The Value of the “Sage on the Stage”

If you want to sound like you’re a serious, forward-thinking educator these days, you’d best master a couple of facile cliches: (1) speak derisively of the “sage on the stage” in order (2) to exhort colleagues to embrace “student-centered, active learning.” To help yourself convey the proper degree of disdain for the lecture, think back to the very worst versions of that device that you can remember being inflicted on you in your own education, then generalize from that particular experience into universally valid propositions.

Or you can reject totalizing slogans and consider that at least some sages do much good from their stages.

That’s become a near-quarterly refrain ’round these parts, but lest you think I’m alone in my recovering appreciation for the lecture…

14th century lecture, as painted by Laurentius de Voltolina
Thornburg pointed to the talking and sleeping students in this 14th century painting by Laurentius de Voltolina as evidence that the lecture has never worked; Garbarino drew different lessons from the same image – Wikimedia

First, Collin Garbarino rebutted several arguments from “educational futurist” David Thornburg, claiming that the lecture “worked in the fourteenth century, and it still works today. For the last eight hundred years, schools have been dealing with limited budgets and high student-teacher ratios. The lecture-based model mitigates these obstacles.” While Garbarino acknowledged that not all teachers are great lecturers (and not all students are great students), he thought the problem was that bad lecturers

just haven’t been taught what a good lecture looks like. They do not understand fundamental principles of rhetoric and public speaking. Some teachers know what a good lecture looks like, but they do not have the time or energy to actually create a good lecture. Teachers at all levels spend precious energy jumping through administrative hoops. Adjunct college professors have the added complication of trying to teach six or seven classes at three or four different schools in order to pay off those student loans. Excellent lectures take time. Sometimes there’s just no time.

Can we please stop blaming the lecture? I’m the first to admit that not all lectures are good. But that’s true of all media. Not all books are good. Not all blog posts are good. Probably most books published last year were not worth reading. Certainly most blog posts written last year was not worth reading. Even though most lectures might be bad, it doesn’t mean that the lecture itself is to blame. For most content areas, the lecture remains the best medium for educating a large group.

Likewise, writer and high school English teacher Abigal Walthausen contended that “there is immense value in lecture, and it must not be written off as boring and ineffective teaching.” Noting a 2010 Harvard study in which “students exposed to lecture more than other classroom activities showed more significant learning gains than their peers,” Walthausen made several arguments for a reappraisal of lecturing:

  1. There is a variety of teaching styles — why force good lecturers into other modes? “If the community of educators has agreed to value student learning styles, why not allow adults the freedom to play to their own strengths as well?”
  2. The lecture models important behaviors and attitudes to students. Here Walthausen quotes Mary Burgan’s “In Defense of Lecturing,” in which the former AAUP general secretary points to the value of lecturers serving as “models of knowledgeable adults grappling with first principles in order to open their students’ understanding” and displaying passion and erudition that is “valuable in itself—regardless of the rewards of approval or popularity.”
  3. Scholastic teaching at the University of Paris in 14th century
    Another old standby for illustrating the lecture: a scholastic philosopher teaches at the University of Paris in the 14th century – Wikimedia

    It serves some students much better than small group activities. Back to Walthausen, who finds that having students take notes in lecture “gives many of them lead time in developing questions and comments that they can be proud of contributing to discussion later in the class. It is for these reasons I feel that lecturing can create a more democratic experience for students than a lesson that is entirely student-focused…. the lecture format, far more than the noisy seminar, enabled me to think deeply about a topic rather than being distracted by poorly planned and redundant comments from peers (often aggravated by a teacher who is reluctant, for fear of being too top-down in terms of pedagogy, to deflect them). Besides frustration with the dominant participants in many a seminar class, I have also wasted time distracted by the anxiety that I had to race others to an appropriate comment in order to accumulate those necessary class participation points.”

On this last point, see also a discussion thread at the U.S. Intellectual History blog, where Andrew Hartman asked readers what they thought of group work. I don’t mean to force a false choice between lecture and discussion, since most history classes I’ve known employ healthy amounts of both. However, my own experience and observations suggest that there’s a good deal of uncomfortable truth to John Haas’ observations.


2 thoughts on “The Value of the “Sage on the Stage”

  1. Great thoughts. In my week long classes at work I use a variety of different methods. Also depending on what students I have I make the decision as to how interactive the lecture portions are. Sometimes you have to be that ‘Sage on the Stage’ and other times you can mix it up more and have more discussion.

    On Sundays I am teaching a class on the life of David and sometimes I have to resist the urge to just give a lecture instead of having my students recount what happened from their readings and then talk about it. I love to talk about History, but it is more important to understand why things happen and find something to apply in our lives.

  2. Good word, Chris. I have been thinking about this a little too with: (a) the need to teach a couple of fully online courses in the spring where I will not be able to interact as much with students during my teaching; (b) the fun of listening to great lectures online and through the Great Courses series available through the public library; (c) and being a new professor how I can imagine that I will over time gravitate to more lecture while now I am still testing my content through discussion and interaction. I do feel like some appropriation and freshness is lost through the lack of interaction in a fully-online courses and through lecture-heavy courses. But is not “reading a book” similar to “listening to a lecture” in the “one-way reception”? And one certainly can gain a lot of from reading even though it is not “interactive!”

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