Thoughts on Why Lecture is Obsolete: and why gamification may turn education on its head

I think that the cultural relationship we have to ‘school’ and ‘lecture’ are the largest contributing factor to why lectures persist as a teaching method, even though few students believe that they are effective (personally) or significant, in terms of what is actually learned.

I read Robert Talbert’s article: Four Things Lecture is Good For reluctantly, because I, like so many of us, do not feel that lecture is an effective pedagogy most of the time. But I was much more optimistic about the power of lecture after I read it. I agree with Talbert’s assessment that if a lecture is intentionally prepared and delivered for one of the four purposes he states, it could very well be a positive learning method. But I don’t recall any lectures I have attended in a university setting that were intentionally delivered, or framed as being for one of the purposes enumerated by Talbert (modeling thought processes, sharing cognitive structures, providing context, telling stories). I have listened to plenty of TED Talks, attended book introductions, attended presentations of research and study findings, heard people tell stories about their life and experiences and never considered them to be lectures. But I never thought about why.

So, I’ve decided to take a few minutes to do so. To make sure I was operating from a solid foundation, I looked up the Oxford Dictionary definition for the word ‘lecture’. The two listed were what I expected, but then I looked at the etymology which is most interesting:

lecture (n.) Look up lecture at Dictionary.comc. 1300, “written works, literature;” late 14c., “learning from books,” from Medieval Latin lectura “a reading,” from Latin lectus, past participle of legere “to read,” originally “to gather, collect, pick out, choose” (compare elect), from PIE root *leg- (1) “to collect, gather,” with derivatives meaning “to speak (to ‘pick out words’).” To read is, perhaps, etymologically, to “pick out words.”

The sense “a reading aloud, action of reading aloud” (either in divine worship or to students) in English emerged early 15c. That of “a discourse on a given subject before an audience for purposes of instruction” is from 1530s. Meaning “admonitory speech given with a view to reproof or correction” is from c. 1600. Lecture-room is from 1793; lecture-hall from 1832. In Greek the words still had the double senses relating to “to speak” and “to gather” (apologos “a story, tale, fable;” elaiologos “an olive gatherer”)

(link to Online Etymology Dictionary)

As soon as I read it I recalled learning that years ago as I was beginning to teach. Lectures were not originally intended to be centered on what the Lecturer had to say to whoever was listening, their primary intent was to transmit knowledge – which at the time resided largely in books – in a story-like fashion. I envision ancient Greeks going to listen to a teacher or elder reading (lecturing) from a book written by Pythagoras, Socrates or Plato – transmitting their ideas and understanding in a way that was not accessible to every person at the time. Lectures, in that time (and, I would argue, through the beginning of the twentieth century) were one of the only effective means of transmitting knowledge. They may not have been ideal, but they were a step up from what was happening before they made their debut (think: believing myth, story and innuendo/gossip as ‘truth’). They were evolutionarily appropriate and allowed more humans to think reasonably and rationally about truth and accuracy.

I would argue that lectures have held on as ‘acceptable’ pedagogy because of how deeply ingrained they are in the fabric of our existence. We’ve never really known a world without them being used, and we’re not convinced yet (at least not the majority of us humans) that they are not an effective means for transmitting understanding.

But there is hope all around – and plenty of new thinking about pedagogy that should result in more and better learning among people of all ages. My favorite one to think about at the moment is gamification.


Thanks to Jason Callaghan for his post “With a show of hands who wants to be lectured at?” which spurred my further reflection.