Friday, May 1, 2015

To Lecture, or Not to Lecture: That is the Question

...along with Some Ideas for Teaching the Cold War

To lecture or not to lecture? That is at least one of the big questions out there for history teachers. And one that generated a lot of attention in a recent post titled, "Why do so many HS history teachers lecture so much?", by Grant Wiggins in which he presented research that says history teachers lecture significantly more than their counterparts in other subjects. In fact, there has been so much interest in the topic, that Wiggins had his colleague, Mark Williams, do a guest post published yesterday to follow up on the topic. (In it, Williams describes a gifted teacher not lecturing about Brown v. Board of Education. He also provides useful information about what teachers can do to increase the quantity and quality of "student" vs. teacher talk.)

There were quite a few comments on the initial post (including two from me). The most common explanations center around the content demands of history and the fact that kids don't read their textbooks.

Now, telling kids what is in the textbook that you assigned but assume they didn't read is probably the dumbest reason for a giving a lecture EVER. But yes, I will admit to having done this on occasion in my first years of teaching U.S. history (War of 1812, I'm talking about you). We likely tell ourselves that we are helping the students "synthesize" or "summarize" what they have already read about. And if we are truly doing that, WHILE adding enriching material that we have gleaned from other sources, and including a pertinent quotation or brief excerpt from a primary source, playing a brief piece of music or showing them some intriguing visuals that clarify the information--a photograph, a map, some charts--and stopping intermittently to ask thought-provoking questions....well, that is a different animal.

But still, there are better reasons for giving a lecture than just summing up a topic that is in your textbook. Here are a few:

  • when you are presenting something that is not in the textbook, usually a complex topic, an issue of historiography, or something that is just left out (e.g. a lecture introducing the concept of realism and idealism as explained in my previous post). Sometimes I have lectured on complex topics on which I have read scholarly essays or a chapter in a book that I want to present to students. There is a lot of material that you can easily present to students--even middle schoolers-- in a brief lecture after you have read the 20-30 page essay or chapter. A lecture is not the only way to do this, but it is a way to do it that is sometimes useful. The idealism/realism concept I discuss in the post mentioned above is a good example. 
  • when you are giving them some biographical background about an important historic figure (like Theodore Roosevelt).
  • when you want to tell them an amazing story in some detail.
  • when, in the interest of time, you want to give them some background on something so that you can move on to another activity in which they need background.

There are some equally good times when not give a lecture:
  • every day
  • the Friday before spring break (and other similar times)
  • the period right after students have done PARCC testing
  • if you are not a good lecturer
  • when you are just spitting back info that can be easily gotten elsewhere (i.e. the textbook) or info that can be presented using a more interactive method
  • the whole period (lots of research out there about student attention spans fading after 18 minutes, some says less)

As I said above, the other comments in Grant Wiggins' post centered around the significant content burdens in history classes compared to other subjects. I completely agree that the content burdens of history are more onerous than in math or English (not sure about science), but as I have said often throughout this blog, we are responsible for navigating that burden wisely, and not succumbing to it. That requires two key things:

  1. judicious selection of what to keep and what to leave out. 
  2. making connections so that students will see the forest through trees. (If you haven't yet read the chapter I keep mentioning from James Loewen's Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited about Doing History, now is the time. It's chapter 1, "The Tyranny of Coverage.") And see some of my earlier posts about this topic by searching on this page using the search terms, "syllabus" and "unit planning."
For me, questions of pedagogy--when to lecture, when not to--I find difficult to tease out from questions about content. So, as I promised at the end of yesterday's post on the Cold War, I want to further examine this question about lecturing by describing two additional resources on the Cold War. One is a lecture, one is not. (Do check out yesterday's post...I don't usually publish two posts so close together, so I'm worried that people will miss it.)

The one that is not, ironically, developed from a lecture I used to give. I know, because I found an old overhead (pre-PowerPoint days) that said "Causes of the Cold War" on it and then listed a few reasons. It appeared to be a rather dull lecture that would not be remotely engaging for 8th graders and so, last spring when I introduced the Cold War I took that as a starting point to create a non-lecture lesson. 

