There is a great article in the New York Times by Molly Worthen, of UNC-Chapel Hill.
It’s been interesting to discuss it with my colleagues. Those of us who work in higher ed understand that there are fashionable trends in education. Right now ‘active learning’ is getting a lot of attention, and has for a few years. Of course, in one sense active learning isn’t new. Ask anyone who’s been an educator for a while and she can tell you that she’s seen this before. Good teachers have always made learning hands-on and engaging.
What Worthen does in this article is sing the praises of the lecture, in its best form. When done well, the lecture is presenting an argument to the students, challenging them to listen and understand before they blurt out a knee-jerk response. A great lecture draws the students in and creates high levels of engagement. It is seldom simply someone standing at the front of the room and talking for an hour. There are questions, disagreements, comparisons to our real life experiences, and sometimes awkward silences. A great lecture is seldom about simply transmitting information.
Personally, I don’t think it’s a question of choosing between the lecture or active learning, and I think that Worthen would agree with me.
“This kind of work [note-taking] prepares students to succeed in the class format that so many educators, parents and students fetishize: the small seminar discussion. A lecture course teaches students that listening is not the same thing as thinking about what you plan to say next — and that critical thinking depends on mastery of facts, not knee-jerk opinions.”
The reactions of my colleagues to the article have been interesting. Some come from science backgrounds and they discuss the lecture as if it were the one-way transmission of information. Some insist that when Worthen talks about interspersing her lectures with questions that Worthen isn’t really lecturing. It’s almost ironic that we have so much trouble hearing her description of the lecture when it conflicts with our own ideas about what a lecture must be, and what it cannot be.
Two ideas that I’m taking away from the article and hope to put into practice next semester when I’m teaching Intro to Philosophy:
- I’m going to assign my students to read the Rebecca Shafir article “The Zen of Listening” as mentioned in the article.
- I’m going to work more with my students on their note-taking skills, and I’m going to require each student to present a critique of my main argument at the following class session.
If you read the NYT article and you have other thoughts that you’d like to share, please feel free to leave a comment.