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A Second Look at Lectures

Last year I had the great good fortune to be part of the project team that generated the Radically Reimaged Relationships report, which shared out learnings from visits to and interviews with 28 schools across the country. Our team selected schools that we’d heard described as “engagement based.” When we visited some of these schools, however, we were a little surprised that traditional forms of instruction still seemed to flourish—for example, lectures. If we asked teachers when and why they lectured, we often got apologetic answers along the lines of, “They’ll have to get used to it before college” or “There’s just not time to do everything in a student-directed, inquiry-based way.” In our debriefs, we wondered what this said about that teacher and school. Were they somehow less committed to engaging students or advancing their own professional practice? I don’t think so, and I don’t think these teachers necessarily need to apologize for lecturing. And although it may not sound particularly progressive or innovative, I actually like lectures. People of a certain age (including me!) will immediately flash to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and see in their mind’s eye Ben Stein as Ferris’s barely-there economics teacher: “…Anyone?... Anyone?” And yet—this depiction of teachers, like so many in popular culture, does them a disservice. So who do I picture instead? I see Chuck Sane, my high school biology teacher, introducing us to organelles in his soft Southern drawl, taking us on a journey inside cells to understand their unbelievable complexity and beauty. I picture my high school chemistry teacher, Rick Nelson, opening class with a jubilant “Comrades!” and then convincing us that learning how to perform conversion factors would change our lives. He produced and animatedly read aloud letters from former students who testified to this fact, bouncing on his heels and thumping the floor with a yardstick. (He was right, you know, about those conversion factors. I thank him every time I adjust a recipe or try to figure out how long it might take me to run a 15K.) Or in college, Greg Fehrenbach, my Shakespeare professor who loped through the lecture hall, talking about Shakespeare like they had been college roommates themselves, and stopping to recite, eyes closed and reading glasses resting on his forehead, his favorite lines from the plays. “Then you must speak,” he murmured as Othello, “of one that loved not wisely but too well… of one whose hand, / like the base Indian, threw a pearl away / richer than all his tribe.” (We did spend some time on that problematic “base Indian” reference—but Fehrenbach’s recitation lost none of its power and sadness.) I remember each of these teachers as individuals at the top of their game, and I can attest that I was 100% engaged in each case. Admittedly, I was a student who loved school and performed very well in the traditional system of the 1970s – early 1990s. Perhaps not all of my classmates responded with the same level of enthusiasm—and yet, I think there’s something to be said for the humble and much-derided lecture.

What is a TED Talk if not a lecture with really great lighting? Is it ironic or instructive that 53 million people have watched Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk (ahem, lecture) “How schools kill creativity?” Thousands of teens have attended TED Youth events to hear the likes of Erin McKean describe how words get in the dictionary, or Raymond Wang outline how germs spread on airplanes. The enormous popularity of podcasts like This American Life, You Are Not So Smart, and Hardcore History also attest to our appetite for really good storytelling.

A lecture, if well-crafted, is a really good story. The best ones grab you by the collar and say, Hey—this is incredible/disturbing/beautiful/essential. I’m going to tell you why I care about this so much. In sharing this with you, I am showing that I care about you, too. I hope it will mean something to you.

History tells us that there has been a strong oral tradition across many cultures for many centuries; science confirms that narrative storytelling activates more parts of our brain than is the case when we encounter facts isolated from their social and emotional contexts. What separates a great lecture (story) from a “Bueller?” moment? Scientists, storytellers, and great teachers share the following advice: 1. Know your audience: What do your students already know about this topic? What are they likely to assume or believe about it? Meet your listeners where they are and build from there. 2. Emotional appeal: Princeton University researcher and neuroscientist Uri Hasson has found that when stories underscore the common ground and shared feelings between speakers and listeners, listeners’ brains “lock to the story”—incredibly, this means there is actual alignment in the brain waves of speaker and listener. More areas of the listeners’ brains are activated, too. 3. Character is king: Steven Brown, a researcher and professor at McMaster University who has studied how our brains process news headlines, counsels, “Very much like literary stories, we engage with the characters and are wired to make stories people-oriented." Thus, a lesson about the 2014 Ebola outbreak in west Africa might feature the story of Mohamed Sesay, a laboratory technician in Sierra Leone who was the sole survivor of his eight-person team once all of them became infected with the virus. A Civil War lesson might highlight brothers James and Henry McLaughlin of Indiana, who fought on opposite sides in the Battle of Vicksburg, and whose sister Sarah, a nurse for the Union army, met with Abraham Lincoln to plead for her brother’s release from a Union military prison. 4. Make it fun: In his hit TED Talk, high school science teacher Tyler DeWitt comments, “I explain chemical equilibrium using analogies to awkward middle school dances, and I talk about fuel cells with stories about boys and girls at a summer camp. The feedback that I get is sometimes misspelled and it's often written in [emojis], but nonetheless, it's so appreciative, so thankful that I know this is the right way we should be communicating science." There’s a time and a place for a well-told tale, alongside your other teaching strategies that may put students more squarely in the driver’s seat, like project-based learning or portfolio presentations. Remember that when you share what you know and care about with passion and purpose, you’re modeling for your students—and hopefully creating the kind of classroom where they will have the opportunity to follow suit. Resources to learn more: Carmine Gallo, June 6, 2018. “Stories literally put our brain waves in sync.” Science Daily, September 3, 2018. “The art of storytelling: Researchers explore why we relate to characters.” Uri Hasson, February 2016. “This is your brain on communication.” Chris Anderson, March 2016. “TED’s secret to great public speaking.” Tyler DeWitt, November 2012. “Hey science teachers—make it fun.” Photo of Erin McKean at TED 2016 by Bret Hartman, courtesy of TED Conferences LLC.


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