TT #17 – The Method that Dares Not Speak Its Name

There is one once-common teaching method so reviled that its name is never spoken, except in derision.  Even its best practitioners have learned to call it something else.  Once, this method was so common that teachers were often evaluated purely on their ability to do it well.  Today, it is an indicator of gross incompetence – even if the teacher involve can prove through test scores and student interviews that it works.  By this time, many readers will have figured out what Traditionalist Teacher is talking about.  It is the dreaded, soul deadening – dare I even write it? – LECTURE.  (Cue ominous organ music at this point.)

Whew!  Now that it has been said, there is a certain lightness of being.  Perhaps it is it akin to that of an initiate who attends an AA meeting and says for the first time, “Hi, I am Bill and I am an alcoholic.”  It is time to admit, boldly and before the entire world, that Traditionalist Teacher is a lecturer!

At this point, Traditionalist Teacher would like to refer the reader to the Wikipedia entry for “Traditional education” which as of this writing begins:

Traditional education, is also known as back-to-basics, conventional education or customary education, refers to long-established customs found in schools that society traditionally used. Some forms of education reform promote the adoption of progressive education practices, a more holistic approach which focuses on individual students’ needs and self-expression. In the eyes of reformers, traditional teacher-centered methods focused on rote learning and memorization must be abandoned in favor of student-centered and task-based approaches to learning. However, many parents and conservative citizens are concerned with the maintenance of objective educational standards based on testing, which favors a more traditional approach.

Notice that the unnamed contributor can only get out the first sentence before he/she rushes back into the cocoon of the “progressives”.  One can read through the entire entry – go ahead, Traditionalist Teacher will still be here when you get back – and never see the term lecture.  You will also find that traditional education is held up as a straw man in whose directions the arrows of the enlightened are to be pointed.  Nobody likes it, except (gasp) “many parents and conservative citizens”.  One can almost imagine the “God and guns” crowd that President Obama warned us about walking into the school office in their camo gear and demanding traditional education for Billy Bob, Junior between chaws of smokeless tobacco.  What do those dolts know about education?

Ask most people in the education establishment what traditional education is and you will almost always get the reply, “lecture and rote memorization”.  You might also hear something about “teacher-centered education” – usually said with a bit of a shudder.

Traditionalist Teacher referred to the phrases “teacher centered” and “student centered” in TT#13, so readers to whom those phrases are unfamiliar may want to look there for clarification.  Suffice it to say that TT believes that the phrase “teacher centered” is one of those tags deliberately designed to make something look worse than it is.

What are the “progressives” so afraid of?  Basically two things – student disengagement and teacher leadership.

On the first point, Traditionalist Teacher has some sympathy.  Most of us of a certain age have seen the 1986 film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  If you haven’t, a young Matthew Broderick plays Ferris, a young man who is considerably more intelligent than anyone who works at his high school.  Ferris fools his too-busy parents into thinking that he is sick and then has the time of his life while his parents work and the assistant principal tries to catch him.  For a few moments early in the film, viewers catch a glimpse of the class that Ferris should be in.  The teacher, played by Ben Stein, is “lecturing”.  Actually, what he is doing is talking to himself and answering his own Aquestions while being totally oblivious to the students in his class.

Although it cannot be proven, Traditionalist Teacher is convinced that Ben Stein is the vision in the minds of “progressives” when they think of lecturing.

So, then, why do lectures still happen in this enlightened age?A  For one simple reason – a lecture is the most efficient way for someone who has information to transmit it to a group of people who do not.

Basically, the lecture format assumes that the lecturer has information that the listener needs or wants.  The lecturer speaks and the listener listens.  Knowing their limitations, the wise listeners will take notes for future reference.  All too often, however, the listeners “tune out”, and – for those students – the lecture time is wasted.

That, then, brings us to the second problem that “progressives” have with lecturing.  This is one for which Traditionalist Teacher has no patience – that there is something inherently wrong with the assumption that the teacher has the information and the student needs the information.  This assumption irks “progressives” in a number of ways.

First, it offends the “progressives” sense of egalitarianism.  This will be discussed in a future entry.

Second the learners being lectured to are not active.  If you have been hanging around education schools very long, you have heard or seen the following in some form:

                                We remember –

                                                10% of what we read

                                                20% of what we hear

                                                30% of what we see

                                                50% of what we see and hear

                                                70% of what we discuss with others

                                                80% of what we personally experience

                                                95% of what we teach others

                                                                                                                – Edgar Dale[1]


Traditionalist Teacher has no idea just exactly who Edgar Dale is, and would appreciate a response from any reader who does.  It is the sort of thing that is seared into the mind of young teachers and teachers-to-be.  Since there is no way that actual research could come up with numbers whose patterns are so clear, Edgar could be a greeting card writer for all we know.  Nonetheless, his influence on American education is profound.  On the basis of such evidence, teachers are instructed to avoid lessons that feature reading and lecture and to embrace discussion, experience, and students teaching each other.


