Monday, October 19, 2015

Lecture me--across the curriculum!

Two Op-Ed pieces in Sunday's New York Times draw opposite conclusions about what directions classrooms should be heading in.

In "Lecture Me. Really" Molly Worthen extolls the virtue of that much-maligned, decreasingly fashionable mode of teaching, namely, the lecture.

Those who want to abolish the lecture course do not understand what a lecture is. 
At least as far as the humanities are concerned, Worthen argues, lectures are essential:
essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.
Lectures provide exercises that few of todays students get elsewhere: in sustaining attention, in continuous listening, and in organizing and synthesizing information. These are hard tasks for all students, but, in our grit-'n'-growth-obsessed mindsets, all the more reason for lectures. As Worthen notes:
Some research suggests that minority and low-income students struggle even more. But if we abandon the lecture format because students may find it difficult, we do them a disservice. Moreover, we capitulate to the worst features of the customer-service mentality that has seeped into the university from the business world. The solution, instead, is to teach those students how to gain all a great lecture course has to give them.
One particularly valuable way to gain this is through note taking. Note taking forces you to organize and synthesize the material as it comes in:
Studies suggest that taking notes by hand helps students master material better than typing notes on a laptop, probably because most find it impossible to take verbatim notes with pen and paper. 
And where verbatim is impossible, spontaneous synthesizing and summarizing are essential.

As Worthen points out, taking notes on a lecture is not passive; nor is the lecture a passive "declamation of an encyclopedia article." Here it's worth repeating her earlier statement: Those who want to abolish the lecture course do not understand what a lecture is. 

My only quibble with Worthen is that I wouldn't single out humanities courses as uniquely suited to lectures. Much of what she says here applies to courses--and learning--in general.

I have a few more quibbles with another Op-Ed in Sunday's paper, one entitled "The Best Jobs Require Social Skills." Stay tuned for a follow-up...


momof4 said...

I've always loved a good lecture, and it's a great way to cover a lot of material well and to enable good questions and discussions. However, much of the benefit requires students to be well-prepared; having done required readings and reviewed previous lecture notes (as needed for clarification and greater understanding) and to be diligent in attendance - and I'm given to understand that this is no longer common. It's also necessary to be able to take good, comprehensive notes - yes, by hand - and I think many kids lack the at-least-semi-cursive speed necessary (print tends to be too slow) and/or the ability to outline well - and both speed and organization are essential. I remember having at least 12-15 pages of outline notes (pretty small writing) for each 3-hr history class and almost that for sciences (or more if lots of diagrams).

I think it's likely that kids are not taught outlining any more and I guess teaching cursive has disappeared. My 5th-grade teacher taught us to outline, first with written material, then with short lectures. Notes were turned in, corrected and graded. This continued, with increasing frequency and complexity, through 8th grade. In HS, we were expected to be able to take appropriate notes on our own. This was especially true for college prep classes, but US history was all juniors together and passing meant taking decent notes. I think we're at the point where kids expect study guides, reviews etc - not just in HS but in college, to the point of not being able to do without such aids. The real world doesn't work that way.

Anonymous said...


That is no longer the case. I've been a substitute for two years and what you wrote is how I was taught during my schooling in the 80's and 90's. I'm noticing there isn't any real instruction. In fact, there aren't any subjects being taught. And cursive writing, forget about it!! Hence, two generations of students have chicken scratch for penmanship, can barely read, and cannot retain anything beyond the last test/quiz.

momof4 said...

I was afraid of that. Sigh, again. Today, I talked with a 30ish and an ES teacher - the former was taught outlining, with practice, and the latter started her 4th-graders on it, with repetition and practice in MS, in her old state. Here, she said she doubts it - everything is CC and she says all the teachers hate it. You can't call it education anymore. (she authored the book Credentialed to Destroy) has all of the ideological underpinnings.

lgm said...

One of my children was taught to take notes in grade 4, as the public school experimented with ways to get everyone to the 3 level on the listening portion of the state ELA test. The instruction was discarded after that year with the comment that it not an essential skill, nor could it be taught whole class as so many were not developmentally able to listen and write simultaneously, even if they did have the short term memory, penmanship, and sequencing ability. Full inclusion seems to mean eliminating anything that is viewed as college prep.

Anonymous said...

... while pretending that everyone should go to college and denying that cognitive ability has any relationship to academic achievement. In the real world, IQ is positively related to cognitive processing speed - a certain amount of which is necessary in order to listen to a lecture (or any lesson presented orally), understand, analyze, synthesize and commit it all to paper.