Here is the non-lecture Cold War intro lesson:

I described the technique in my recent post about the U.S. and the Holocaust. Click here for an overview of the technique and here for the cards to use on the Cold War. As I deconstruct what went into the creation of this lesson, I took what could be a pretty long and intense college-level or advanced high school level lecture on causes of the cold war and turned it into an outline, and then turned all the pieces of that outline into information that was put onto cards. And then the students have to put it together.  (This sounds odd, but when you take information off of a screen or 8 1/2 X 11" pieces of papers and put them onto cards, preferably laminated and in color, that students can physically manipulate, somehow, students are more engaged in the material. I have no scientific evidence of this, just my observations that it seems to work.)

A few things to note about this. First, if you actually try the lesson, please note that it was designed for fairly high-achieving 8th graders, making it easily adaptable for high schoolers. In retrospect, I think I would edit the cards more for middle schoolers, or at least be aware that they need a lot of help. The lesson took two days. So another point to bring up about lecture and not lecturing is that lecturing is "faster." You could probably "cover" this material in a 30 minute lecture. Or a 1 or 2 day lesson. But we should all note that --as a professor I had once used to say--anything worth doing is worth doing slowly. And how much would our students retain from that 30 minute lecture vs. what they would retain from the non-lecture version I have presented?

Here is an example of a lecture on the Korean War:

As I mentioned earlier, regarding content demands, you have to be judicious. So the point of this lecture was to explain the Korean War in the context of the Cold War. The point was to get students to understand how a civil war in Greece that no one in America knew much about, led to a war in Korea and later in Vietnam and eventually an "interventionist" U.S. foreign policy that we still have today. The point was not to memorize a bunch of facts about the Korean War itself (which is mostly what their textbook did), but to undertand it in the context of the Cold War. I hope that this is a useful example both about better lectures (I'm not saying this is an awesome one), and about handling the related problem of content overload.

So here is the PowerPoint I created. Here is the handout I gave to students that we worked through together during the lecture. Here is a key for the teacher.

A few other things to note...

  • While I don't remember how long the lecture was exactly, I do know that it was interrupted often by having students writing, and asking questions that nudged students to "predict" information that would come on the next slide of the accompanying PowerPoint and the worksheet that I gave them to accompany the lecture.
  • Be wary of overusing custom animation on PowerPoint. I suspect I am guilty of this on this particular PowerPoint (I've got a few sound effects, including the explosion of an atomic bomb--not sure what came over me. As if I didn't have better ways to spend my time--grading papers, planning the next lesson, etc. instead of obsessing over cutesy special effects that are hardly impressive to the younger generation!) On the other hand, having one point come up at a time on a slide can be effective.

About PowerPoints or Google Presentations or Prezis...

I constantly harp on my methods students and student teachers to remember a few key things about using such presentation tools:
  1. think about what you are going to put on the slide (avoid too much text)
  2. think about what words are going to come out of your mouth
  3. think about if you are going to include a notetaking guide to accompany it, and if so, what you are going to include on that
  4. think about whether or not to give students access (through something like Canvas, Edline, Blackboard, or other platform) to the presentation. Or you could print out slides.
  5. think about what you want students to write down on paper or on your handout
To conclude, I just want to remind all of us that the point of good teaching is quality student learning. We need to be self-reflective: was our lecture as exciting as we thought it was? Were students really paying attention? And is paying attention enough? Did they engage in the material? Will they retain any of it? And if so, for how long? 'Til the test? Or longer? 

I will end with a favorite quotation of mine by Virginia Woolf, from A Room of One's Own. She writes,

[T]he first duty of a lecturer is to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece for ever. 

I hope this doesn't leave you thinking I am holding up the lecture as the paragon of exemplary teaching. But substitute the word "lecturer" above for "teacher." And substitute "hour's discourse" for "class period" and you've got yourself a standard worth striving for.

(Oh dear, ending with a hanging preposition!)

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