Lecture-Based Pedagogy and the Pitfalls of Expertise

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.

GIF image of a man wielding a flamethrower
“This is my opinion of your opinion”

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.

“So, how did class go?”
“Well, it was….soothing.”

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.

Image credits:
Flamethrower GIF via Giphy
Sleeping Students image from blacksheeponline.com

7 Replies to “Lecture-Based Pedagogy and the Pitfalls of Expertise”

  1. You’ve captured why it’s so difficult to start using active learning techniques with students who have been taught they are only vessels!

  2. This was very interesting Kevin. The difference between good teachers and great teachers. I never thought about the difficult task of capturing an audience of students. Still learning ,,,

  3. There’s so much happening in this essay that I want to comment on… The identity piece – when you take us right there and show us precisely why we may be feeling so darned emotional about this topic. I don’t think that happens too often in academic discourse. Folks bring lots of armor and prepare for battle but there seems to be a genuine reluctance to consider what’s beneath that armor and what’s powering all the linguistic and statistical ammunition. To be revealed is to be made vulnerable – no wonder it’s not a staple in the market.
    Then you get at the fundamental tension between and with teaching and learning – they don’t always match up the way we like to imagine in our elaborate curriculum maps and pacing guides. Our careful teaching does not always yield those supposed student outcomes – the prescribed learning that *should* take place. Yet you found ways to work both with and in spite of the inherent tensions for the benefit of students as well as your own growth. And this is the key – those pieces go together. They are deeply related – the learning among students and the growth of the instructor. While there’s plenty of rhetoric around ‘learning organizations’, not all of us are equipped or prepared to link our own growth as educator-learners to those of our student-learners. We’re far too invested in hierarchies which serve established interests of a different sort.
    For me your essay prods and pokes at these constructs with which we are confronted and must choose how we will cope. You prod us to pause for a moment and see ourselves from the inside. To recognize that the question of ‘who we are’ is so deeply tied up with ‘what we do’ to be viewed as worthy in the academy tasks us with a degree of self-responsibility and level of maturity for which most of us probably need more time than we feel we will ever have. Thank you.

  4. I’m happy to try and incorporate more active learning into my geology courses, but some topics (plate tectonics, for example) are too big in scope and time for students to learn experientially. Lecturing is often necessary, especially when the students come into a geology class with zero background from previous schooling. Some topics lend themselves better to learning by discussion than others; trying to shoehorn all subjects into one pedagogical technique seems…ill advised.

    On another subject, and lest we forget, it was good ol’ lecturing that gave the world the education it needed to achieve the base of knowledge and technical expertise that got us to the point where some could start saying (rightly or wrongly) that lecturing is not the best pedagogical technique. And maybe it’s not, at least in some instances and topics, but I’m very tired of attempts to toss it into the dustbin of history. If done well and correctly, it can be very effective. Of course, like any other pedagogical technique, there’s still a huge responsibility on the shoulders of the students–no matter the teaching technique, they’ll get out of it what they choose to put into it; that many students fail to learn in a lecture class can never be blamed entirely on the teachers, either, although that seems to happen frequently…

  5. There is a kind of lecturing that amounts to the lecturer showing how s/he (or the field in general) came to the conclusions that are being put forth in the lecture. These are fantastic!!! And there are lectures that amount to sketching out a framework so students can make sense of a group of readings that they are going to do, or have just done. Those are fantastic too.

  6. Excellent reflection.

    Giving up authority in the classroom – transferring it to students – can be very hard.

    It’s always been key to my practice, largely because of my left anarchist beliefs. I turn over chunks of the syllabus to the class to design, emphasize discussion, host lots of peer grading and workshopping.

    But I had very little training in this. As a research-1 university grad student, well, pedagogy wasn’t high up as a priority to begin with. One of my profs actually said that, were he forced to teach a first-year writing class, he’d have the students read Addison and Johnson, then write imitations.
    More to the point, one prof – tenured – chewed me out for advocating giving students power. “That’s a very male thing to say,” she argued. “Women have to fight to *attain* authority at all.” As a grad student heading into a horrendous job market, I didn’t feel a lot of authority right then, but her comments have stayed with me ever since.

    Did you see our Horton/Freire reading? Pedagogical authority was a major theme there.

  7. Beautiful. I am currently doing a literature review of the lap top debate, the studies done, and trying to find any pedagogical basis for the decision. Aside from citing the studies (some inconclusive, as you mentioned in your 2016 article)… there are none.

    Which leads me to… sometimes people just do what they know with zero critical analysis or pedagogical study. Few majors (outside of education or the educational support services) will even incorporate a pedagogical course. And if most Ph. D. programs are like my husbands, the advisor is too busy doing a million other things to teach the T.A.s how to teach. Fortunately, he is committed to teaching well, which means learning how to teach well. Not even all universities or colleges make this a significant element of higher education.

    *Stepping down from soap box.* All to say, this was fabulous and I whole heartedly agree!

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