A Crime against Nature and Nature’s God

You would be hard-pressed to find a more concept more unpopular than lecture in education today. It is the single, most universally despised form of instruction in the industry. It’s probably safer to wear a Red Sox hat to Yankee Stadium than go to a graduate class and suggest that lecture offers even the slightest hint of value. Graduate students should know they are better off talking about multiple intelligences, differentiated instruction and backward design. Keeping their references to lecture hidden behind innocuous labels like “direct instruction” may not even be enough to insure their safety.

Movers and shakers in this business must always pedal something new and different to sell their books, grab their grants and distinguish themselves from others. So it is not surprising they would criticize such a traditional form of teaching. But let’s be honest, lecture’s bad reputation comes from the fact that there are so many poor examples of it infecting our schools. History teachers are the worst offenders.

Yesterday I sat and suffered with 45 colleagues through the best and worst examples of instruction. The first half of the afternoon was a dialogue with an undisputed expert in antebellum history, followed by a lecture from that same expert. Knowing more about Uncle Tom’s Cabin than should be permitted by law, the professor first engaged the class by asking questions about the book. Citing a series of passages, he led us through a discussion about the characters, images and meanings of the book. You could sense the interest among the participants, and recognize it clearly when their questions to him took his original provocative thoughts in several directions.

After a short break however, we returned to the room for the “lecture” half of the presentation. This lecture consisted of the professor reading one of his articles to the group. There’s simply not enough amphetamine in the world to keep that class conscious. Every interesting and engaging thought from the first half of the afternoon crashed in the train wreck of the second half. Watching the closing eyes and bobbing heads, I was embarrassed, uncomfortable and convinced that there is nothing quite as bad a speaker can do to an audience than to read a scholarly article to them.

Yet, I am convinced that students in history classes benefit from lecture. Tucked in the niche of perhaps 25% to 30% of classtime, well-crafted and well-delivered lectures compliment content delivery with passion, reality and common-sense understanding that text and video alone cannot provide. It is much more a difficult and complex art form than a formulaic lesson plan that can be followed step by step. Lectures fail so often because every element has to be developed, written and performed well in order for it to work. It requires the ability of Ken Burns to find the poignant images and stories to infect it with emotion, the quirky observations and timing of George Carlin, the stage presence of Robin Williams and the organization of a Supreme Court opinion to come even close to success. To push it over the line it has to be rehearsed a couple dozen times as well.

If lecture works, it inspires, informs and leaves the audience on fire. If not, lecture is a crime.

2 thoughts on “A Crime against Nature and Nature’s God

  1. sd July 3, 2008 / 9:29 am


    I agree with you, lecture is a lost art. It is almost like the “unplugged” version of teaching, just you alone and all the energy and passion you can bring to the topic. Too often I think teachers use it to reiterate what was covered in the text, and it becomes the equivalent of reading a scholarly article to an audience held hostage.

    Done well, lectures can generate interest in a topic and motivate students. But as you said, with lectures, less (25% of classtime) is more.

  2. Steven Maher July 6, 2008 / 7:01 am

    Exactly Sean, reminds me of the early days when I used the textbook at the outline for the powerpoint bullet points. Always a guaranteed crash.

    Much more successful is stealing the examples and imagery from real history books. A perfect example is taking James MacGregor Burns’ chapter on FDR’s first inaugural (fear and fear itself) and using it to start the Great Depression lecture. The draft of the speech is taken from a solitary late night vigil in front of the fire place in Hyde Park to a hotel room in Washington the night before the inaugural. Burns does an excellent job creating a vision of the despair of the country while the train carrying the new president goes from NYC to the capitol. Statistics, stories, and examples all in one place. I give credit of course, but the drama that starts that class period never fails to set the pace for an effective lecture.

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