(How) To Lecture or Not to Lecture…That is the Question

This fall I am teaching a new course: Ethnographies of Education. This is a two part sociology course: in the fall the students will learn sociological terms and theories about schooling and they will conduct their own ethnographic research on a student/teacher/professor to answer a simple research question related to schooling/education; in the spring they will take part two of the course, Ethnographies of Work, during which they will learn sociological terms and theories about work and the workplace and conduct their own ethnographic research to answer a simple research question on a profession in which they are interested.

This is my first time NOT teaching English in 14 years, and I am LOVING it. Not because I don’t love teaching the many facets of an English class: grammar, writing, literature, non-fiction, reading, but because I am–for the first time–using all I learned during my doctoral program (again, I have an Ed.D., a Doctorate in Education) in the classroom and it feels amazing. My brain is on fire, I’m pulling out texts that have been collecting dust on my bookshelf, I’m thinking about the study of education, about the importance of qualitative research, and how to translate all this information to my students.

The students are learning some big theories and ideas about schooling: the functionalist perspective, the Marxist perspective, hidden curriculum, human capital theory, and racial microaggressions and sometimes I need the L word: I need to lecture.

This is hard for me. It’s not hard for me in terms that I don’t know how to do it , I think most educators are blessed with the ability to talk ad nauseam about their content, but because after 11 years as a high school teacher and even within our community college, lecture is somewhat frowned upon. Let me clarify: If I had been caught lecturing in my high school, I would have received a “talking to” and if it had been a formal observation I would have received a U rating, meaning unsatisfactory. In my college, it’s more accepted, but we very much encourage the pedagogical practice of engaging the students in activities to help them construct knowledge on their own or with peers in the class as opposed to lecturing for 90 minutes.

But sometimes you just need to lecture.

This fall, I have been experimenting with how to lecture in various ways so that I can keep the students engaged. Also, lecture for first year community college students is an opportunity to practice the skill of note-taking, a skill many of them do not yet have. Here’s what I have tried so far:

1. Traditional Powerpoint mixed with readings/videos: If our students go on to a 4-year college, they will be faced with the good old-fashioned Powerpoint lecture (most likely in a huge lecture hall). I feel the Powerpoint lecture, although graphically and visually bland, is something they need familiarity with. I make all their Powerpoint lectures available on the class ePortfolio, therefore they only need to take notes on what I say that’s NOT on a slide.

I try to pepper the Powerpoint with readings and/or videos to break up the monotony. I’ll do about 3-5 slides, then pause and we’ll read from a text and discuss. We’ll do a few more slides, and watch a video. After a few more slides, another video. I try to make the readings and videos fun, funny, or interesting (while still related to the content) because lectures can be a bit dry. These classes I feel like a DJ, up at the podium, master-mixing the content, trying to keep the students engaged. It works pretty well. Just when they start to glaze over (around slide 4), I’ll put a video on and BOOM–I’ve got them back.

2. Concept Mapping: I work with the best people; they are such thoughtful pedagogues. My colleague Paul suggested writing the lecture on the board to me, and I was reminded the concept maps we had to create during my doctoral research seminars. The day I went in to do it and wasn’t sure it would work, but it was great. During this type of lecture, you give the students a list of key words that will be covered and then you literally draw the hell out of a whiteboard. I did this with a lecture on the functionalist perspective of schooling, I started with that term in the middle and just drew outwards. Paul said that students who like their hands to be busy, or students who like to doodle love this type of note-taking, and I agree. I felt that even without the entertainment factor of the videos, this kept the students alive. Also, it very much demonstrated MY way of note-taking (arrows, underlining, all caps, circles) and I explicitly talked about that.



3. Merry-Go-Round: You need a room with many white boards (or you could use chart paper) for this, but my last lecture I did this week only needed to cover four additional concepts related to the functionalist perspective on schooling. To do this, I wrote the four terms at four different points of the room, and I walked around the room once and talked/wrote notes under each term. The professor moving around forces the students to shift, shift, shift and keeps them awake. Next, I did a round two: I erased all I had written and had them tell it back to me and wrote a second set of notes, given to me in the students’ words. That was fun, actually, and they surprisingly GOT the terms modernization, assimilation, political socialization, and human capital theory.

After each lecture I have the students compare notes at their tables with a partner so they can make sure they have written down everything they need; this also allows them to check each others’ progress and who is doing work versus who is not. I allow them to ask me questions about my handwriting, words they may have copied/spelled wrong, concepts that need clarification, etc. While each of these classes has been very professor-centric, I feel the students have been engaged through conversation (I let them interrupt to ask questions while I’m lecturing) and sense-making during the lecture process.

It’s not the most student-centric classroom, it does smell a bit like the banking model of education, but I’m trying to experiment with ways to make lecture less traditional but still accomplish the same tasks. Any ideas or suggestions are very welcome.

And here’s some reading on why lectures are being questioned: