Lecture Me? Really?

In her NYTimes Op Ed this week, “Lecture Me. Really,” Molly Worthen added new fodder to a conversation that has been swirling among the higher ed crowd recently. In her piece, Worthen laments the decline of the traditional classroom lecture in favor of the “active learning craze.” She describes noticing, perhaps rightly so, a more ominous note in the calls of late to replace the “sage on a stage” with more engaged approaches to teaching and learning. The undertone Worthen notes echoes the heightened conversations happening on college campuses everywhere–conversations about tradition and innovation, work readiness and student-centeredness, and the identity crisis of higher education in a time when simply going to college is no longer a distinction. The Fast Company article, “This is the Future of College” from earlier this year highlights some of the key shifts taking place, and “the death of the lecture” is one of them.

In her piece, Worthen expresses a threat felt by many of my humanities colleagues currently: the move toward active learning is an effort to assimilate the humanities to the goals and methods of the hard sciences and do away with the value and skills that the humanities have offered for centuries. Worthen enumerates these critical skills–comprehension, reasoning, listening, mindfulness and synthesis–that students will need to be successful citizens, employees and human beings.

Worthen is right; these skills are critical. If we take our charge seriously as educators, we must necessarily be concerned with the development of skilled, engaged, moral, thoughtful citizens. I would also concur with my humanities colleagues who suggest that their field (and mine, English majors unite!) is fertile ground for developing these skills in our students. It is a field defined by ideas, debate, critical context, thinking and writing, of engaging our whole selves with all that has come before and carrying it, lovingly, into the future.

Despite this, I think that two ideas at the core of Worthen’s premise–and the core of so many arguments in this realm–are flawed. First, I don’t think that active learning is so narrowly defined as to exclude the goals, values and even techniques of the humanities. Second, I don’t think that the skills Worthen enumerates can only be gained through classroom lecture, nor that all students can acquire them in this way.

To me, active learning invites students to engage with material in a multi-dimensional way. It goes beyond information delivery from teacher to student and asks students to enter into dialogue, in the holistic sense, with the material at hand. It probes beyond the surface of the thing to a place where the material is made more complicated by students’ interaction with it. Active learning ignites more than just one part of a student’s brain; it demands students’ attention by engaging the senses. It uses more than one mode of content delivery, and provides multiple doors and paths to entry.

Some lectures achieve this. Worthen argues that those who would do away with the classroom lecture “do not know classroom lecture.” Indeed, she describes her own lecture approach–an arm-waving, pacing, sweaty raucous performance—as anything but passive for herself and her students, and quite distinct from the droning, disengaged diatribes for which the technique is so maligned. And yet, Worthen posits that “classroom lecture” and “active learning” are opposing forces, and resists what she perceives as an effort to squeeze her approach into a more constrained category.

What’s more, while Worthen admits that not all lecturers are engaging, she seems to forget that not all students can learn from long-form, single-stream, auditory input, no matter how entertaining. Brain science points to a maximum attention span of 18 minutes, followed by a lapse, and then ever-decreasing returns as the lecture continues. Students who struggle with verbal-linguistic learning are worse-off, and English language learners and those not trained in the traditional method (particularly non-white, non-male, non-affluent students) are at a greater disadvantage still. No amount of blaming the social media generation for their inattention (as Worthen says, “In our time, when any reading assignment longer than a Facebook post seems ponderous…) is going to change these realities.

Finally, I reject the notion that the critical skills our students need are not and cannot also be learned through active learning strategies in the sciences. I would argue, rather, that our STEM fields are challenging students to engage with these skills in very immediate ways while the humanities so often tread in more theoretical, temporally distant spaces. While active learning should be thought of as more than just a “STEM thing,” so too should argumentation and reasoning skills, character-building and moral development be shared beyond the humanities. In neither case are they mutually exclusive.

In short, we need it all. We need good lecturers in the sciences and project-based learning in the humanities. We need students who can think, listen, reason, respond, build, read, speak and act. We need to widen our definitions of teaching and learning so they are more inclusive, not less, and we need to formulate our arguments as invitations, not threats. We need to reach across the aisle to do what’s best for students and learning, even (and especially) when it defies what we’ve held as infallible from our own experiences on the other side of the lectern.

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