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Whither Lecture?

Whither Lecture?

As reported here often, the lecture as pedagogy is fading from the educational scene. As observed in a fine article in The Atlantic by Christine Gross-Loh, lecture has been compared by its critics to the medical practice of blood-letting—a strategy that needs replacement badly. 

The piece gives a fascinating portrait of how the lecture emerged, and discusses various controversies today. Most authorities tend to place more historical emphasis than she does on the expansion of education to the masses, as lecturing to a class became more practical and economically feasible than one-on-one tutoring. The writer also tends to associate the current emphasis on active learning with elite institutions, where students tend to be full-time. A flipped class, in which students watch presentations online and concentrate on problem-solving in class, works better with strong students who have the time, she says. 

Ms. Gross-Loh observes rightly that there is a big difference between a good lecture and a bad one, even faulting herself for an initial lack of skill in public speaking. Classes in speech communication are often casualties in our present drive to streamline the curriculum, she notes. Many of us can relate. 

For community colleges, the wise approach to this evolution should be flexible. Certainly active and collaborative learning are worthy strategies. And, since technology changes everything, it seems reasonable to conclude that pedagogy should change as well, especially in quantifiable subjects. 

But, let's face it, you almost never hear active learning described by students (in their evaluations or in overheard conversations) as fascinating, inspiring, or gripping. "Awesome," however, is a term often used to portray instructors who lecture, even if they do it every day. Supervisors of faculty will also tell you that many students find self-directed and collaborative approaches confusing, if not done well. That's the key. 

It doesn't have to be one or the other. That is a false choice. Many instructors employ what might be called an interactive lecture, using no notes, probing students with questions and hypotheticals. (Okay, this might describe Socrates, of course, who did not end in a way we would likely choose. On the other hand, we still talk about him and try to live up to his standard.) 

Put simply, it behooves us to allow gifted teachers to use personal, even idiosyncratic, techniques to do what they do best, without penalty or shame.