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When Is it Right For a Teacher to Lecture?

I have two distinct memories in my childhood of being “lectured” by an adult. The first was my girlfriend’s mother, after I disobeyed her curfew as a teen. I knew better, but I tested the boundaries by returning her daughter after our date 10 minutes after the curfew. I had a great time on the date, but the lecture afterward was not fun.

The other was a course I took in college. My professor was a brilliant man, full of accurate information that would be on the exam the following month. It was a science class, however, that I would not have enrolled in if it wasn’t required. To be blunt, it was an extremely boring class, week after week.

These kinds of experiences have caused the term “lecture” to fall into ill repute.

Are Lectures Bad?

The data on project-based learning and experiential learning is clear. Students not only prefer to learn via experiences vs. a lecture, but their learning actually increases with this kind of pedagogy. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, “A 2014 meta-analysis of 228 studies of lectures and active-learning strategies showed that the results were decidedly one-sided in favor of active learning. So much so that the authors found it ethically questionable to make students attend lecture-based courses, given all that we know about how ineffective they are. “If the studies had been medical experiments, they probably would have been stopped for benefit—meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discontinued because the treatment being tested was clearly more beneficial.”

The solution to education, however, is not that simple.

When teachers use “active learning” styles, things become messy and vague. If the student does, indeed, understand the lesson, it takes longer and often teachers or parents remain unsure if the objective has been met. Josh Eyler, director of Rice University’s teaching center, wrote last year, “It can create the illusion that the answers to teaching challenges are both monolithic and easily developed.’ Active learning, he noted, has become ‘an easy thing to prescribe as a cure but difficult to put into practice because it covers such a vast array of possibilities.”

What’s more, experiential or active learning takes time and is emotionally tougher. A November essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education argued that, “Active learning and other ‘high-impact practices’ in the classroom require so much extra work from an instructor that they can lead to faculty burnout. Whereas before, it seems, it was enough for professors just to know their subject, now it’s all a lot more complicated.”

So Where Do Lectures Fit into Our Leadership?

While I am a fan of experiential learning, I do believe there is a right time for teachers, parents, coaches and employers of young people to offer the proverbial “lecture.”

The right time to offer information is when the students actually have a question.

I believe our first job is to create a “question” in the minds of our students. If we are answering questions that no one is asking it will surely fall on deaf ears. Even if we’re absolutely correct in our information, it will not get through. Students learn on a need to know basis—so we must create the need to know.

Consider this analogy.

Suppose a friend from out of town calls you for directions to your house. They need your address. My guess is, you won’t jump into the Socratic Method to make this friend discover your address on their own. They’re already on the journey and they need help. Information is most helpful when the need arises, and the question is asked. This is what we must create in the minds of our learners.

Three Phases to Get to Your Lecture

1. Begin with a scenario that is intriguing and relevant.

Teachers or parents must begin by making an issue feel interesting and relevant. If our topic feels like unrelated theories—well, good luck with that. Generation Z is far too pragmatic for this. We must tie our lesson plan or topic to something they care about.

2. Offer the objective but let them see they need more information to reach it.

Next, clarify a learning objective, but don’t share everything up front. Start with a great topic but create ambiguity before offering clarity. The goal should be clear, but the insight or tools to reach it should come as they recognize their need for it.

3. Play the role of a consultant by providing information as they request it.

These first two steps position you perfectly as a consultant. A consultant comes alongside a client and consults. They enable that client to reach a goal by providing insight or resources as needed. When they “lecture” it’s because the client asks for it.

If you’re facilitating Habitudes® be sure you begin by setting up the problem you wish to solve. Cultivate questions in the minds of your learners before ever sharing the answer. Create the dilemma, stimulate disequilibrium, and only when there’s tension should you offer some guidance. Problem first. Principle second.

So go ahead and give a lecture—but make sure it’s time for one.

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  1. Jordan Mayer on May 9, 2019 at 10:21 am

    Thank you for this perspective. I am a believer in the active learning movement, but at times it has seemed to shift too far in that direction. I’ve wondered how a student will ever develop learning skills if the instruction never requires those actions. There is enormous value in learning how to listen, take notes, organize content, and synthesize auditory/visual information. It can’t all be a game, an experience, or an activity. If education is preparation for the real world, at some point, most students will have a job that requires them to display polished learning skills. Maybe it’s listening to presentations, meetings, and conferences or simply reading and analyzing various written information, but those who excel in these areas will have an advantage.

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  3. Kathleen Miller on May 10, 2019 at 8:18 am

    As a college professor, there is increasing pressure to make every class more entertaining to keep students’ interest. Every semester, I tweak and adjust planned classes to find better ways to engage my students. However, I only have 1 1/4 hours, twice a week to get a massive amount of information to them. Although I assign readings and tasks to be completed at home, they do not complete them unless they know there will be a mandatory assignment or quiz on the material, Then they all complain (and leave negative course evaluations) about the amount of work. Often I feel between a rock and a hard place. I don’t want to assign extra work – I just want them to complete the readings at home and come to class prepared to discuss. I don’t want to lecture the whole time, but when they come into class with absolutely no understanding of the material, what am I to do??

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When Is it Right For a Teacher to Lecture?