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Wayback Wednesday: It puts kids to sleep. And just so ya know . . . that’s a bad thing. (Plus 18 ways to keep them awake)

School looks different today than it did back in 2017 when I first wrote this. But I think in many ways it applies more now than three years ago.

Why? Because it’s easy right now to revert back to the familiar. To what’s comfortable for us. But the situation teachers and students and families are in right now lends itself to innovation and change and problem based learning. To exploration and virtual reality and primary sources and datasets and all sorts of things that we know are good for kids.

So here it is. A Wayback Wednesday History Tech re-do.

And I know you may not be in the right place for this right now. I get that. If that’s you, I’m good. File this away then for next fall – it’ll still be here.

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Shocker. Lecturing to students puts them to sleep.

Who could have guessed?

Well . . . I should have. But I didn’t. During my first few years as a middle school teacher and later, during some time I spent teaching in a college social science department, I lectured.

A lot.

Early on, I didn’t know better. I was taught that way in both K-12 and in my college content courses. There were no real alternatives provided in my ed classes. And I started teaching long before established mentor programs got cranked up. Lecturing in a social studies class was just the way things were done.

By the time I had moved on to higher ed, I had figured out – with some occasional PD and lots of help from some amazing educator rock stars (looking at you Mike Ortmann) – that there were effective alternatives to constant direct instruction. But I was subtly and then very overtly encouraged by other college instructors to lecture rather than use some of the methods that I knew worked because “you’re not teaching middle school anymore.”

Those memories came flooding back recently while I was reading an older article focused on higher ed teaching titled 20 Terrible Reasons for Lecturing. Several of the reasons listed are almost word for word to what I heard from others at the college who shall not be named:

  • Lectures should last an hour. If I can stay awake for an hour, so can students.
  • It’s the only way to make sure the ground is covered.
  • Lectures are the best way to get facts across.
  • Lectures are inspirational – they improve students’ attitudes towards the subject and students like them.
  • Lectures make sure that students have a proper set of notes.
  • Students are incapable of, or unwilling to, work alone, so it’s good for them.
  • The criticisms one can make of lecturing only apply to bad lecturing.

Mmm . . .

Sound familiar? I used to say stuff like this. You may have heard others say stuff like this. Maybe, just maybe, you’ve said stuff like that yourself.

And just for the record, it’s not just higher ed.

So why do we lecture so much? And why do we continue to believe that it actually works? What does the research tell us about the effectiveness of lecturing?

Alfie Kohn, of The Homework Myth and other ed related books, does a great job of addressing those questions in a Washington Post article from a few years back. (If you’ve passed your limit of free articles, try this PDF.)

Head over to read more. Spoiler alert . . . too much lecture and direct instruction is a bad thing. Along with a variety of other citations, Kohn cites research by Donald Bligh:

The heavy reliance placed upon lecturing and its frequent use as an all-purpose method are unjustified in the light of evidence. It’s possible that thought may take place during lectures but . . . the traditional style of continuous exposition does not promote it in such a way as to justify lecturing to achieve this objective.

Kohn continues:

To question the effectiveness of lectures is not to deny that teachers know more than students do, a common straw-man objection offered defensively by traditionalists. Rather, it suggests that having someone with more information talk at those who have less doesn’t necessarily lead to that information’s being retained by the latter.

And the more ambitious one’s goal, cognitively speaking, the less likely one is to reach it by having students sit and listen. This is true because we are not empty receptacles into which knowledge is poured; we are active meaning makers.


How “ambitious . . . cognitively speaking” should we be? Our state standards, and those of the National Council for the Social Studies, seem pretty clear. Historical thinking. Problem solving. Using evidence. Working with others. Communicating solutions. Our end in mind is active, engaged, and informed citizens.

That’s pretty ambitious. Cognitively speaking.

Kohn highlights the book Teaching With Your Mouth Shut by Don Finkel that offers some practical suggestions. I probably need to track that down.

In the meantime, Kohn does provide some of his own advice. Kohn’s basic rule of thumb?

The longer the period during which teacher and students are together, the less time, proportionately, that the teacher should be talking.

His other suggestions:

  • Devote more time to discussion.
  • If there is a body of knowledge that students must master, provide more of it in readings between class sessions – and even in short readings during class sessions.
  • Lecture only occasionally and briefly in order to frame the interactive activities where the real learning happens. For example, offer deep questions for students that they can (a) think about silently for a moment, (b) discuss for a few minutes in pairs or small groups, or (c) reflect on in writing.
  • Work to elicit students’ questions about what they’ve read and heard – and also their observations (“What do you notice?”) – so they construct connections and distinctions rather than just listening to yours.

There are all sorts of strategies that you can use to elicit student questions and discussion, that help frame interactive learning. How about some of these?

Sites like the Stanford History Education Group, the National ArchivesEDSITEment, and the Library of Congress offer even more specific examples of what it can look like when we ask kids to engage in “ambitious” cognitive thinking rather than lecture.

And I love hearing about what works for others. What do your “ambitious” activities look like?

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Glenn is a curriculum and tech integration specialist, speaker, and blogger with a passion for technology and social studies. He delivers engaging professional learning across the country with a focus on consulting, presentations, and keynotes. Find out more about Glenn and how you might learn together by going to his Work with Me page.

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