November 4th, 2015

Step Away from the Lectern


prof in lecture hall

A quote from my June 3 blog post appeared in the October 18 issue of the New York Times. I was thrilled until I read the beautifully written op-ed piece. It proposes more lecture and less active learning. My quote was used to illustrate the perspective of those of us who favor active learning.

The author, a history prof, describes the various technology accoutrements found in her classroom, but she quests for what wasn’t present—“a simple wooden lectern to hold my lecture notes.” I loved this response from a community college faculty member: “Had I known Professor Worthen needed a lectern, I would have been happy to send one from the small community college in northern Wyoming where I teach English. After 20 years of teaching, … it [lecture] is a form I have largely abandoned.”

Teaching Professor Blog Lecterns come in various sizes and shapes, from small, moveable, tabletop models to large, stately edifices that are all but immoveable. They house our notes (and keyboards, now) so that they are readily accessible. But is that their only purpose? I took a grad course where the prof placed a moveable lectern at the head of the seminar table (there were 12 of us in the course) from which he facilitated an exchange that was mostly lecture. When it was going well, he’d venture out and stand alongside the podium, still holding onto it with one hand. When he moved to that position, we (yes, that includes me) asked questions that challenged his perspective or suggested another interpretation. Our goal (regularly achieved) was not to advance the discussion but to move him back behind the podium. It’s not an action I’m particularly proud of, but it does illustrate that lecterns play a role in communicating messages unrelated to content.

How professors use their space in the classroom is worth exploring. Contrast the teacher ensconced behind a podium with one who owns the space in the room. By owning the space I mean occupying it and feeling comfortable in various locations. When a student speaks, the teacher walks in that direction. When a student nods off or starts texting, the teacher may move nearby. Different points are delivered from different positions. That movement creates a sense of energy and enthusiasm, as well as some vulnerability.

But still it’s only the teacher who’s energetic. In many (is it still most?) classrooms, students sit in rows, in small, usually uncomfortable chairs with tablet arms. In lots of classrooms those chairs are fixed, attached to the floor, forever facing the front of the room, where the lectern or large lab table defines the teacher space in much more imposing terms than what’s defined by the students’ chairs.

I had a student who on occasion would sit on the table in the front of the room before class started. I unpacked and set up around him, chatting about the weather, his classes, our class, etc. “You know the classroom looks so different from up here,” he observed, “You can see everything. Does it make you feel powerful?” “Some days,” I said. “It can also feel frightening and lonely.”

With the lectern, it’s about learning from the teacher. Having all or most of the content coming from behind the lectern doesn’t convey the sense of learning as a multidimensional experience, something bigger, bolder, and with potentially larger impacts. Those holding tightly to the lectern want students learning from the expert. Those of us who’ve let it go want that and more. The question is how we get learners to recognize and make use of the teacher’s expertise. Those of us who shake up the classroom with active learning see value in teacher and student activity. We’re committed to students asking questions, attempting explanations, and testing ideas. We want them doing the hard, messy work of learning while we’re there to help, support, and yes, correct. We don’t feel that our expertise is eroded when teaching and learning happen elsewhere in the classroom. Rather, this dynamic fills the learning space (physical or virtual) with more promise and possibility than we can provide on our own.

Whether the decision is to stand behind the lectern, alongside, or without it, we need to recognize that a podium is much more than a placeholder for notes.

Add Comment

  • Steve

    Lately I've been playing around with the idea of using the spatial geography of a classroom as a way to represent what students are thinking and, more importantly, to get them to remember how they once thought. I have been asking students to stake out a position on some question on the first day of class and to do so by getting up, walking across the room to a wall or a corner and actually standing in a designated spot.

    For example, I began an honors seminar on human nature with two quotes: one by Freud (man is wolf to man) and one by Hume, who argued that the remarkable thing about humanity is our capacity to empathize even with those we dislike. I asked students to stand by the quote that best captures their view of human nature.

    Students chose sides and explained to one another why they were where they were. In the following weeks, the seminar studied various genocides, looked at human evil and the psychology of dehumanization. At various points I asked students to move again. Many of them changed places in the room more than once as we got deeper into the subject. Not a few asked if they could create new locations or stand between two locations.

    What I hope they remember is not where they were, but that they did move intellectually as well as physically. The final paper asked them to recount their journey back and forth or around the room. What made them change places? I'm not sure if all of this walking about the room makes their thinking any better, but it's a cool, concrete way to externalize that some thinking is actually taking place.

  • ashrrs


    Continue to shake it up!

  • Thank you Maryellen for this response to Molly Worthen's NYT argument for lecturing. Josh Eyler posted a great close reading of her article here on his blog that is worth reading:
    A colleague of mine here at Augustana articulated this resistance to active learning as being akin to the culture wars a number of years ago. And it is unfortunate because there is no reason why active learning and lecturing cannot both be teaching and learning tools used by instructors when appropriate. The art & science of teaching and learning is to know when each is needed. I think what proponents of active learning are arguing for is that lecturing not be the only instructional tool used by teachers.

