Should teachers lecture? Part 1

As part of the how-to-teach-online class I’m taking online this semester, I listened to the American Radio podcast about the inadequacy of lecturing as a teaching method. (Articles that repeat most of the same information are here and here.)

I’ve heard this claim — that lecturing is a bad teaching method, and we should dispense with it — for several years and I’ve always been skeptical. I’m sure that lecturing is not the only teaching method, and often not the best teaching method. I’m also aware that lectures do not suit all learners. But it seems extreme to say that lecture is never a good method. (From the podcast: “Research shows that traditional lecture, where students sit and passively absorb information, is not an effective way for students to learn any subject.”) The reason I doubt that is because I learn really well from lectures. I love lectures. I definitely learn better from them than from hands-on approaches, for instance. So there must be something they do right.

The percentage of information retained from lectures

One of the reasons for the claim is expressed in this quote from the podcast: “Research shows it’s impossible for students to take in and remember all the information presented during a typical lecture.” I seem to recall that this is usually coupled with specific statistics to the effect that we only remember 10% (or something like that) of what we hear, 50% (or whatever) of what we see, but 90% (still making up the numbers!) of what we do. Therefore, lecture is the worst way to learn information.

When I hear this statistic, it makes me think of the flying lessons I took a couple of decades ago. The pilot who trained me said to me as we got into the plane, “Here’s how I will teach you. We’ll start flying, and as we go, I’ll just start talking. I’ll give a running commentary about everything that I’m doing as we go. Don’t worry about remembering it all; I’ll repeat most of it anyway. Eventually a lot of it will sink in.”

The funny thing is, it worked! For me, a strongly auditory learner, that was the perfect way to learn. Even though I only remember a small percentage of everything he said.

While that example may be extreme, the point still stands: a whole lot more information can be presented in a lecture than can be in, say, a hands-on activity. If I tell my students 100 things in a lecture and they remember only (say) 10%, and you show them 10 things in a hands-on activity, and they remember (say) 90% of that, they still learned more from my lecture than from your hands-on activity.

Furthermore, when I tell them 100 things in my lecture, the 100 things aren’t all of equal value. Perhaps I am making 5 main points, with 95 additional facts and illustrations to back it all up. All I really care about is whether you got those 5 main points. It doesn’t worry me at all if you forgot the other 95 things, once they’ve done the job of supporting your understanding of the main ideas.

When you use an alternative method — a hands-on activity, or collaborative approaches, or whatever — your goal is to get the same 5 main points across. That’s why it can certainly be a good idea to consider something beside lecture — the other 95 things to say are expendable, and anything that gets the chief concepts across can be considered a success.

But what it also means is, when you judge the effectiveness of a lecture, who cares how much the students have forgotten? The question is what do they remember? The point of a lecture isn’t to pour tons of information into a student’s head, it’s to make a few points very clearly, and it should be judged on that basis.

Do I think that lectures are always better? Of course not. I just think that they have their place in the world of teaching methods.

I’m not even saying lectures are effective all that often. I’m a pessimist about teaching. I think most of the time our attempts to teach fail. Teaching well is hard, and most of us (including me, for sure) fail at it a lot, no matter what methodology we use. Lecturing is one way I can often succeed, though, so I just wanted to defend it a little bit.

Part 2 is here.

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i3: reflection on Week 4.

We were asked to respond to the following prompts:

  • Post a reflection to your blog regarding both the resource and activity you added to your course.
  • Also reflect upon the readings and podcasts for this week. How will the ideas you’ve explored influence your teaching?

I’ll respond to the first one in this post, and save the second one for another post.

In an earlier reflection from an earlier week, I said:

“… there were three things that I will remember from the week. The most important was finding the mindmapping Web 2.0 tool. I hope that will be something I’ll be using a lot in future courses.”

This week I explored the mindmapping tool further. Mostly it was frustrating.

To begin with, the class I am using for the assignment is going to have to be massively rewritten and redesigned in the next 7 days (well, just written and designed, really, since it’s basically barely started). I don’t really know yet what activities and resources I really want to put into the course, so I chose the mindmapping tool on the basis that a) it is likely to be useful in the course somewhere, and b) it’s something I want to know more about, and c) it was likely to be a little challenging to use it.

There are two different ways I want to use mindmapping, potentially. The first is as a lecture tool, i.e., to create a diagram for my students. For this, I used Mindomo. The free version of Mindomo doesn’t allow me to export a mind map, but it does generate code I can use to embed it into a web page. So I created the map on the Mindomo website and copied the code into a web page resource on Moodle. I had to switch to html mode and just figure out by trial and error where it should go. It works enough for now, but I would rather make it fill the window when students open it up.

Moodle has its own mindmapping tool available as an activity, and that’s what I used for my activity in this assignment.

