“Lecture Me.” Really?

In “Lecture Me. Really,” an opinion piece in The New York Times Sunday Review, Molly Worthen argues, “Listening continuously and taking notes for an hour is an unusual cognitive experience for most young people,” and “the vogue of learning” is pedagogically blinding to the value of ancient learning methods. She writes that lectures are not passive experiences because, through them, students develop the essential skill of note-taking, where, according to John Henry Newman, they learn “to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant.”

Lecturing is, indeed, an ancient learning method.

Exeter College chapel and lectern in Oxford

Worthen opens by discussing her rejection of all the “helpful gadgets” in the contemporary college classroom. And while I recently wrote about abandoning Powerpoint in the classroom, I could only partially agree with the overall emphasis of her argument. Something felt off about the whole thing.

For example, nobody could possibly argue that lectures do not retain currency in contexts that are replete with helpful gadgets and digital media.

TED talks walk the lecture walk and talk the lecture talk.Edward Snowden's surprise appearance at Ted

And MOOCs are filled with what? You guessed it: canned lectures.

Michael Sandel MOOC lecture

These are merely rhetorical points with images. I would suggest that you read Elizabeth Barre’s rejoinder “What is the Point of a Teacher?” Barre’s arguments are well-researched and speak volumes about active learning and the usefulness of lectures.

I recommend that you read both of these articles and then arrive at your own conclusions.


Nathan Loewen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Faculty Technology Liaison for the College of Arts & Sciences

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