On Lecturing and Learning

Someone sent me a thing.  It’s by Grant Wiggins on why history teachers lecture all the time.  Here it is:


I had some feelings about it.  Then I had thoughts and those turned into a little rant. Here are my words, because dammit man this page isn’t going to start itself.


I admire and respect Grant Wiggins very much, and his theory of understanding-by-design has informed my teaching since the early part of my career.  But I think he’s oversimplifying here.  People who say you should NEVER lecture ultimately scare teachers away from creating a reasonable blend of approaches in the classroom.  (They also tend to be big fans of TED talks and Khan Academy videos that are, of course, lectures.  And they like to visit our schools on in-service days to tell us about the evils of lecturing by lecturing to us).  The anti-lecture contingent also assumes “lecture” to mean “droning on at insufferable length to disengaged students.”  I’d like to appeal for a more nuanced understanding of what we mean by lecture.

First, I prefer to say that I provide direct instruction some of the time I’m in class with students because when you suggest that you might occasionally lecture, you’re generally assumed guilty of a range of unspeakable horrors.  “So I was lecturing…” you’ll begin, as your audience recoils in shock and embarrassment as though you’d just defecated on the headmaster’s brunch table. Better to avoid the “L” word altogether.

When I say I’m providing direct instruction, what I mean is that I’m engaging in a lively, interactive discussion with my students that helps them to see the broad context and significance of the material they’ve been reading about.  I create a narrative and help provide some perspective.  We analyze images and primary documents together, I ask them questions, answer their questions, and use examples to help them understand tricky concepts.  I’m well aware that nobody, and especially not teenagers, can pay attention effectively even for forty-five minutes, which is why I vary the class and provide small breaks and little activities to help them relax and re-focus.

So that’s my version of the “lecture.”  And I certainly don’t do that every day.  We have frequent student-led seminar discussions, “fishbowls” and pair work focused on the readings.  We watch videos from time to time that present the material in moving, vivid ways, or we use our historiographical skills to analyze films with problematic historical content or perspectives.  And when we watch videos we watch them actively, pausing to discuss scenes, thinking about authorial point of view, accuracy, significance, and the power of film and photography to shape our understanding of history. Different material calls for different strategies for designing learning, as Wiggins would say, and I think I have a good feel for what works in my subject, with my students, to create effective learning.

Also, the students write constantly.  And they receive very rapid and thorough feedback on every piece of writing that they submit.  That is the most important work they and I do.  Educational consultants seem to have decided that writing isn’t “sexy” enough as an activity anymore. Somehow it no longer counts as “doing.”

This is nonsense perpetuated by people who have been conditioned to expect a certain visual image of what “exciting” learning looks like.  Imagine a photograph of a group of students in safety-goggles huddled around a test tube, or working on expensive laptops, or standing on the banks of a pond holding nets and buckets. We are so accustomed to those images that we automatically read into them a uniform message. “Exciting things are happening here,” the photos say to us.  “This school is up-to-date, and its students are thriving in a modern, engaging learning environment!”  Well, maybe. But Grant Wiggins himself always cautioned us that not every activity that looks “cool” is actually producing meaningful learning.  And in history, meaningful learning often looks like an individual, alone, reading a book or other text, thinking about the material, and coming up with something meaningful to say about it.  And if you keep doing that, keep reading and thinking and writing and discussing, you gradually develop a broader and broader and deeper and deeper worldview that informs your understanding of yourself, your place in the world, the things you value and the things you oppose, your empathy for others, and the way you make meaning out of your daily life.

I think history is important.  And to the consultants and administrators (who are hardly ever historians, and rarely have they been classroom teachers for very long) who are always hounding history teachers to be more “relevant” by deploying the ed-tech bling and the latest fad, I’d like to say that history is too important for you to bastardize it for your public-relations purposes or to use as a straw man to further your consulting career.  My colleagues and I are historians and we are effective teachers. If you’d like to talk with us about what we do, that would be fantastic.  We’d love to show you what we’re up to, what our kids are doing, and why it matters.  But stop telling me that I “lecture” all the time, because you don’t know what that means, and you don’t know what you’re talking about.

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