The End of Lecturing?

from the Chronicle of Higher Education
June 26, 1998

The Lecture: a Powerful Tool for Intellectual Liberation


In the rhetoric and practice of higher education these days, the group is in, and the individual is out. Confident theoreticians claim that the best way to learn is in the company of others. Sitting alone under a tree with a book is pedagogically unsound. Paying close attention for an hour to a professor informed about a subject is also a dead end. This message is proclaimed by entire conferences, ubiquitous workshops, and circuit-riding consultants. Learning at its best, they tell us, is an interactive group phenomenon.

An immediate casualty of interactive-learning theory is the student who prefers solitary study and inquiry. Another is the lecturing professor, who is allegedly misguided by the conviction that arduous years of preparation demonstrate a significant edge over the student. Interactive pedagogy reduces the professorial role to "facilitation" and "partnership" in the "learning process." The professor becomes a congenial traffic officer for the classroom or the computer network -- as the cliche puts it, a "guide on the side" rather than a "sage on the stage" -- while students supposedly learn from one another. In the interactive mode, students feel good about themselves because their views have as much status as those of the professor. The best of all worlds for interactive pedagogy is to eliminate the professor altogether, to let students "take control of their own learning." The premise is that professors obstruct rather than contribute to the education of students, and represent medieval practices that must be swept away.

Lecturing, the bete noire of interactive-learning pedagogues, is rejected as a form of bondage, an imposition of the lecturer's views upon active minds forced into passivity. Lecturing is condemned as an antiquated form of tyranny, with the professor talking nonstop to captives arrayed in the classroom like wooden ducks. The inevitable outcome for students, or so the critics argue, is uneven access to ideas and information because of individual differences in learning styles, preoccupation with memorizing and note-taking rather than understanding or creativity, and a subject-master relationship contrary to the ideals of a democratic society. Critics also insist that students don't learn much in a lecture. After 10 minutes, according to their research, students are no longer paying attention.

A dramatic way out of this oppression of students by professors is to displace the latter with technology. Not so long ago, television was going to do the job; now it is the computer. The claim is that students on the World-Wide Web can explore knowledge unencumbered by arbitrary, teacher-centered instruction. They can tailor their education to their own "individual learning styles" and "diverse educational needs."

Proponents of interactive learning need to be reminded of the neglected phenomenon called "good lecturing," and to recall that authentic learning demands individual concentration and labor that cannot be shared with others. At its best, a lecture is a critical, structured, skillful, thoughtful discourse on questions and findings within a discipline, delivered by a person who knows what he or she is talking about. Virtually by definition, students are incapable on their own of exploring the topic at the same level. The reason is simple: A good teacher is an authority. He or she has more knowledge, experience, and insight into a subject than the student does.

The teacher's role is to transmit these laboriously acquired assets to students and to open intellectual doors hitherto closed. The student's role is to pay attention, benefit from superior knowledge and experience, study diligently, and participate fruitfully when the moment is ripe. This role is not static, for the goal of authoritative instruction is to bring students to a point of independence and mastery from which they can proceed on their own. Assuming that the professor and student do what is expected of them, the student will grow in confidence and be able to "interact" at progressively higher levels of readiness. The thoughtful lecture, moderated by a judicious use of dialectic, is a powerful instrument for intellectual liberation.

Those eager for students to control their own learning might bear in mind that self-instructed minds are a rare breed. Self-instruction is possible, but only with exceptional motivation and self-discipline, qualities notably lacking in a generation of students raised on heavy diets of bad schooling, shallow entertainment, and effortless gratification. Seldom does one encounter a Lewis Mumford, who never graduated from college but took scholarship and authorship by storm, or a Srinivasa Ramanujan, whose mastery of number theory sprang from the blue and mystified leading mathematicians.

While professors are surely able to learn from students from time to time, a professor who enters a classroom of tyros and says, "Let us learn from one another" is afflicted with role confusion. Students may be full of themselves for an instant, but are likely to find in the context of subject matter how little of consequence they have to exchange. Collaboration implies there is something, rather than just someone, with which to collaborate -- including accurate, relevant knowledge, a critical mindset, preliminary study, and personal discipline. Previously uninstructed students are not likely to have those assets in usable abundance.

Meanwhile, a professor unable to exhibit intellectual authority in the classroom has nothing to "profess" and is in the wrong job. There is no reason that professors who are incompetent lecturers will not end up incompetent "partners." What choice is there between a dull, fumbling lecturer and a shallow, inept facilitator? At least the lecturer may end up imparting some real knowledge rather than just procedural rules for a group. By the same token, there is no reason that students inattentive to a lecture will not be just as inattentive to one another, but with far less potential access to substance and focus.

Obviously, lecturing is not the only way to deliver learning, but it works well in the right hands. Many professors are lousy lecturers, but it is not clear that they are better off with interactive methods. Lecturing has pitfalls, including a temptation for professors to pose as oracles, but it deserves respect when capably and modestly done.

Hostility toward lecturing is part of a recent general assault on most forms of legitimate authority. Authoritative instruction requires hierarchy, and in these egalitarian times, hierarchy is a dirty word. But all good teaching and learning must accept a hierarchical frame of reference. Arithmetic must come before calculus. Basic facts about the Reformation must come before analysis of its causes. Drawing 101 must precede Drawing 102. Writing intelligible English sentences must come before writing a novel like Ulysses. Greek verb forms must be mastered before Plato can be translated.

We cannot grasp everything at once. The full light of knowledge is perceived in stages. Aside from geniuses who spring full-blown into the world (a Bernini, a Mozart, a Gauss), most of us are obliged by reality to climb toward understanding one rung at a time, with occasional skips for the very bright and clever. Learning is hierarchical even if imparted dialectically, for all subjects are better entered at the beginning than at the end. Teachers resistant to that simple truth about teaching and learning will flounder and will confuse their students. The value of a good lecturer is to know where to begin, what to include and leave out, and by what stages to lead a student to mastery of a subject.

Interactive pedagogy has some uses. It can serve a purpose or two without pretense to ruling the roost. For example, students can gain experience working with one another by discussing critical questions after the professor has laid a foundation for the discussion. Such an approach probably works best in small groups, such as seminars.

But in much of higher education, no interactive model can substitute for a well-organized lecture that structures a mass of information, illuminates basic concepts, suggests applications, reviews relevant literature and major interpretations, and displays what it means for someone to care about learning, inquiry, and teaching.

A responsible lecturer displays lucid exposition, cogent argument, and enthusiasm about the subject. A good lecture usually provides opportunities for student comments, questions, and sustained dialectical exchange. Discipline for the student consists in listening, remembering, tracking arguments, exercising judgment about note-taking, and thinking about what is said in light of assigned reading. Above all, an objective of such intellectual training is to strengthen attentiveness, without which we can accomplish nothing.

Kenneth R. Stunkel is a professor of history and dean of humanities and social sciences at Monmouth University (N.J.).