The Moodle mindmapper is a lot more limited than the Mindomo one. I found that out by experience because at first I tried to use the Moodle mindmapper to generate the mind map for my resource. It has minimal help (clicking on the question mark for the activity produce a message saying it couldn’t find a help file for it). It didn’t let me change the positioning of the lines in the diagram. I couldn’t add additional relationships between widely separated entries in the map. I couldn’t figure out how to save or copy the map that resulted.

So I tried something else with the Moodle mindmapper. I created an editable mindmap. The idea is to let students build their own. I’m not at all sure that what I ended up with is the right way to go about things. I basically added a label about the activity giving a one-sentence instruction for students (I could find no way to put instructions into the mind map activity itself). Then I simply left the blank, editable mindmap in place for students to use.

That’s all I did for now. I’m not really done though. What I need to do is figure out how this works from the student’s point of view. Can they edit the mind map and save it? Will there be enough documentation for them to figure out how to use it, or do I need to create a document of video to show them how? There must be something already available somewhere, I suppose. Can more than one student share the mindmap and collaborate on editing it? I think that is what will happen by default, but I suppose it’s possible that every student gets their own copy. I think I have to have two different demo students in my course before I can test that. In any case, I would want to give them a lot more guidance before having them create their own mindmap. I still think it’s a worthwhile idea, but at this point it seems like it would be overly confusing for them.

A final note: I am only using some of the capabilities of mind maps at this point. The wikipedia page for mindmapping cites Tony Buzan   as suggesting that mind maps use color and icons to make things clearer, something I haven’t done.

(The wikipedia page is, but its citation for Buzan’s comment is missing, although it probably comes from this:

Buzan, Tony. (2000). The Mind Map Book, Penguin Books, 1996. ISBN 978-0452273221

which is included in the bibliography at the bottom of the page.)

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Is knowledge socially constructed?

An article I read for an education class I’m taking said that knowledge is socially constructed. In my written reflection, I said I was “not sure I want to say knowledge is socially constructed”. I’ve thought about it a little, and now I have more to say.

Disclaimer: I’m sure there is a philosophical context to this that I don’t know. In a couple of years, when I’ve learned more, I expect to look back on this post and be embarrassed by how ignorant I was of the real issue. If I waited until I understood things completely, though, I’d never blog anything! So here goes, based on my current halfway-complete understanding.


What does it mean that “knowledge is socially constructed”?

Are the things we know socially constructed? Let’s take as an example, “I know that if I let go of this pencil, it will fall.” It seems to me that this is the kind of thing I could easily come to know completely independently of social factors, and that anyone in any culture would also come to know. I’m not sure what people really mean by saying knowledge is socially constructed though, so let’s take the possibilities one at a time.

1. Beliefs are socially constructed.

There is a difference between saying truth is socially constructed and saying knowledge is socially constructed. That something is true might be culturally independent, and still my realizing it and accepting it might be completely based on my culture.

Suppose we accept the traditional definition of knowledge, for example, as justified true belief: it must be true, I must believe it’s true, and I must have a reason for believing that it is true. Then even if it is true, independent of culture, that the pencil will fall, conceivably in a certain culture I would not have come to believe it. Maybe my culture doesn’t believe in natural laws, for example; it thinks that the pencil might randomly not fall next time.

If this is what people mean, I think it would be clearer to say “Beliefs are socially constructed”. That would make it clear just how social factors have an impact.

2. A lot of knowledge is socially constructed.

I am sure that some knowledge is socially constructed. In fact, I accept that there are some facts that I know that are themselves socially constructed (i.e., not just the knowledge of the facts, but the facts themselves). Rules of courtesy, for example, are largely a product of cultural conventions. So, for that matter, are the meanings of all our words. In turn, that means that many of the concepts we use to organize our experience mentally are socially constructed.

If this is what people mean, I’d rather they said “A lot of knowledge is socially constructed.”

3.  The way we organize and articulate our knowledge is socially constructed.

I am sure that some knowledge cannot be articulated without recourse to socially constructed conceptual frameworks. Even if I believe that the pencil will fall, I may not be able to speak of gravitational forces. Maybe knowing about gravity being a force requires a culture that has developed the concept of a force. In another culture, I would have to frame my beliefs about the pencil in other ways.

Nonetheless: even though particular conceptual frameworks may be culturally dependent, it seems likely to me that the general patterns into which some of our concepts fall are forced upon us by reality. Certain concepts may simply be the only good way there is to look at things. An alien mathematician would still have developed some concept of a circle, or of prime numbers, because these things are part of the way shapes and numbers work. The concept of force may very well be the only coherent way to frame our observations about things falling in a general way.

If this is what people mean, I think they should say, “The way we organize and articulate our knowledge is socially constructed.”

4. Knowledge of any subject is socially constructed.

We never know anything in isolation. If I know that “the pencil will fall” it implies I also know things like what a pencil is, and what falling is, and that we live in three dimensions. Every known fact is interwoven with a web of other facts. I am quite ready to accept that many of these other facts are socially constructed. That doesn’t mean that all knowledge is socially constructed, though – just that all knowledge is tied together with socially constructed knowledge.

