. I have never heard a coach, music or dance instructor, or craft-person teach by relying on lectures.  They most certainly do and should demonstrate or explain something. But the next step is practice under the guidance of the relatively skilled person. The practice will perforce  need replication because listening is quite different from knowing or performing what was heard.  

But what else could a teacher do?  The last paragraph suggested a basic alternative model.  The number of alternatives is actually huge.  But no alternative can occur until the person with the microphone stops talking. Next, the teacher has to cede the dominant role.  Many of us often say learning is a partnership,and it is. But that partnership must be one where it is the learner's voice and needs that should dominate. The learner needs to ask and be encouraged to ask questions. Words from the mouth of a lecturer do not move precisely into the mind  of the listener.

Why do lecturers think they are being effective mentors? My first answer would be that those who lecture were themselves the recipients of dozens of lectures. Habit, said Mark Twain, is a cruel tyrant.  So perhaps the logic works like the following:  I know a lot; I learned via lecture seemingly; apparently, lectures work well. 

I think a 2nd answer is that lecturing is consistent with cost saving, and schools have enthusiastically embraced a business logic that celebrates cost-cutting. If one voice can effectively transmit understanding to hundreds of listeners all at once, school administrators have demonstrated their market acumen. 

Finally, as with all power inequities, the relatively powerful often do things that please them "because I can." This answer was what Bill Clinton famously said when asked why he had a relationship with an intern. Lecturers choose the method of teaching.  They like to talk; it is flattering to have dozens of eyes more or less plastered on your face.  Where else in the life of lecturers do people show them so much ostensible respect?

Lecturers of all stripes make some fascinating assumptions that as far as I know have little basis in fact.

A. When I speak to someone, those words are understood and recalled from within the same worldview that I the speaker have.

B. The human brain can profitably absorb and understand the applicability and quality of an hour's worth of declarative sentences that are foreign to the previous experience of the learner.

C. Learning can be effective when the learner does not move or speak for perhaps an hour.

1. Could there be some areas of learning where the nature of the skill or knowledge justifies lectures?

2. Would a lecture consisting of questions and pauses for reflection avoid the criticisms I made?

3. Would asking students to study material and deliver brief lectures that capture the essence of the assignment weaken the criticisms of lecturing that I made?


AuthorM Neil Browne