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The Atlantic ran an interview with David Thornburg, entitled “Lectures Didn’t Work in 1350­—and They Still Don’t Work Today.” It’s full of the typical technology-will-save-education balderdash. I’ll skip any comments on that topic.

Let’s talk about this assertion that lectures don’t work. The interviewer asks why we keep using this lecture-based model that doesn’t suit every student’s needs. Thornburg answers:

It’s a fascinating question. There’s a painting of a classroom by Laurentius de Voltolina from 1350 that shows it’s not working. Students are talking to each other or falling asleep while the teacher drones on. Why has this perpetuated? I don’t know.

I can tell you why. It’s perpetuated because it works.

It worked in the fourteenth century, and it still works today. For the last eight hundred years, schools have been dealing with limited budgets and high student-teacher ratios. The lecture-based model mitigates these obstacles.

If the lecture isn’t the problem, what is? I see two.

1. It’s not the lecture; it’s the students. Look at that picture of the medieval university classroom again. How do we know that the lecture is boring? The students sitting in front are engaged. The students in the back are not. I teach in a university classroom. Things haven’t changed. Some students really don’t want to learn the material. They sit in the back to hide from it and from me.

We cannot look at one painting of a medieval classroom and claim that the lecture is not working; however, some textual evidence might give us insight into the back row of that classroom. Consider this letter from a medieval father to his son studying at the university.

I have recently discovered that you live dissolutely and slothfully, preferring license to restraint and play to work and strumming a guitar while the others are at their studies, whence it happens that you have read but one volume of law while your more industrious companions have read several. Wherefore I have decided to exhort you herewith to repent utterly of your dissolute and careless ways, that you may no longer be called a waster and your shame may be turned to good repute.

Here’s another one from a different father.

I have learned—not from your master, although he ought not to hide such things from me, but from a certain trustworthy source—that you do not study in your room or act in the schools as a good student should, but play and wander about, disobedient to your master and indulging in sport and in certain other dishonorable practices which I do not now care to explain by letter.

These letters show that while times change, human nature does not. Of course, not all medieval students were wasters. One overachieving son sends a letter to his father claiming that his lectures were so popular that other classrooms were deserted. That’s the thing; lectures can be wildly entertaining, as well as educational, which brings us to the second problem.

2. It’s not the lecture; it’s the lecturers. A much more pressing problem than lazy disengaged students, is lazy disengaged teachers. Why don’t students develop a passion for the material? Probably their teachers don’t demonstrate a passion. Curiosity and excitement are contagious, even in a lecture.

Of course most bad lecturers aren’t lazy or disengaged. They just haven’t been taught what a good lecture looks like. They do not understand fundamental principles of rhetoric and public speaking. Some teachers know what a good lecture looks like, but they do not have the time or energy to actually create a good lecture. Teachers at all levels spend precious energy jumping through administrative hoops. Adjunct college professors have the added complication of trying to teach six or seven classes at three or four different schools in order to pay off those student loans. Excellent lectures take time. Sometimes there’s just no time.

Can we please stop blaming the lecture? I’m the first to admit that not all lectures are good. But that’s true of all media. Not all books are good. Not all blog posts are good. Probably most books published last year were not worth reading. Certainly most blog posts written last year was not worth reading. Even though most lectures might be bad, it doesn’t mean that the lecture itself is to blame. For most content areas, the lecture remains the best medium for educating a large group.

Don’t let the prophets of the new techno-education fool you. The lecture is here to stay. It’s been tried and tested.

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