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Lectures, various types

“I lecture, but I do it in a dynamic, interactive way!”

Teachers are sometimes justifiably defensive about their lectures. In many circles, lectures are a four-letter word. This flies against not only hundreds of years of pedagogical practice, but cuts against the teacher-as-expert model of instruction.

Of course, there are good reasons for that too. Lectures can be too long and a not terribly good medium for conveying information. I do think it is a good medium to generate excitement and momentum about a topic, as well as brief explanations of the pitfalls in a particular concept.

This isn’t a pro- vs. anti-lecture argument. This is just a brief atlas of four different lecture models, with animated .gifs of course.

Lecture Model 1: Teacher talks

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This is our lecture hall model. The lecturer talks aloud, leading listeners through a topic.

It’s not as bad as it sounds though, potentially. This is basically our TED Talk model and people love TED Talks. Provided the material and/or the presenter are interesting enough, this is a perfectly fine model of information and interest conveyance. If you can pull it off and retain interest, more power to you.

Lecture Model 2: Teacher talks –> Teacher questions a student –> Student responds –> Teacher talks

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This is actually the lecture model that inspired this post. When teachers claim their lectures are “interactive”, a lot of times this is what they mean. I’m not sure this is terribly interactive. It can be! But it also can not be.

This is probably my least favorite type of lecture, and probably the most prevalent. Under the guise of a “dynamic, interactive” lecture, it often becomes a “gotcha” lecture and “can you recite what I just said?” lecture. It’s basically the tactic I use when my kids start to tune me out.

Certainly there are benefits to such a lecture, but unless you’re being incredibly precise about it, it’s quite possible for a student to go the entire time without engaging with the topic at hand. I suppose the option is usually on the table: “students are free to ask questions in the middle of my instruction!” But in practice, unless that’s truly a norm the lecturer often goes unquestioned.

It’s also inefficient. Consider a 30-minute lecture in which only one person is talking at a time (the student or the teacher). That’s 30 minutes of “discourse.” Even in Lecture format one (outward), you’d have 15 minutes of outward lecture and then 15 extra minutes to do something to get other kids talking. This lecture could easily have been replicated via Zaption or other interactive videoing program.

Lecture Model 3: Teacher talks –> Teacher questions a student –> Student responds –> Student responds

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This is what a “dynamic, interactive” lecture ought to look like. This is what I think teachers are going for when they go down the path of Lecture model 2; it’s more difficult to pull off, takes more time, and allows enough grey area that some teachers aren’t willing to cede.

I’m talking about the teaching move where a student responds to a question about something and instead of the teacher confirming, denying, or expanding on the response, a fellow student responds. The teacher sets the conversation in motion but the students become the primary questioners and conversationalists. We see this modeled well in literary circles, but not often in math class.

To encourage this dynamic, a teacher may prompt “Jane, what do you think about Jack’s idea?”, “What words in Jim’s statement resonated with you?”, or, as Kate adeptly incants, “Hey, so-and-so, would you explain your understanding of Bianca’s solution?” Some classrooms have gotten so good at this that the prompt is no longer needed. In Brette’s classroom it became a norm that students would routinely ask things like “can you prove that to me?” and “how are you certain about that?” Music to any lecturers ears.

Lecture Model 4: Teacher talks –> Prompts students to talk –> Students talk

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Not unlike Lecture Model 3, in this case a teacher prompts additional thinking. The teacher may talk for about 30% of the lecture time. There is a lot of “turn and talk…”, and “tell your elbow-partner…”, and “in your groups, discuss…” and so on. At this point, a teacher becomes untethered to the front of the room and can join in the small conversations, prompting additional questions or deeper thinking.

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Next time you’re lecturing, I encourage you to think about the animated .gifs and consider diagramming the conversation, replete with arrows and dots. Researchers do this regularly. Consider becoming a researcher in your own class by tracking the conversation. Invite a peer in to do it for you or video yourself and watch it back. If you’re going to lean on the lecture as a tried and true means of conveying critical content, at least make sure you spend some time diagnosing the lecture model itself.