Lecture is Better? by Joe Prisinzano Principal, Jericho High School

Lecture is Better?

What Sherlock Holmes could teach us about the twin dangers of

lowering the barriers to publication and rapid dissemination


Joe Prisinzano

Principal, Jericho High School


Late last month, the leading curricular organization, representing tens of thousands of administrators, published its e-mail newsletter with the following as its subject: “How effective is lecture-style teaching?”  Fully expecting the linked article to blast lecture as an anachronism with little merit in our current world, I quickly scanned to the brief on the article:


Many teachers have gravitated away from lecture-style teaching -- or direct instruction -- in favor of problem-solving or inquiry-based lessons, but, at least one study shows that a group of eighth-grade students learned more through direct instruction. The study found that by spending 10% more class time on direct instruction, students could receive between one and two months of additional learning each year.


Horrified, I clicked over to the actual article, entitled “Eighth-Grade Students Learn More through Direct Instruction” (http://educationnext.org/eighth-grade-students-learn-more-through-d...), in which author Paul E. Peterson cites a recent study that purportedly found the results stated in the brief above.  Mr. Peterson explains that while problem solving approaches require less preparation and receive better student evaluations, he sometimes worries “that you are not teaching very much.”  Perhaps unsurprisingly, after considering his analysis of the research and his own worry, Mr. Peterson concludes his article as follows: “Sadly,U.S. middle-school pedagogy is weighted heavily toward problem-solving.”


Could it be?  Has the progressive era of education gone too far?  Should Understanding by Design and Differentiated Instruction be damned?  Should we all return to a simpler time when all knowledge flowed from the instructor to the ears and hands of the student… back when calligraphy was as important as science?  Have I built my entire career espousing a belief system that has been seriously flawed? 


Dismayed at the thought that everything I have thought to be true now proven false, I felt a strong pull to tear a page from the manual for super sleuths.  So, I grabbed my circular specs and overcoat, braved the dark of night, and dug up the actual research straight from its authors, Guido Schwerdt and Amelie C. Wuppermann (http://educationnext.org/sage-on-the-stage/).  Fortunately for my weary soul, this paragraph was found at the end of the researchers’ results section:

[O]ur findings are based on student performance on the TIMSS [Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study] math and science exams, which are designed to measure mastery of factual knowledge of the curricula that schools expect students to learn. Other tests intended to measure problem-solving ability and the competence to apply mathematical and scientific concepts in real-world settings (such as the Programme for International Student Assessment [PISA] administered by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) might yield different results. Unfortunately, we are unable to ascertain whether this might be the case, as PISA did not ask teachers about their pedagogical approach.

So, in the end, the researchers’ findings are perhaps not all that surprising.  Using a presentation style that leans more toward lecture, it is not inconceivable that students can indeed score well on tests designed to simply measure factual recall and the use of discrete algorithms.  One might hypothesize that this is because such information is simply being transferred from adult to student in such a way that it can be easily recorded, reviewed and regurgitated at a later date.  I might even offer that lecture provides ample opportunity for success here in that many lecturers do cover more information–even if only superficially—than those engaged in deep problem solving activities.  However, as the researches plainly state, extrapolating their findings to other types of assessments, specifically those that measure problem solving ability, would be inappropriate.


The whole debacle reminds me of conversations I used to have with my students in my former life as a math teacher.  Whenever they would groan about dissecting challenging problems, I would offer the following: “If you can find me a job where I can provide for my family by only solving simple equations like 2x – 6 = 10, sign me up!  Until then, put on your investigator’s cap, take out your magnifying glass, and get ready to tackle the world’s real problems that come riddled with mystery, intricacy, and a need for uncovering the truth.”


Along these lines, I would be far more interested in a study of how teaching style affects our students’ abilities to transfer their understanding to novel problems.  It is my supreme hope that if PISA (or another similar assessment) were to collect analogous data about teaching style, we would see that teaching for understanding does indeed benefit our students far more than teaching for recall and regurgitation. 


Ultimately, perhaps instead of rushing to add more lecture as Mr. Peterson purports, we might actually need to add yet one more problem solving skill to our curricula that still supersedes the value of poor ol’ recitation: the ability to dig deep enough to ensure that the ease of publishing online and its subsequent rapid dissemination does not trump the accuracy of its interpretation and extrapolation. 


If we do that, my dear Watson, Sherlock Holmes would be most proud of us indeed.



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