In a way, I suspect this is what my education article meant. Educators aren’t concerned with our delivering isolated bits of knowledge, but with helping students to “know the subject”. It is this holistic sense that they have in mind when they say that knowledge is socially constructed.

In this case people should say, “Knowledge of any subject is to some degree socially constructed.”

5. The process of learning is socially constructed.

The process of learning, as a process, especially in a formal education setting, is social. Even independent study depends on the relationship of the learner to the books he reads, how his society defines the expert, and so on. So in that sense “knowledge is socially constructed”.

In this case, we should say, “The process of learning is socially constructed.”

This also may be what my education class meant.

As always, I welcome your comments/questions/corrections. Let’s construct some knowledge together. 🙂

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Teaching and motivation

I am taking a course on teaching online right now, and in one of the assignments for the course I wrote this:

As I see it, teaching isn’t about the students, and it isn’t about me – it’s about the ideas. I love the ideas. I’m passionate about the beauty of truth and the adventure of thinking hard about things. My goal as a teacher … is to show that truth to students. If they catch a little of my passion for it at the same time, so much the better.

An instructor for the course responded with this comment:

Kevin, I think one of the frustrations of teaching is trying to light that fire under students to make them want to learn and do more than the minimum level to pass the course. I think the desire to see students achieve that and the frustration when they don’t is shared across curriculum areas.

So, the question is, in part, how do we create that desire? How can we wield that kind of influence?

I have two responses. I’ll mention the first here.

Suppose for a moment that I am standing in front of a class about to teach them the Pythagorean Theorem. I have, on the one hand, the Pythagorean Theorem itself – well, not just the theorem itself but also all the other ideas connected to it, all of which I find really cool. And I have on the other hand the students. They are supposed to learn all this cool stuff, but they don’t consider it cool. That’s OK – they don’t really have to –but how can I motivate them to learn it as fully as possible anyway?

Here’s what I’ve learned: when I try to motivate the students by focusing on motivating them, it never works. When I concentrate on my students’ attitudes toward math, I lose sight of the beauty of the math itself. All the joy goes out of my teaching for a few moments. I find myself scolding or apologizing. What I’ve learned to do instead is to maintain my focus steadily on the stuff I’m teaching. As long as I keep my eyes on the math, my love for it comes through. As I explain what I’m seeing, the students get a glimpse of the same thing. They start to see the ideas, just a little, through my eyes. That makes sense, when you think about it. It’s as though whatever I look at, the students look at. Their gaze will follow mine. The side effect is an increase in student motivation to learn the material.

A teacher I respect says that we should aim our teaching at the best students, not the weakest ones. That raises the bar for everyone, and the class does better as a whole. Another teacher says he focuses his teaching toward the hard workers. I do something similar, but in my case I focus on the curious students. I even imagine my audience as being more curious than the evidence suggests. I make the arbitrary assumption that they are already interested, that they all want to like math. The result, usually, is that they turn out to be interested after all. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I don’t think my approach is best for all teachers. Everyone has different abilities. Some teachers are really terrific at motivating students and my way of doing things would be needlessly indirect for them. For me, though, this is what works.

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i3: reflection on Week 2.

We were asked to respond to the following prompts:

What have you learned this week?

What are you going to do differently in your online classes because of what you have learned this week?

How can you utilize learning styles to increase student achievement?

How can web2.0 be used in your online classes?

In looking back, there were three things that I will remember from the week. The most important was finding the mindmapping Web 2.0 tool. I hope that will be something I’ll be using a lot in future courses.

The second and third were the two required readings from assignment 1 part 1. The reading on a constructivist epistemology was the most important for me. I did lots of thinking about the issue of what it means to say “knowledge is constructed”, and whether it’s true. That led me to see collaborative learning in a whole new light. I had only thought about it in terms of accomplishing things together, or getting along with others. Now I see that there is something about joint exploration of an idea, looking for things that you don’t know yet, and doing it together, that has always been important to me. I just didn’t connect it with collaboration before. I try to have students do group projects, but they often are a little unfocused. I think in hindsight it’s because I keep trying to do the work of defining the parameters of the project for the students, and give either too much direction or none at all. Now I see that there is a good way for me to *think* about a group project that will change the way I present it without my even trying. I’m not sure I can explain that, but it was a minor epiphany for me. Although I am still not sure I want to say knowledge is socially constructed 🙂

The third thing that had an impact was the other required reading, about authentic learning activities. I’ve learned about the idea of authentic activities before, and been drawn to / repelled by it simultaneously. This article put it all into focus, just enough for me to know I’ll have to let it simmer for a while. I know my own learning style enough to know the paper did something important to my thinking, but I have no idea exactly what.

The last three questions are all answerable primarily by the mindmapper application. I realized, simply, that creating diagrams is a) something I do well, and yet b) something that reaches a kind of student I rarely reach well. It’s very simple: I need to create more diagrams of complex topics. I can probably do it using mindmapping software. My plan is to use it when I can.

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