June 3rd, 2008

Black Revisited


I’ve been working on my article library here recently, exchanging paper copies for pdf files. It’s a great chance to re-read significant material. Yesterday it was a 1993 article in the Journal of Chemical Education (despite my humanities credentials, I’ve been a regular reader of this periodical for years) by Kersey Black. I can’t imagine how many times I’ve referred people to the article. At the time of the article Black taught organic chemistry, and in it he describes his growing discontent with lectures that basically re-do text content.

I remember the first time I read this article. It was just before I returned to the classroom to teach beginning students full time. Light bulbs popped on as I made my way through the piece.

In building the case against exclusively lecturing the content, Black points out that it is “the instructor [who] studies the material, culls and organizes what is important, makes notes, finds examples and then presents it all on the board,” or now on PowerPoint slides. That’s what students should be doing with the content as witnessed by the fact most teachers readily acknowledge how they really learn the content once faced with having to teach it.

Black more or less stopped lecturing. He assigned material and expected students to come to class having spent time working on the content. In class, they presented the topics they wanted to discuss, those they were struggling to understand. They presented solutions to problems for verification or partial solutions to problems they couldn’t solve. In essence, they set the agenda for the class, based on topics in the text assignment for that day.

It’s an amazing account … just as vibrant and relevant today. Sometimes you read something, and it provides the push that gets you moving. That’s what this article did for me.

Reference: Black, K. A. “What to do When You Stop Lecturing: Become a Guide and a Resource.” Journal of Chemical Education, 1993, 70 (2), 140-44.

—Maryellen Weimer

  • Wendy

    I'm going to play devil's advocate. When I was in college, most professors presented material by lecture, and we learned. What is different today? Why is the lecture mode no longer sufficient? Has the composition of learners in the classroom changed? Have the learners themselves changed?

  • frank

    @wendyI suppose it depends on your approach. If your philosophy is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", then perhaps you (or your devil-advocating side) may not see any reason to change methods. As an over-the-top example, some could argue back in the days beating your kids sets them straight so why use other methods. On the other hand, the post seems to present how this different method is *more effective* at teaching material.