    I've been doing this for 25 years now and I am still trying to get a handle on this. The joy and messiness of teaching is trying to figure out what our students need in real time to advance their learning. Sometimes they need direct guidance from the teacher. Sometimes they need to struggle with the material themselves.

    • Peter

      Neil, thank you for your comments as well as the link to Eyler's blog, also very helpful! Towards the end of his blog, Eyler mentions Dennis Huston, a colleague of his at Rice University, who Eyler describes as a master of combing lecture with active learning. As a result, I gained some great insights from Huston, reading a few of his interviews and watching him in action on YouTube. So thanks again!

    • Paula Adams

      I really like your approach Neil. I believe that different techniques should be applied where/when they best fit.

  • Joseph Douglas

    Gee, I guess listening and thinking aren't skills worth knowing in your buzz-word driven, "Active Learning" dogma.

    • Taylor

      I have books written in the 1800's that denote the ills of lecturing. Lecturing is a technique from Medieval times when books were rare and very expensive to produce, and libraries were essentially non-existent. The only way to get material to the pupils was to "lecture" at them. People don't learn from lectures, they learn from doing. If they are working with the material being lectured, then they'll learn. Most students who sit in lecture "listening" and "thinking" are not listening or thinking- they are texting, Facebooking, emailing, daydreaming and doing 100 other things. Listen to a podcast while you are reading the newspaper. See how much of the podcast you remember after it is over.

      Active learning is bringing into the classroom what students should be doing to learn a subject. Working with a concept, discussing it among their peers to gain a new perspective. In my classroom, I give out worksheets, handouts, or diagrams that students work with through the course of the lecture. Students alternate listening to the material and working with the material to learn the concepts.

  • Lew Kaye-Skinner

    Joseph Douglas, no one I've read or heard is arguing such an extreme position. In my classes, I challenge the students to actively listen and actively think. Those are not easy skills, and in my experience, passive listening is more likely to drift off into faking attention; any thinking that then happens is not likely to be more than tangentially related to what the speaker is saying. In other words, I do not want my students to passively accept what I say. I want them actively to engage with the material so that — after the quiz, assessment, or even the semester, when they no longer remember me or anything I said — they will have been changed, enriched, deepened by the encounter. Perhaps those are buzz-words and I have been merely regurgitating dogma, but it is the way I learn, and it is the way my students learn.

    As far as use of a lectern, I have mostly gotten away from that even in my alternate career as a Protestant preacher. It's a long time since I last delivered a sermon from a pulpit (or lectern), and the most engaging speakers in or out of the church or school are those who are not dependent upon reading a manuscript. When books were not yet readily available, professors and preachers by necessity read from a reading stand (i.e., lectured from a lectern). Now, I would rather interact with my audience or with the speaker.

    • Laura S

      Amen to your last paragraph, Lew!

  • Johnny

    I am very sceptical about the assertion that lectures are less effective than active learning. In particular, how does one separate learning achieved during class from learning outside class? My expectations for students is that they spend at least two hours studying for every hour in class (even more before a test/examination), even though I am well aware that many choose to rely purely on what happens in class. For students such as those who do not study, complete assigned readings, or engage with homework tasks in their own time, it would not surprise me if classroom-based active learning strategies result in better grades, given that it is the only learning that occurs. On the other hand, the handful of students who are conscientious about improving their critical thinking spend plenty of time learning actively already.

    • I believe this is exactly what the research is showing: Active learning improves the learning outcomes of weaker and marginalized students whereas good students continue to do well despite our best intentions as teachers.

      Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okorafor, N., Jordt, H., and Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 111(23), 8410-8415.

      • Johnny

        None of the studies that I have read successfully separate classroom learning from self-study. The populist view seems to be that time spent in class is the only time a student learns. I trust this is not the view of most college and university educators. Otherwise, the notion of higher education has been replaced by spoon-fed remediation.

        • Hmmm…. that is certainly not my understanding of active learning though I have read definitions which define it narrowly in terms of only what happens in class. My understanding is that active learning involves students preparing before class outside of class in order to be able apply their learning in-class. Sometimes active learning seems to me to be old school – asking our students to prepare for class by doing their reading before hand. I think how active learning improves on past practice is that students are now held accountable for that prior preparation. But many would then say that I am thinking of active learning narrowly in terms of flipping the classroom. But again, isn't flipping the classroom what was expected back in the "old days"? Except that now, the flipped classroom holds students accountable for their out of class preparation.

  • Taylor

    Oh, I hate podiums! If there is one in the room and it is on wheels, the first thing I do is move it to a corner in the back of the room. When I "lecture" I walk around the entire room, making sure to include students in on the conversation. I'd much rather hear their thoughts and points, than just me talking at them.