Lecture-Based Pedagogy and the Pitfalls of Expertise

Photo by nerdmeister®, Flickr, Creative Commons

By Dr. Kevin Gannon / 01.16.2018
Professor of History
Director, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning
Grand View University

Every few months, higher education is witness to a curious ritual where one’s stance on particular pedagogical issues assumes an affect of Calvinist-style salvation or damnation. You can set your watch by the recurring debate over laptops in the classroom. And when that particular vein of argument is exhausted for the time being, the blood feud between the proponents of lecture-based pedagogy and active learning rears up to keep the sharks-and-jets mood alive.

Sometimes genuinely good conversations and insights can emerge from the debate. In particular, pieces that actually unpack the assumptions behind the calls for some unilateral action (Ban all the laptops! Take notes by hand!) are welcome contributions. But most of the time, the conversation (such as it is) quickly becomes a scene where each side shouts past one another, arguing against a caricature or some imagined slight. Then we get hot takes that tell us all students need to take all their notes by hand, that all devices distract all students, or that students today don’t [insert thing near and dear to op-ed writer here], instead of a useful discussion. The debate over in-class pedagogy, in particular lecture vs. non-lecture, is an excellent example of this vicious circle: someone argues that lecture is the best form of pedagogy no matter what those hippy-dippy active learning faddists tell you, then someone else retorts that you clearly hate your students if you lecture at them, then each side will frantically cite a bunch of studies with anecdotal data and limited conclusions as gospel truth. Rinse and repeat; since the days of Socrates bemoaning the attention span of students in the agora, it seems to have always been thus.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m a member of Team Active Learning, and tend to think that pedagogies based exclusively on lecturing are inimical to both student learning and the larger purpose of higher education. But I should also say that I’ve seen very few examples of exclusively lecture-oriented pedagogy in action. In fact, the most extended contact I’ve had with pure lecture was a positive one, in classes with my absolute favorite professor in undergrad. He was a younger scholar who studied under one of the Grand Old Men™ of the field, and his pedagogy mirrored that old-school mindset. He wrote out every lecture, word-for-word, and after some opening of class remarks or announcements, spent the rest of the time delivering those lectures. I thought they were brilliant. They were comprehensive, learned, erudite, and humorous. As much as I skipped class as an underachieving and somewhat idiotic undergrad, I never missed one of these classes. I had so much respect for that professor, and such an extensive set of notes from those classes, that when I began my own college teaching career, I sought to emulate his style as much as I could. I think this is true for a lot of us in the beginning of our academic careers–absent any formal grad-school pedagogical training, we teach as we were taught. So I wrote out lectures that I thought were comprehensive, learned, erudite, and humorous. Then I gave those lectures, and I quickly learned that as far as my students were concerned, I had gone 0-for-4.

What had gone so wrong? Why weren’t the students in my classes as enthralled with my lectures as undergraduate-me was with my mentor’s? I wasn’t much older than they were, so the “kids these days” line certainly wasn’t an option. What I began to realize was that I was using a pedagogy that didn’t match my own style or philosophical outlook; my methods and my goals were so far out of alignment that the course was bound to be a disaster. I told my students I valued collaborative and engaged learning, that we were going to “do” history rather than just be passive spectators. Then I went and taught the course in a fashion that couldn’t have been more calculated to produce the opposite result. I look back at that section and cringe at my assumption that firehosing students with content was the equivalent of actually teaching. In retrospect, given my neophyte status, things could have been worse–but they most certainly could have gone better.

So was my lecture-based pedagogy the root of the problem? I think it was. But does that mean that all lecture-based pedagogies are awful? Well, that depends. What my experience points out, I think, is the importance of aligning our theory and practice. I can’t teach a course that puts students at its center, that is engaged and collaborative, if the only pedagogical tool I’m using is one that fosters passivity, that conditions students to be spectators rather than participants. Theory says one thing, practice says another, and the resulting cognitive dissonance my students experience diverts too many resources from their learning. If I were teaching a course whose goals simply involved the transfer of information, the memorization of content, or “exposure” to some particular field, then a lecture-dominant strategy might be appropriate. But I would also wonder if I needed to revisit those course goals, as one imagines they could get the same outcome from watching YouTube videos. If students don’t need to be in class together with each other and with me to accomplish all of my course’s goals, then why am I holding class? And there’s the rub: relying exclusively upon lecturing may align with a certain range of course outcomes, but are those really the outcomes that higher education ought to be pursuing? This is part of the reason, I would suggest, that the debate over lecturing so quickly jumps to maximum intensity: to interrogate the practice of lecturing is to question fundamental aspects of approach and design. And sometimes those are hard questions to answer.

