(Nationaal Archief/flickr)

Picture this: A megaphone-wielding teacher blasts a tuned-out teenager. That visual might exaggerate the point I want to make, but in classrooms across the country, teachers are talking, talking, talking, while their students are tuning out. That’s because, in spite of all the research and all the insights we have gained over the past twenty years into the complex mysteries of the brain and how it learns, the way most people still think about education is that teaching is talking and learning is listening. Students not learning? Talk louder.

By now, however, most educators seem to understand that the least effective teaching method is the lecture  TWEET . In the classroom, the one doing the talking is the one doing the learning. That means that teachers get the best educations, while students get quality time with their iPods or text messages. Many teachers keep talking, anyway.

In the classroom, the one doing the talking is the one doing the learning. That means that teachers get the best educations, while students get quality time with their iPods or text messages.

When I was an eager new English teacher in the late ’70s, Moby Dick was on my juniors’ reading list. English teachers tend to talk about “teaching a book,” and I wondered how I would teach this one. I read and reread and studied the book for hours each night, struggling with some of the chapters. I recall going into one class having finally made some sense of the chapter called “The Whiteness of the Whale.” I was excited, and amid my chatter, something about the novel clicked, and all sorts of connections became clear. I left the class elated and talked with my colleagues in the English office about how much the kids had learned that day. Of course, they had learned nothing; it was I who had learned so much. They had been my audience.

It’s hardly surprising that teachers think about teaching as the delivery of knowledge. Most of us are accustomed to this model, having experienced it for at least sixteen years in schools and colleges. The conferences and workshops we attend are designed primarily as lectures and presentations. Even at the Learning and the Brain Conferences (and in workshops that I have guiltily led), where people should know better, participants run a gauntlet of exhausting lectures, many lasting up to three hours. The difference between the professionals and our students is that we want to learn the stuff at the workshops. Even so, our retention of the material is not impressive.

As the evidence mounts that talking at students is ineffective, many teachers have incorporated discussions into some classes. But too many of these tend to be lectures in disguise, exercises in guessing what is in the teacher’s head. Many teachers are like lawyers: they never ask a question to which they don’t know the answer.

I keep hoping for evidence that the next generation of teachers will reject the tired, old approaches, but over the years, I have interviewed hundreds of teacher candidates, and each of them has given an identical response to one question: “Why do you want to be a teacher?” “Because,” they invariably say, “I want to share my knowledge with students.” If anything, the younger teachers I interview seem even more committed to talking-as-teaching.

Educators need to explore how to design teaching strategies and school structures to reflect the needs of learners, not the needs of teachers.

Yet, as some teachers and a few schools have discovered, effective teaching requires an understanding of how learning occurs. Researchers like Mary Helen Immordino-Yang at the University of Southern California and Kurt Fischer at Harvard have written extensively about the role of emotion in learning; the infinite variability between individual brains; the need for learners to do the hard, active work of building and rebuilding new neural networks instead of listening passively or merely memorizing; the connection between performance and context; the essential role of regression (what teachers misinterpret as “failure”); and so much more. Each insight into learning challenges traditional assumptions that schools continue to protect.

Educators need to explore how to design teaching strategies and school structures to reflect the needs of learners, not the needs of teachers. Tinkering with the old structures is not enough—a little discussion, a little group work, moments of activity, occasional projects. The old structures reflect a tired concept of teaching as the delivery of information. As new research provides new insights into the workings of the brain, schools need to be completely rethought to embody new concepts of learning. Teachers and researchers may someday work together to design schools that look like teaching hospitals—places that bring together teachers, researchers, teachers-in-training, students and even parents.

In the meantime, teachers might benefit from thinking more about learning and less about teaching.


The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Dr.J

    The old definition that a “Lecture”
    is when the notes of the teacher go to the notes of the students without going through the mind of either” is still true. John Dewey’s Progressive (Oh no not that word) ideas of “Project Based Education” were undermined as un-American; and Alfred North Whitehead’s caution that concrete education that connects theory to practice is the most durable (1932- ‘The Aims of education” ) may have to be resurrected to reconstruct our classrooms.

  • Jon Dreyer

    It’s easy to talk about what doesn’t work in education. But what does work?

    • Judy D

      project based learning, collaborative learning, student led research where they have some leeway in deciding the topic.

  • rickrabin

    The author wrote: “As an eager new English teacher in the late ’70s, Moby Dick was on my juniors’ reading list.” Was Moby Dick his teacher?

  • Aaron

    I respectfully disagree. I bet Melville would be appalled at this method. Why not just have a robot and 80 inch UHD screen in front of the class then? A knowledgeable, skilled, passionate orator will impart a better, enduring lesson and profound understanding than any damn electronic-based research. Only an inspiring, caring human can animate and personalize old books and authors, and historical events. If the teacher learns a thing or two from his students, why is that a bad thing? Should he be so arrogant to think that’s unacceptable? I asked a h.s. English teacher many deep questions and sometimes he’d confess “I don’t know”, and I totally respected that and we both then pondered poetry interpretations more deeply, this kind of interaction is necessary. Think Sam Kinison in “Back to School”. I’m only half-joking. If students are so apathetic that they have convinced the system that they aren’t listening, nor do they have to listen, we are so far gone that it’s hopeless. Postman in “amusing ourselves to death” and Huxley in “Brave New World” were exactly right it seems. Critical thinking cannot be rushed, there are no short-cuts, it takes sustained attention-holding to one topic to, like a muscle exercise, develop. Keystrokes or tapping icons and pics on a screen will never ever replace the intense, hard work of working through a complicated subject with actual pen and paper on the desk and a real life human speaking AND listening.

  • Jason

    Who on earth still teaches with straight lecture other than tenured college professors who don’t give a rip about their teaching?

  • John Doe

    Non-lecture based teaching requires more resources, students with some/any respect for education, and smaller classes to ensure quality. Are teachers being set up for success?

  • Doctor

    I hold a doctorate from Harvard, and now am obtaining further education to enable me to work clinically. My current and previous education was primarily based on lecture. My own teaching took into account current teaching styles such as small group discussion, group projects, etc. However, I found then, and now as a student, that most students do not do the work. Small group discussions were actually mini-lectures conducted by the one student who bothered to do the assignment. Many of my current colleagues do not prepare in advance for the class. They also tend to spend much of class time on their iPads, iPhones, and Facebook accounts (and I am studying at a very prestigious institution). I have found that lectures solidify my learning, help me engage more deeply with the material, and clear up any confusion that arose from the readings. Throwing out lectures, I believe, would take away most of the information my colleagues are receiving, even if intermittently (between texts). Sad, I know, but this is the reality of our “connected” culture. If you hope that the twenty something sitting in front of you during your next doctor’s visit is competent, you had better hope they sat in on lectures and not in small group discussions.