George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Since the 1990s, I’ve mothballed the lecture -- "where the teacher talks and hopefully the students listen" -- with other scorned practices: popcorn reading, multiple-choice quizzes, test-prep drills, lower-level "recitation" questions, crossword puzzles and the like. But the fact is that few practices are completely bad or good given the infinite variety of students, curriculum choices and instructional strengths. Besides, making teachers wrong for professional choices blunts their power. I'll come back to that idea.

After dipping into the controversy over lectures, the paragraphs below will explore why this instructional method deserves some love, followed by tips on how to enhance its impact.

Debating the Lecture Method

Most educators agree that since the Middle Ages, the lecture has been over-used. Where agreement ends is on the question of its advantages and disadvantages as an instructional approach. These are just a handful of reasons to abandon lectures:

On the other hand, several strong arguments support the use of lectures:

How to Build a Better Lecture

Because all teachers at some point find it necessary to lecture, we have a responsibility to maximize our capabilities as oral presenters. Here are some tips for doing just that.

Know and Communicate Your Goals

Make your objectives clear to your students up front. A 45-minute video, How to Speak: Lecture Tips from Patrick Winston, demonstrates this technique. I was hooked when Winston claimed that his speech "could make the difference between a career-launching experience and career-busting experience."

Engage Your Audience Immediately

Students might not share your passion for Shelly, or Pythagoras, or the Magna Carta. Shocker! One solution is to inject some novelty into your lecture. How?

  • Ask students to tweet a question they have about the topic, and make it your mission to answer the questions in your presentation.
  • Find a thematically related work on PoemHunter and read it to provide context. Connect the topic with contemporary music or personalities relevant to kids.
  • Tell a story about the content. Decades ago, one of my high school teachers started class by describing a boy named Mike who never opened his history textbook. After graduating, Mike joined the army and was killed in the Tet Offensive. That story introduced an unforgettable lecture on the Vietnam War.

Mix It Up

Don't be a purist. Use different styles, formats and media when you lecture, like Pecha Kucha, the 60-Second Lecture, or the Punctuated Lecture. Joan Middendor and Alan Kalish collected dozens of "change up" lecture strategies that I refer to several times a semester. And the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard links to dozens of lecture innovations, including Twenty Ways to Make Lectures More Participatory.

Interact with Your Students

Great teachers and orators listen. They're so attentive, they can detect when their audience's breathing changes. To them, lecturing is an intimate act -- a quality that is missing from online video lectures. They leave time for questions at transition points. But don't start these interactions by asking, "Any questions?" According to Stanford's Teaching Commons: Checklist for Effective Lecturing, it is more helpful to ask, "What parts of this are still a little unclear or confusing for you?" or "What do I need to explain again?"

Bring Great Materials

For advice on creating engaging lecture handouts, read Anna Johnson's Good Handout Design: How to Make Sure Your Students are Actually Learning from your Lecture Notes and Oliver Adria's How to Write a Presentation Handout: 5 Effective Ideas. Also avoid bad PowerPoint.

Less is More

Lecture less frequently and keep your presentations short. For most students, a talk that extends beyond 15 minutes is a misery safari.

Don't worry about using the "wrong" instructional method. Deepening your professional skills and reactions to how students experience your methods is always the right approach. The power of professional wisdom was expressed best by Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: "People who have never worked with steel have trouble seeing this . . . Steel can be any shape you want if you are skilled enough, and any shape but the one you want if you are not."

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Jennifer Gonzalez's picture
Jennifer Gonzalez
Blogger at Cult of Pedagogy

This is a great read, Todd. So many links to good resources, and I'm happy to see Pecha Kucha included among them -- such an interesting challenge, that Pecha Kucha! Thanks for putting it all together.

I would love to see good lectures resurrected as part of every teacher's repertoire. The notion that a well-designed lecture is an "illustration of an educated mind" is lovely, and true! If we hope to teach our own students to present their ideas and share information in a dynamic way, we'd better be pretty good at doing it ourselves. And the skills required to put together a compelling lecture would be the same for essay writing, narrating a video, or producing the text for other digital productions, like prezis or self-guided slideshows; modeling them will transfer to plenty of other areas.

Reintroducing this art to a new generation of teachers can only make them better at what they do; it's a tool we shouldn't throw away.Thanks for helping to bring it back.

p.s. "Misery safari." Nice one.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

The first time one of my adult participants voiced dissatisfaction with my unwillingness to lecture, I wrote it off. Same the second and third times. What I finally realized, though, was that there are learners who aren't served well unless they get to hear the "voice of experience" speak to them directly- in the same way that other learners need to discuss and others need to create, etc. Since then, I've really made an effort to work in multiple modalities, balancing lecture, PBL, Socratic Seminar and the like to provide as many doors as possible into the learning.

Thanks for a well thought out post!

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Edcamper, Former @Edutopia, Founder of Social Media Marketing Consultancy aimed at helping educational orgs.

Pecha Kucha is a great way to make your lectures more engaged and may want to invite your students to be a part of it (that's really what Pecha Kucha was designed for).

Also, don't forget to mention the Ignite format -- really awesome way to make your lectures entertaining and efficient. Here's a blog post on it with some helpful tips:

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)

Hi Elana! Ignite is also a terrific teacher preparation exercise. It helps methods students learn how to synthesize, connect with an audience, and learn how to recover when their adrenaline is spiked. Here's the assignment sheet I use in my methods course: It contains models, "how to" info, a rubric, and advice on how how to prepare.

Lisa's picture

Really this topic comes down to one question: What is your desired effect? As more and more students move toward online learning (even within the K-12 Public education system), we are left wondering, "Do students need teachers to acquire new information?" The answer seems simple, "No!" However, students (young minds) need guidance on how to be critical of this abundant information. If this is my desired outcome, then is lecture ever needed or can students continue to access information with the right questions?
Stay connected:

CoachPritchJ5's picture
High School Social Studies/ HC Boys XC and T&F, AC Wrestling; Raritan

Great read! I can't wait to check out the links too!

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