Is Lecture Really Bad?

No, lecture is not bad. In fact, it can serve as a powerful and effective tool for learning. Some of the same people who ridicule lecture as an unhelpful dinosaur in the digital age are also huge fans of YouTube, TeacherTube, Kahn’s Academy, iTunes University, and TED Talks. While not all, many of the “favorites” of people who advocate for such online resources could be categorized as lecture. Granted, they are often wonderfully engaging and creative lectures, rich with illustrations and other media. Yet, they are often still just lectures. When a lecture is recorded and distributed on the web, it does take on some new and powerful features. You can can pause, fast forward, rewind, and replay at will; and that gives the power to the learner rather than the lecturer. You can also often reuse, re-purpose, and redistribute them. That is no small matter either. And yet, all of these added features are built upon an age-old method of content distribution…lecture.

My problem with many of the bumper sticker critiques of lecture is that they are just that, bumper sticker comments. They can be rhetorical statements that too often do not leave room for good, healthy, lengthy dialogue about the benefits and limitations of a teaching method that has at least contributed to the development of some of the world’s greatest minds. Given this fact, perhaps there should be room for more discussion than simply lecture=bad. In fact, approaching the topic in such a dogmatic way, leaving little room for other perspectives, seems to be falling prey to the very same spirit that leads some to conclude that lecture=bad. Instead, here are some simple questions that I offer to guide a substantive discussion about the strengths and limitations of lecture in an increasingly digital world. I invite you to suggest additional questions as well.

What do I want the students to learn and what is the best way to help them learn it?

Is lecture a part of the learning experience or the entire learning experience? If it is part of the learning experience, do learners know how to “use it”?

To what extent can skills and mastery be acquired by lecture? What else is needed and how can we plan for it?

If there is a goal to a given learning experience, how can we help the learner’s check their progress toward that goal? And what do they do if they are not progressing?

What are the benefits and limitations of recorded lectures compared to a live unrecorded lecture?

What is the appropriate length of a lecture for a given topic or audience?

In what ways can visuals and illustration enhance a lecture?

What are the best reasons for using or not using lecture as part of a specific learning experience? What are the alternatives? What are the benefits and limitations of the alternatives?

Do I think of teaching as about educating a group or educating a group of individuals? How does my answer inform my teaching strategy choice?

Those are a few questions to get us going. Now it is your turn.