This is the sort of thinking that comes out of dorm room bull sessions and the first year of teaching.  Most of us have been enthused by the informal gathering of people discussing some topic that is of immense interest to all the members of the group, including ourselves.  These often liberally lubricated discussions make the participants feel that they have come to new branches of wisdom and unheard-of solutions to the problems that have bedeviled human societies since the beginning of time.  However, they are usually gatherings of the self-important who have little information and nothing better to do.  At best, they might cement information that has already been learned, but they certainly don’t teach anybody anything.

And then – what of the dorm room resident who doesn’t know anything about the subject under discussion?  He/she either keeps quiet and enjoys somebody else’s beer or gets up and leaves to look for more agreeable entertainments.

It is virtually impossible to create a situation in which the students experience the material being studied.  Traditionalist Teacher knows of one teacher who attempted to simulate World War I trench warfare by arranging the desks in two rows and having two groups of students throw paper wads at each other.  Another taught “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by having the students charge down the football field.

As Traditionalist Teacher’s daughter would condescendingly say, “Seriously?”

It is true that, for most of us, we did learn a lot about our subjects the first year that we taught them.  That, however has no relationship to an artificial situation in which the students are “teaching” each other.

Let us reflect upon the student presentation.  If the reader has never seen one, the students stand in front of the class and spout a series of facts that they do not understand – presumably learning those facts in the process.  Of course, the other students are more “tuned out” than were the environs of Ben Stein’s above mentioned class.  Can anyone tell me how the uniformed ideas of the student presenter make up a better learning experience than does the knowledge of the teacher?

If any reader actually knows Edgar Dale, do him a favor and advise him to go back to his old job in Hallmark’s Sympathy Card Division.

Certainly, there are good lecturers, great lecturers, and mediocre lecturers.  The great lecturer can be informative and inspiring.  Many of our greatest authors roam the country doing “book talks”, which are basically just lectures about their own work.  Traditionalist Teacher would like to register a vote for the belief that even a mediocre lecturer would do a better job of teaching than a bunch of confused kids.

And, if you want to tell me that the research says that I am wrong, see TT #10.

Even though this has already gone on far too long, Traditionalist Teacher would like to make one last point.

If one does an Internet search for the phrase “College and Career Readiness”, the result will be many entries.  That phrase has become one of the mantras in American public education.  According to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, “We need to raise our standards so that all students are graduating prepared to succeed in college and the workplace.”[2]  Massive efforts are being made to achieve this goal.

Memo to Secretary Duncan – there is one skill that is being omitted, and it may be the most important skill of all.

You see, Mr. Secretary, the horror of the lecture disappears as soon as one transitions from secondary to collegiate education.  In the nation’s colleges, except in the schools of education, the lecture still holds sway.  Go into any large college today, and you will find large rooms full of undergraduates sitting in rows, all facing the front of the room.  At the front of the room is a single man or woman, and he/she is the only one in the room talking.  Some of the students are taking notes, trying to capture the flow of words for future study.

Why are the wiser of those students feverishly writing in their notebooks?  It is happening because at some time in the near future, they will have to take an exam that will test their understanding of the words that the professor is saying.  The ability to capture the professor’s train of thought and fact in as few words as possible is a skill, an extremely valuable skill.  In college, it is often the difference between success and failure.  It does not matter if the presentation of ideas is scintillating or deadly dull.  The professor determines what material is important, and it is the student’s task to demonstrate the capability to learn it.  Nor does the value of that skill end with college.  The ability to capture and relay complicated ideas in simple language is prized in every aspect of life that is not purely manual.

Yet, students arrive in college without this basic skill.  Their high school experience is so full of “student centered” lessons that they have never developed the ability to sit still through a lecture – much less to recognize and take note of the important material within that lecture.

The lecture has been the standard form of transmitting information from one generation to another for millennia.  Students have been complaining about it almost as long.  We, unfortunately, are simply the first generation silly enough to take their complaints seriously.



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7 comments on “TT #17 – The Method that Dares Not Speak Its Name
  1. Robert says:

    TED Talks are all the rage today, and I think they’re quite good. But they are, without exception, lectures. “Chalk and talk” in the purest form.

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