Classroom Lecture Is Not Dead: Coming to a Theater Near You

Higher Ed June 19 / Special / June 20, 2019

 – Errol St.Clair Smith –

You know this… the data is clear. Active learning is more effective than holding students hostage in classrooms, waterboarding them with lecture notes, and demanding they listen passively while we pour knowledge into their heads.

So why is lecture still the predominant teaching method? Considering the reams of paper and pixels consumed on active learning research, the hockey-stick rise of Flipped Learning studies, and over a thousand years of education reform, why is classroom lecture still alive and well?

This perplexing question is behind countless hours of head scratching and a visibly receding hairline. Eventually, the bald spot reached critical mass and the dissonance became unbearable. So I decided to do what any introverted person, with limited resources, facing a troubling societal conflict would do – produce a documentary.

And so began an unreasonably ambitious journey.

The Mission: Span the globe, ask the most thoughtful educators, scholars and school leaders we could find, a very simple question, Why is classroom lecture not dead?” Record their answers, sprinkle on some production value, then contact Netflix.

Yes, We Can, but How?

If you’ve ever watched a documentary and thought, “I could do that,” it probably means you have yet to take the first step. Steven Spielberg confessed to starting each of his movies in stark terror – and he knew how his movies would end. A documentary like this is a different beast. Sure, we could begin with a fixed idea and capture talking heads and moving pictures to support it. But we’ve chosen to just start the project, ask the questions and see what surfaces. Translation: We have no idea where this thing will lead us. That said, the future of this documentary is not quite as uncertain as is sounds. I’ve worked in Hollywood on two Emmy- winning teams. When they ran out of people to honor, they gave one of those golden ladies to me. So the good news is we’ll have access to people who actually know what they’re doing.

No matter the outcome, we are expecting a fascinating and eye-opening journey, and we’re inviting you to come along for the ride. As we chronicle the process of making this documentary on FLR, Facebook and Twitter, we hope you’ll follow along and share your thoughts. Say something that turns on a bright light and you can expect we’ll be calling you to join us on camera.

Getting Started

Greeley, Colorado is an unlikely location for the first shoot. So why did it beat out Harvard, Stanford and the University of Michigan? Because thoughtful educators from all three would be in Greeley for three days in June, and so would we. But would we find a good space to film? Would we have sufficient lighting? Will anyone of the people we want to interview agree to answer our questions on camera? Who knows, but we’re going to be there anyway, so we pulled together our “equipment and crew,” and jumped head first into the deep end.

Below is a clip of raw footage from our first interview with Professor Eric Mazur, a member of the faculty of education at Harvard University. “Raw” is too kind of a description. A book on cinematography would probably include this clip in the chapter, “Don’t let this happen to you.” In retrospect, I can easily see a half dozen things we did wrong. But warts and all, this is where this epic cinematic project humbly began. Hopefully, by the time we reach the end of this project, we’ll look back on this clip, smile and see how far we’ve come. Whatever the outcome, the time was well spent. Eric shared a new perspective, gave us fresh food for thought, and opened doors into new rooms we’ll want to explore. So take look and if you’re moved to respond, react or share, leave us a comment below.



Errol St.Clair Smith: The data is clear. Active learning is superior to passive learning. Why is classroom lecture not dead?

Eric Mazur: Well, because a change is difficult. First, you have to convince yourself that there is a need for change. I think very few faculty, if you asked, actually think there is a real need to change. Yes, there are problems, but we know exactly what we get when we give a lecture-based course. Most of the class will be silent. There is no confusion. Why is there no confusion? Because nobody has really started to learn. I more or less know what type of evaluations I’m going to get because that’s how we evaluate the quality of education by asking students to give feedback on lectures. If I hear about active learning as somebody, who for his entire career, has been lecturing passively, I may think, hmm, that makes sense. But then what will happen when I implement? What is going to happen to my evaluation? What are my colleagues going to think of me if I no longer lecture? But instead, have the students do the work during the classroom? I think it’s fear of failure in a sense and fear of running into unanticipated problems that make people go back to the comfort of lecturing.

Errol St.Clair Smith
I am the Director of Global Development at the Flipped Learning Global Initiative. I joined the education community in 2005, working closely with national education organizations on community outreach and professional development. Over the last decade, I’ve led the development of community platforms for The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE); the Association of Curriculum Developers (ASCD); the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), the International Reading Association (IRA), the National Associations for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the National Association of School Nurses (NASN), the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), the National Parent Teachers Association (NPTA), and the Association of School Business Officials (ASBO). I'm honored to have received four Emmy nominations and an Emmy Award for public affairs programming. In 2017 I co-authored Flipped Learning 3.0 with Jon Bergmann. The book was updated based on the AALAS Global Elements of Effective Flipped Learning in 2019.

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1 Comment

on June 24, 2019

We should talk. Fred Bramante or I look forward to hearing from you. Fred

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