At root, the clash over lecture-based pedagogies is a collision of disparate visions of higher education’s purpose and different ways of seeing our students. It’s far more than just quibbling about different in-class teaching techniques; the question of lecturing is, I believe, fundamentally wrapped up in  the roots of our scholarly identities. The pursuit of graduate education in our fields has inculcated a number of habits in us (for both good and ill), but one of the most dominant is the implicit and unquestioning premium we place on expertise. We work with our advisors/mentors because of their expertise. We take qualifying and comprehensive exams to demonstrate the requisite expertise. We write a thesis or dissertation, and then defend it in the culminating ritual that affirms our expertise. Along the way, we are taught to judge other scholars and their work using the same metrics: Well, sure, it was an interesting presentation, but is he really an expert on the French Revolution? I thought he was an Americanist. And, for those who are junior scholars, or female, or people of color, or some combination thereof, “expertise” is also a commodity that others doubt you possess, no matter how hard-earned and dearly-bought yours is. We are conditioned to value expertise and all its apparent manifestations, and even more so our own relationship with it.

Indeed, lecturing is one of those manifestations that helps us demonstrate our expertise; because of this the performative aspects of lecturing can count as much as the actual content. It’s a statement to our audience that we are the exclusive purveyors of information that they are there to receive. We are the creators, they are the consumers. It is a book in oral form.. So when we are told that lecture-based pedagogy isn’t effective, or that we should consider stopping it, what we hear is that we are not experts–or, worse, that our expertise isn’t the most important consideration. Especially for those of us who feel precarious in our “expertise,” that pedagogical critique takes on the visage of existential threat. It’s hard to hold a reasoned conversation on the merits of various classroom strategies when we’re preoccupied with defending our scholarly selves.

It’s all too easy to move into a larger pedagogical approach that’s shaped by this defensiveness. This is where a lot of the deficit mindset surrounding college students and their capabilities comes from: if students are averse to taking the same paths we did in our own quests for expertise, isn’t that an academic character flaw? What they cannot do is more apparent than what they can. They are seen for what they are not. In other words, students are the classic “empty vessels” in need of filling. And if we can’t fill those vessels by the tried-and-true methods which flow from our status as experts, then how will learning occur? There are a lot of assumptions baked into this mindset, not least of which is a conception of students as essentially passive. Ironically, academics love to lament how immature (even infantilized) our students are, without stopping to consider how we may have played the primary role in creating what is basically learned helplessness. If our pedagogy tells students they can’t learn until we turn on the learning faucet, and then their job is to drink as much as they can while it’s running, then maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised if they wait on our explicit cue to do other tasks as well. I wish they would do [task] without me having to tell them every time. Well, if we “tell them every time” when it comes to the material they learn, what should we really expect? We ought to be intentionally asking ourselves what, through the entirety of our practice, we’re really saying to our students.

In my own case, the hardest part of this process was coming to grips with the simple (but not easy) insight that the purpose of higher education is not to demonstrate my expertise to students but rather help them build their own expertise. To do that effectively, I had to let go of authority, of the concept that I am the exclusive purveyor of content they need and cannot get without my tutelage (an obsolete concept anyway). I had to give up power. And as much as I thought of myself as an egalitarian, informal, “cool” professor, this was really hard to do. I had to think of “my class” in the sense of being a steward rather than sole proprietor. This didn’t mean that I abandoned every scintilla of lecture, that we scrapped the structure of the course and all sat in a circle and sang Kum-Ba-Ya. But it did mean that I made the choice to quit what Derek Bruff has called “continuous exposition by the teacher” in favor of much more interaction, discussion, and collaboration. There might be 5-6 minutes of lecture thrown in there to provide necessary context, but that’s it. The key, I found, was to include a number of different techniques in one class period. A mini-lecture, a free write, an ensuing discussion, some brief reflection, then summary and exposition makes for a vibrant and interesting class. Even lecturing that’s regularly interrupted with regular questions, think-pair-shares, free writing, or other individual and collaborative tasks is a significant step away from the exclusive I-will-do-the-exposition-here-thank-you approach that a lecture-based pedagogy often instills. None of this was easy to do; as an early-career teacher, I didn’t really have much of a template from which to operate. Nor did I have all of the self-confidence it took to honestly examine my pedagogical choices and the reasons I was making them.

For me, this process means that while I tend to favor one side of the lecture-active learning conversation, I do so not in an exclusive or uniform sense, and I remain sensitive to the ways in which this debate is a fraught one for many of us. If we are able to counterbalance the part of our identities that claims expertise with a sense of scholarly selfhood that embraces meaningful teaching, we can blunt the sharper edges that critiques of lecture-based pedagogy often present. Once we’ve done that, we can honestly answer the questions our pedagogical choices raise. More importantly, ensure that the products of those choices are in alignment with our beliefs about the purpose of higher education and the place of our students within it.

Originally published by The Tattooed Professor under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International license.