No, the Lecture Isn’t Dead

Preach it, Dr. Richard Gunderman!

The nation’s 80,000 medical, 20,000 dental, and 180,000 nursing school students might think that lectures are dead, or at least dying. Health professions curricula increasingly feature small-group, interactive teaching, and successive waves of enthusiasm have arisen for laptops, PDAs, and tablet computers as the new paradigms of learning. Commentators frequently single out the lecture as the prototypically old school, obsolete learning technology, in comparison to which newer educational techniques offer interactive, customized, and self-paced learning alternatives.

This is no arcane academic matter. The LCME, the organization that accredits US medical schools, strictly limits the number of hours per week students may spend in lectures. So seriously does the organization take this mandate that, in October of 2011, it placed one of Texas’s medical schools on probation, in part because its curriculum relied too heavily on “passive” approaches to learning — foremost among them, lectures. In medical education circles, “lecture” is fast becoming a term of derision.

Hogarth, Scholars at a Lecture
William Hogarth, “Scholars at a Lecture” (1736) – Wikimedia

And yet, recalling the words of Mark Twain, widespread reports of the lecture’s demise are somewhat exaggerated. I believe that we should revisit this venerable educational method before we sign its death certificate.

Gunderman (in a post up this morning at The Atlantic) makes the case that lecturing — when done well — remains an extraordinarily effective mode of teaching, in health sciences or elsewhere in the world of education.

Read his whole post, but let me pull out one point that seems especially important: that there is something unique about “the physical presence of the lecturer and the unfolding of the lecture in real time” that makes a difference in how students learn. Once we understand that the “core purpose of a great lecturer is not primarily to transmit information” (since there are other ways to do that — e.g., reading), then we can see that

The real purpose of a lecture is to show the mind and heart of the lecturer at work, and to engage the minds and hearts of learners. Is the lecturer enthusiastic about the topic? Why? Could I get enthused about this, too? How could I use this to take better care of my patients? Is this the kind of doctor or nurse I aspire to be some day?

A great lecturer’s benefit to learners extends far beyond preparing for an exam, earning a good grade, or attaining some form of professional certification. The great lecture opens learners’ eyes to new questions, connections, and perspectives that they have not considered before, illuminating new possibilities for how to work and live. Without question, it also helps learners who pay attention earn a better grade, but it manages to make the topic take on a life of its own and seem worth knowing for its own sake, beyond such narrow, utilitarian advantage.

I wish I had seen Gunderman’s post last fall: it would have helped crystallize some of the ideas I was trying to get across in my tenure renewal essay, where I acknowledged that I’d come to “rethink the conventional wisdom that lecture is an outmoded, inflexible tool destined for the ash heap of pedagogical history.”

Most of all, I’d have resonated with the stress Gunderman placed on “delight” — not simply that of the lecturer (though that’s essential), but also of the learners, who are “not merely sitting and passively listening. Far from it, they are challenged and engaged, actively thinking and imagining right along with the lecturer as both struggle toward new insights…. A great lecture is not a rote mechanical reading of notes, but a kind of dance, in which lecturer and listeners watch, respond to, and draw energy and inspiration from each other.”

Gunderman’s argument made me think of some words from Parker Palmer that I did think to quote in my initial tenure application:

Parker Palmer
Parker Palmer – Center for Courage and Renewal

Students will often say that their favorite teachers are ones who are enthusiastic about their subjects even if they are not masters of teaching technique. More is happening here than the simple contagion of enthusiasm. Such teachers overcome the students’ fear of meeting this stranger, this subject, by revealing the friendship that binds subject and teacher. Students are affirmed by the fact that this teacher wants them to know and be known by this valued friend in the context of a well-established love.

“For Palmer,” I wrote in 2007, “the teacher must have a ‘living relationship with the subject at hand,’ since this will help overcome the strangeness of the unknown (for me, the unknown past) and ‘[invite] students into that relationship as full partners.'” (the Palmer quotations come from To Know as We Are Known, pp. 103-104)

This need not be confined to lecturing, and I’m sure it’s possible to convey my own delight and enthusiasm (and discern it in the students who are my partners in learning) in many ways. But ten years into my teaching career, I’ve come to know myself well enough to know that I do it best through lecture.

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