Students in a lecture class can give the impression of lethargy: Maybe a student sleeps in the back of the classroom, maybe others fidget and doodle. The students who are paying attention may be too focused on their notebooks to flash a look of understanding and inspiration.
Perhaps because of this negative initial impression, lectures are under attack these days. The Common Core standards place far greater value on small-group discussion and student-led work than on any teacher-led instruction. The term “lecture” is entirely out of fashion, as is the unqualified word “lesson.” On recent planning templates released by New York’s Department of Education, only the term “mini-lesson” is used. The term gets its diminutive status because of the fact that only 10 to 15 minutes on the hour are allotted for teacher-disseminated information, while the rest of the class period is focused on student-centered practice in groups or project based learning. But the mini lesson is not even accepted as the most progressive way of teaching. Champions of the “flipped classroom” relegate lectures to YouTube channels. In a recent interview here at The Atlantic, futurist David Thornburg declared that lectures created a depressing experience for him in school.
The tendency to see lecture-based instruction as alienating and stifling to student creativity is not altogether new. In Paulo Friere’s 1970 Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the lecturing teacher was cast as an arrogant imperialist. Alison King coined the flip expression “sage on the stage” in a 1997 article and, although more than half of King’s article consists of ideas for working small group approaches into otherwise lecture-centric courses, demonstrating that she was in no way looking to eliminate the lecture entirely, everyone from Common Core advocates to edtech disrupters has co-opted “sage on the stage” as license to heckle the “out-of-touch expert.” Nevertheless, there is immense value in lecture, and it must not be written off as boring and ineffective teaching.