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The Imperative of Lecturing

Every class in elementary and junior high school should be in a lecture format. The teacher must be an authority on the subject, he must grasp its basic purpose, he must carefully define the knowledge to be conveyed by reference to that purpose, and he must present that knowledge in a hierarchical, integrated, and engaging form.

When I teach a literature class, I go in to each class armed with an understanding of the value of studying literature, and the knowledge that this value is derived primarily from an appreciation of the novel’s plot, an understanding of the basic nature of the characters, and a clear grasp of the novel’s theme.

These broad goals then guide me in defining the goal of any particular class. If I am teaching Sinclair Lewis’s novel Arrowsmith, for example, I might give one class about the idealistic characters and in what way they are doomed to suffering in the world, another about those who abandon their ideals and achieve practical “success,” another about the basic moral/practical dichotomy this implies, and another contrasting this view with that of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

In each class, I would set out to convey a definite point about the novel, and to methodically lead the students to a clear understanding of the principle through the events of the novel. I would not conduct the class as question-and-answer, back-and-forth, bull session.

This is a notable contrast to most literature classes today. English teachers often select novels that are disintegrated and purposeless, and therefore have no single, objective interpretation. And even if they teach a good work of literature, with a definite theme, they allow students to take charge of the class, treating every one of their arbitrarily held, sometimes unintelligible, and often contradictory interpretations as sacred.

Several years ago I visited an English class at a reputable college prep school in my area, in which the students were reading Macbeth. The class had a “seminar” format, with the chairs in a circle, and the teacher treated as just one of the student’s peers.

This teacher explained to me that the class is “student driven.” He doesn’t give reading assignments, but instead defines “reading goals.” He does not lecture to the class, but assigns each student a section of the play, asks them to prepare a presentation, and listens without comment as they discuss their interpretation with the class.

Other teachers commit the same error in a less flagrant form. A method often used by well-meaning teachers that encourages subjectivism is the overuse of questions and answers. Some teachers go in to class with a definite, objective end in mind, but either in the name of promoting independent thought in the students or of making the class lively and engaging, they think that the steps toward this end have to be elicited from the students.

Many teachers will, for example, introduce a new topic of history, and rather than presenting the relevant facts and integrating them into abstract conclusions, they will ask the students to guess— both the facts and the conclusions. For example, in discussing the founding of Jamestown, such a teacher might ask, “How big do you think the original settlement was?” or “What sort of governing body do you think they established?”

It is appropriate, once in a while, to ask the students to guess the answer to a factual question, particularly when they will be surprised by the right answer. And it is appropriate to ask abstract questions that clearly draw upon their prior knowledge and that they therefore have the context to answer. But to routinely play a guessing game as part of the basic format of the class promotes a subjective, anything-goes view of knowledge on the part of students. Students habituate the idea that knowledge is not the product of a scrupulous and methodical process of integrating the facts of reality, but instead comes from randomly throwing out groundless views.

This does not promote intellectual independence and enthusiasm; it promotes intellectual unseriousness and eventually boredom. Questioning of the students should be secondary to the teacher’s directed, purposeful, positive presentation of a clearly defined body of knowledge. For every class, the teacher should seek to convey definite knowledge, presenting the essential facts and integrating those facts into abstract conclusions, thereby leading the students to a clear understanding while also modeling rational thought.

This does not entail passivity on the part of the students. On the contrary, they will be engaged in answering questions when appropriate, asking questions that occur to them, making connections with other relevant items of their knowledge, and following the logical progression laid about by the teacher—which itself is an active and independent process.

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