Lecturing: There Are Better Ways ToTeach

Many widely used math textbooks seem written for a traditional “lecture-style” teacher. They can be challenging to teach from if you are trying to reduce time spent “talking at” the class.

Some of the NSF-funded mathematics texts published over the past decade make it much easier for a teacher to avoid lecture mode, but:

– from a parent’s perspective, some texts don’t seem to have much of a role for the teacher, so how can/should a teacher add obvious value (in student and parent eyes) to what is in the text?

– the lack of prominently highlighted boxes around all information needed for the test is a source of student gripes. Students need to re-learn “how to learn” when a text or teacher takes a different approach, so time and effort needs to be devoted to this at the start of the year.

– the format of each unit can begin to feel repetitive for students if the only source of problems is “words on a page”. Videos, student-gathered data, interaction with people outside the classroom, and teacher-initiated (vs text-initiated) activities become important in keeping the classroom experience “fresh”.

Despite these issues, I believe the material in such texts has the potential to be much more engaging for students… if the teacher is well prepared to address the issues above.

For those who would like some food for thought about why to consider moving away from the traditional lecture approach to introducing new material, I have come across the following:

David M. Bressoud’s “The Worst Way to Teach” article on the MAA web-site describing a controlled experiment on teaching approaches for Calculus, comparing the lecture format with peer instruction. It is time to retire the lecture format. If you have the time, watch Eric Mazur’s talk “Confessions of a Converted Lecturer”.

shaubo’s “How can we still say no to tech in classrooms?” blog posting, enumerating the reasons teachers should use technology in their classrooms. While I find the reasons compelling, and as a “computer person” for most of my life, I am cautious about technology in the classroom. If a technology makes it possible to do something in a classroom that could not previously be done, it may have some promise. If a technology can make a teacher or a student more productive, it may have some promise. However, if it only adds color, animation, or gadgetry (with its associated setup or maintenance overhead) to exactly what was being done previously, without significant productivity gains, then it probably will not be cost-effective.

Frank Noschese’s “The $2 Interactive Whiteboard” blog posting, as an antidote to shaubo‘s posting. This is certainly a cost-effective use of technology, one which furthers the goals espoused in the Bressoud article and Mazur talk. There is an interesting follow-up to it in Thomas Ro’s “Whiteboards vs. Chart Paper”.

Matthew Peterson’s TEDxOrangeCoast Talk about seeking to teach mathematics in a completely visual manner. While this seems geared primarily towards grades K-8, and seems to rely heavily on computers to implement, the concept is interesting to ponder for grades 9-12 as well.

Tim Hartford’s TED Talk about how important trial and error are in developing solutions to problems.  The traditional approach to teaching mathematics can lead students to assume that all problems have closed form solutions, yet I am not aware of any experienced product designers that assume their first design will work flawlessly.

If you would like to suggest other videos, blog postings, web sites, etc. that I should add to the above, please include the link in a comment!

September 17, 2011 Update: an documentary titled “Don’t Lecture Me…” discusses both Eric Mazur’s efforts as well as those of the University of Minnesota Rochester, and the UMR program is described in greater detail in “Inventing a New Kind of College“. Together, they provide some further details about what several institutions are doing to move away from the lecture format, along with the gains and challenges in doing so.

July 23, 2014 Update: an article in the New York Times, “Why Do Americans Stink at Math“, describes a Japanese teacher’s experiences in Japan and in America, along with his conclusions about why reform efforts in math education in America have not usually produced the desired results. Dan Meyer also mentioned this article on his blog, with some additional references that may be of interest.

August 20, 2014 Update:  an article in Scientific American titled “The Science of Learning” describes recent evidence-based educational research efforts and some of their conclusions about the traditional lecture format versus “active learning”. It also describes the current effort to build the base of research-supported pedagogies using research methodologies which can produce useful data from regular school environments, along with the need to increase teachers’ familiarity with research methodologies and practice.

By Whit Ford

Math tutor since 1992. Former math teacher, product manager, software developer, research analyst, etc.


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