Briefly Noted: “Is the Lecture Dead?”

In a recent essay in The Atlantic Richard Gunderman discusses the recent pedagogical trends in medical, dental, and nursing schools.[1] One trend is that the traditional “lecture” is going the way of the deceased patient. Yet Gunderman believes there may yet be life and hope for the academic lecture.

Medical educators increasingly doubt the effectiveness of the lecture, but they’re not the only ones.  “Commentators frequently single out the lecture as the prototypically old school, obsolete learning technology, in comparison to which newer educational techniques offer interactive, customized, and self-paced learning alternatives.” These newer techniques include the use of laptops, tablets, and other technology in interactive group formats. Moreover, this is not simply a choice individual instructors or institutions have made. As Gunderman notes, “The LCME, the organization that accredits US medical schools, strictly limits the number of hours per week students may spend in lectures.” Some schools are even put on probation for not adhering to this criteria, apparently spending too much time on “passive” approaches to learning.

In the wake of all this progressive and interactive learning one asks, “what then of the lecture?” Gunderman believes, recalling Mark Twain’s words, “widespread reports of the lecture’s demise are somewhat exaggerated.” Ineffectiveness is not inherent in the lecture; it is inherent in the poorly delivered lecture. Surely just as there are boring, ineffective lectures there are boring, ineffective study groups. So Gunderman believes educators “must attempt to understand better the features that distinguish effective, engaging lectures [and lecturers]” rather than “disposing entirely of the lecture as a means of learning.” Thus the fate of the lecture is more a matter of the lecture’s purpose and the lecturer’s acumen and passion.

Gunderman encourages educators to ask a basic question: “why am I lecturing?” This question connects administrators and teachers to a more effective means of evaluation. The “why am I lecturing” question evaluates both the lecture and the lecturer. For as Gunderman argues, “the core purpose of a great lecture is not primarily to transmit information . . . The real purpose of a lecture is to show the mind and heart of the lecturer at work, and to engage the hearts and minds of learners.” Because of this sort of teaching, students raise new questions, connections, and possibilities in their own minds. Hence education is far more than disseminating information and tracking its consumption. Education is, then, a very human endeavor; good lecturers and good lectures recognize and strive for this.

Gunderman thus notes the qualities of a good lecturer and lecture. First, “a great lecturer tells a story.” Second, great lecturers enjoy lecturing (use “teaching” if you still dislike the term). “A great lecture is not a rote mechanical reading of notes, but a kind of dance, in which lecturer and listeners watch, respond to, and draw energy and inspiration from each other.” (There is “group study” in good lectures!) Third, good lecturers lecture in person. Gunderman recounts, as examples, two lectures: one given by Randy Pausch (professor of computer science at Carnegie-Mellon) in 2007 (while he was dying of cancer), and the other by Steve Jobs in 2005 at Stanford University. They did not record their lectures on high-tech gadgets, about which they both knew a little bit, and they did not simply read their notes. Instead, Pausch and Jobs spoke passionately, personally (to their audience), and reflectively about their respective subjects. Their lectures were effective because they caused their audiences to think about their lives “from fruitful new perspectives” and likely without boring their audiences. Gunderman, then, challenges medical educators, and by extension all educators, to think twice before pronouncing the lecture deceased. Rather, “the lecture remains one of our most precious educational resources.”

Kudos to Richard Gunderman, wherever he is. The lecture remains one of our most precious educational resources, and it ought not be sent to the pedagogical morgue on account of its most boring and tedious practitioners. As teachers, we must work hard to evoke from our students a curiosity and excitement about the things of God. To be a lazy teacher, preacher, or writer is a sin. Although George Steiner was not writing about theologians, his words are instructive:

To teach seriously is to lay hands on what is most vital in a human being. . . . Poor teaching, pedagogic routine, a style of instruction which is, unconsciously or not, cynical in its mere utilitarian aims, are ruinous. They tear up hope by its roots. Bad teaching is, almost literally, murderous and metaphorically, a sin. It diminishes the student, it reduces to gray inanity the subject being presented.

May teachers everywhere, and especially professors of theology, lecture as if their hair were on fire. May they tell the Great Story passionately, personally, and reflectively, and in so doing inform, energize, and inspire their students.

[1] Richard Gunderman, “Is the Lecture Dead?” in The Atlantic (Jan. 29, 2013).