Lecturing as modeling – a defense

The lecture has been under attack for some time now.

Most recently, I read Tony Bates’ analysis of productivity and online learning.  There were so many issues in it, I could not possibly tackle them all here. His focus is on ways to create productivity gains, so already I am struggling. Education is about changing people’s minds, rather than collecting data for student success and determining what qualifies as “good” course design. If online classes had been put in these terms (productivity, data collection, scale, content development, quality), I never would have agreed to create my first online class back in 1998.

But here I’ll just tackle the idea of “content” (meaning subject-based information) as conveyed via lecture. A couple of quotations from Tony’s post:

Content is only one component of teaching (and an increasingly less important component); other components such as learner support and assessment are even more important.

and he notes work like mine as an “impediment” to progress:

[F]aculty often see themselves as  creating unique and original material in their teaching; this is true occasionally and needs to be respected, especially where faculty are teaching about their own and related research. Often though faculty are merely repackaging prior knowledge. That prior knowledge is increasingly being made available and open for anyone to use. 

This “repackaging” of prior knowledge is also called, among historians, “interpretation”. Essentially, doing history is a process of analyzing sources and creating new knowledge through new interpretation.

New knowledge itself is a repackaging of information and previous knowledge, in any field. To move a subject forward requires either building on or rejecting past knowledge from a foundation of understanding that knowledge.

So when I lecture, I am reframing the historical information and arguments (which we call historiography) into my interpretation, which I am sharing with students via lecture.

Can they find the information on Wikipedia? Indeed they can. Do they have the skills to formulate this information into knowledge? Most do not. Do they need modeling of how to do that? Yes, they do. That’s my job.

We are not talking about the medieval practice of reading aloud from scarce texts, used here by Michael Ullyot as a justification for flipping the classroom. Even if texts are read aloud, the job of the reader in any age is to gloss them, not just read them verbatim. Even in times of scarce texts (the ancient world’s yeshivas come to mind) the scholar’s role is to interpret.

If I do not model ways to reframe the facts of history, I am not teaching. I can do it through lecture, or commentary, or notes on exams, but however I do it, I am engaged in instruction. And because I share my interpretations, based on my knowledge and experience as a historian living in the present age, they are unique, or at least rare.  Students on every evaluation comment on the usefulness of my online lectures to their understanding (while many skip the assigned “content” reading).

Again from Tony’s post:

[T]he quality of open educational resources developed by faculty working alone, without applying best course design practices, is often very low and such ‘open’ resources are often not considered suitable for re-use .

My online lectures may be seen as “low quality” if other people tried to use them in their out-of-a-box course. They are openly available, and Creative Commons licensed, but I’m supposed to feel bad because they aren’t appropriate for adoption by others? If they aren’t “suitable for re-use”, I hope it’s because other historians are sharing their own interpretations, by whatever method.

I think it will become important for online “artisan” teachers to be able to defend their approach, to be able to articulate why our methods are superior to those that emphasize cost effectiveness and economies of scale. If we don’t, it will be worse than just being out of a job or being forced to simply assess student work based on someone else’s “good” course design. We could undermine the very foundations of our disciplines.


4 comments to Lecturing as modeling – a defense

  • You do not have to defend a thing. To paint a judgement on a wide swath of experiences of what lectures are into a single entity, thumbs up or thumbs down is… foolhardy.

    When I got to speak at the UMW Minding the Future event in October, I reflected on all of my memorable learning experiences, and they all involves a teacher’s presence, in a room, doing exactly what you describe. And for that matter, many of the un-memorable experiences also involved lectures. It’s not lectures, its what the lecturer is doing, and you are spot on about a false stereotype of Ferris Bueller droning note readers.

    Listen to your gut and your students, who are there in the room, not some big expert thousands of miles away painting broad brush strokes from a desk.

  • Thanks, Lisa. You make some excellent points

    I am not arguing that lectures have no place at all. What I am criticizing is the standard 13 times a week lecture-based course. Modelling through lectures can be useful, but it is the faculty member doing the interpretation. Wouldn’t it be better to provide direct guidelines and criteria for the students, to enable them do the finding and interpretation themselves, and use your time for guiding and evaluating their responses?

    For me, productivity is as much about getting the students to do the work – they are the ones who need to do the learning.

    • Hi, Tony! I do provide the criteria and guidelines, and have them do what I’m trying to model. In fact, I’ve been doing this more often than necessary (every week). I think that’s where assessment comes in, and where they do their own interpretation. I am all for them doing the work – I cannot do it for them. So no, it wouldn’t be *better* than lecturing – skills work (which is what this is) is one way to assess the practice of the technique being modeled.

      Over the years I have tried many different pedagogical models, from “active learning” in groups (with no lecture) to standard lecture to open discovery. I have seen no real difference in achievement or depth of knowledge, although there is a difference in student satisfaction and other affective aspects. I have had mixed success with them “doing the work” in class , but that’s a different story.

  • Jwr12

    “Wouldn’t it be better to provide direct guidelines and criteria for the students, to enable them do the finding and interpretation themselves, and use your time for guiding and evaluating their responses?”

    No, I don’t think so.

    I’ll call this the “cooking show problem.”

    There are certain kinds of skills — opening up an Excel spreadsheet, retrieving data from precise point A and putting it in box B — that probably can be taught by giving people an instruction sheet and then spot checking whether they can engineer practice out of it. Indeed, that’s called a textbook!

    But there are more complicated things that you need to watch someone do to really get. Fly fishing; making a flan; doing a cross over dribble; and, yes, telling a long form story about history. It’s possible to do these things via illustrated texts, sure. But people learn more quickly and with a better sense of intangibles by watching how it’s done.

    A lecture, in this sense, models how history is done, just as a cooking show models how to make a flan. To claim that a history lecture is just content — or that the skills involved can be broken down into a short list and then practiced — is like saying, “All you need to do to dance Swan Lake is 1) stand on your toes; 2) plie; 3) jump lightly.” It’s very hard to imagine what ballet is without seeing it. So to, a good presentation of history models a whole range of skills on a more intuitive level than constant skill sheets.

    I’m not saying do away with discussion etc. But the “sage on the stage” takes too much flack. It’s important as well.