In Praise of the Lecture

A great war is being waged in the schools of America.  To teach or not to teach – that is the question.

Lots of knowledge or hardly any knowledge at all?  Teach directly or hardly teach at all?  Constructivism is the contemporary jargon for hardly teaching at all.  It's a destructive fad.  Can this be explained?

The direct transmission of knowledge by teachers, the acquisition of knowledge by students – these traditional goals are precisely what the Education Establishment seeks to eliminate from the culture.  Our educrats seem to be in love with ignorance and eager to make sure everyone has plenty of it.

Traditionally, teachers knew ten times, probably one hundred times, what students knew.  A lecture is the fastest, most efficient way to pass all that knowledge from teacher to students.  Schools around the world have always done it that way.  All corporations around the world do it that way.  (Ken Robinson, when he speaks at TED, does it that way.)  Those who know talk.  Those who don't know keep quiet and maybe learn something.  What a brilliant concept.

Of course, let's stipulate that a lively lecture is better than a dull lecture.  Let's agree that teaching aids such as film and models are usually helpful.  Showmanship, of course, is always welcome.  The question is: who provides the knowledge, and who is in control of the whole process?  Traditionally, the teacher has both responsibilities.  The Education Establishment seems obsessed with terminating those responsibilities.

A lecturer's job is to organize and prioritize knowledge.  It's the same job whether talking about a liver cell or the Russian Revolution.  There are  probably a half-dozen things you should know right off the bat, another 25 things you should know next, then another hundred things you need to know by the third week.  A student has no idea which information is primary, secondary, tertiary, and so on.

As new material is learned, students find additional information in their homework assignments.  This one-two punch – lecture, homework, lecture, homework – has been used for thousands of years, because it's efficient.

The student, of course, is an ignoramus (Latin for "we don't know").  The goal of every school is to move the student expeditiously from ignoramus to educated.  If you have extra time, then you can frolic with Constructivism.  If you have students who are extraordinarily self-directed, then by all means let them loose to do their own research.  But if you look at the typical bartending school, medical school, language school, or any other real school with ordinary students, you will find that the whole point is to push the process along.  There are rarely any extra minutes.

If you're not interested in efficiency, not concerned with whether anybody learns very much, you naturally attack the lecture.  So quaint!  So old-fashioned!  That's the message we hear endlessly from our Education Establishment.

As one education site notes: "It is said, for example, that lectures presume that all students learn at the same pace and fail to provide instructors with feedback about what aspects of the lesson students have mastered. [Tests have always served precisely this function.] Students' attention may wander during lectures, and they may more easily forget information encountered in this passive manner. Lectures also emphasize learning by listening, which may disadvantage students who favor other learning styles." 

This sophistry is not at a high level.  The Education Establishment seems to be running out of gimmicks.

So here's where we are now with the war against the lecture and indeed the war against education.  Foundational knowledge is maligned, even though this is absolutely essential for any long-term success.  The scaffolding from small facts up to large concepts is derided, even though this is necessary if one is to become an educated person.

Still, this constant drumbeat against the lecture seems excessive.  People like Ken Robinson have built careers around making fun of educated teachers transmitting knowledge to uneducated students.  This is ridiculed as the "factory method."  Apparently we're supposed to believe that hundreds of years ago people didn't have bells to stop and start classes.  Any school, when it's efficient and successful, will have aspects of an assembly line, if you insist on the point.  Naysaying critics just go on and on.  How do we explain all this?

My theory is that the Education Establishment desperately wants to create a protective zone around Constructivism.  They love this gimmick precisely because it does not work very well.  So they must protect it.  Chiefly, they ridicule other options.  Most especially, they ridicule the idea that a teacher should be a sage on a stage.  They insist that the teacher must now be a facilitator, who wanders around smiling and nudging.  In short, they praise what is inefficient.  Do you think that's an extreme conclusion?  It's precisely analogous to the coup that forced phonics out of  the public schools and pumped in inferior methods centered on sight-words.  From one end of the schools to the other, our Education Establishment damns what works and builds a cult around what does not.

We've heard hundred of rosy predictions that students, if only we can get rid of sages on stages, will learn so much more.  But do a thought experiment on this.  In a student-centered classroom, largely ignorant people are encouraged to speak up.  Sure, sometimes that could be helpful.  But what about all the other students who have to listen to those ignorant comments?  It's not an efficient use of time.  That's the point.

Here's what the anti-lecture crowd always envisages.  If we let the inmates run the asylum, then the asylum will somehow become more educational.

Siegfried Engelmann said a wonderful thing: "Our educators are fundamentally looking for magic." 

Simply put, let's stop looking for abracadabra.  Let's teach children all the facts and knowledge they can handle.  Education will happen.

The attack on the lecture is a symptom of a broader attack on knowledge.  Our progressive educators want a leveled classroom.  If some kids start learning, then you have inequalities.  "Social justice" demands there be no inequalities, which means it demands only the most minimal education.  That's the sophistry we are trapped inside of.

(Addendum: Fortunately, there are people still praising the lecture.  Here are two examples.)

Bruce Deitrick Price explains educational theories and methods on his site,