Higher EducationPedagogyPrimary EducationSecondary Education

Is there a difference between teaching and having an impact?

I just finished doing a guest lecture in a class on animal behavior. It went well. The class was attentive and I got through all my planned material clearly, with enough humor tossed in to keep people from falling asleep. The format, however, was very “old school”. Indeed, looking more broadly at courses I am actually responsible for, they are all very much structured in the “Sage on the Stage” genre.

I lecture. It’s what I experienced throughout my education. Professors talking and writing on the blackboard or overhead projector, with me furiously writing abstracted notes. Without a doubt this can be the most boring way to learn any subject, and science educators have been for years trying to improve upon this model. Indeed, over the last decade I have been associated on and off with a variety of learning methodologies that are meant to be more engaging and a better way to teach. A short list would include: Inquirizing material; think, pair, share; flipping the classroom; and interactive online learning. Yet I have added very little of any of these into my own teaching. I lecture.

One explanation would be that it is hard to change away from methods that one is comfortable with. I admit that does explain a portion of my reluctance. Looking back on my student days, however, I think there is also a fundamental reason for my reluctance. This is the difference between teaching and having an impact.

Effective teaching involves how best to maximize a student’s learning and mastery of a subject. In pursuit of this goal, forcing the students to actively engage with the material through processes such as inquiry or flipped classrooms may dramatically improve learning and retention of material. Impact, however, are those events that change your outlook on life and career plans. Impact is where years later you can honestly say, “If not for X, I would never have become the person I am, nor do the things I do.”

From my sample size of one – me – I had lots of hands-on, inquiry-type of activities as an undergrad. We used to call them “labs”. I learned a lot that would have been impossible to get from a lecture: How to use a microscope; never to mix strong acids and bases; and not to eat lunch before dissecting a shark in formalin. But none of the labs, none of the field trips, none of the term papers or class projects, ever had the impact of a really, really good lecture.

Although I never fully appreciated it at the time, a good lecture is magical. It is the passing of hard-won knowledge, clearly and accurately, between generations. I do remember some of my professors being able to hold my interest for 60 minutes or more on topics that beforehand I would not have spent 60 seconds on. But more so, a good seminar or series of lectures doesn’t just put facts into your brain, it changes how you think about a topic or perhaps life in general. There most definitely were lectures that had a profound influence on me, such that if I had not been in the audience, I wouldn’t be here writing these sentences.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that my experiences with a lot of the new advances in teaching is that I’ve enjoyed them. They are often fun and help in learning, say, a particular principle or set of facts. But I’ve yet to experience something that has the potential to be transformative rather than an amusing break or diversion from a poor lecture. Please give me that great Sage-on-the-Stage any day! Ultimately this may be why I continue to stubbornly cling to my old fashioned teaching methods…

What is your opinion about pure lecture courses? Is this a model we should be actively moving away from, or trying to retain?

Is there a deep difference between the goals of teaching in K-12 (i.e., having students achieve mastery over basic important concepts) versus teaching in universities (i.e., creating impacts that alter and launch careers)?

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Peter Nonacs

Peter Nonacs

Professor of behavioral and evolutionary ecology at UCLA. I study the evolution of social behavior and cooperation, and anything that ants may do. And occasionally people, too.

1 Comment

  1. September 9, 2014 at 7:07 pm —

    I think all methods of teaching require skill and an intrinsic understanding of how the brain acquires new information. I think different people’s teaching skill set fall(s?) into a wide spectrum. I suck at lecture, and I think that a lot of people do as well. It is a fall back method of teaching and I believe it takes a great deal of dedication to perfect the art, but most do not dedicate the time to it. I love listening to a skilled lecturer, a person who is passionate about their topic and is able to imbue the lecture with their love and passion. But… that is a rare thing.

    As a 9th grade teacher I choose to teach in an inquiry manner. I set up learning experiences and use a structure of activities and questions to guide students through a thinking process so that they can understand a topic. It models how the foundation classes of my master’s program were taught. Those classes were organic chemistry and they started with what I though at the time as a weird place, charge and geometry. Once you have a firm understanding of charge and where that charge is located you can figure out almost anything thing else related to organic chemistry. Organic chemistry changes from a memorize course to one where the properties of even the largest molecule become an emergent factor of charge and geometry. Give me a chemical structure and I can still tell you almost 10 years later how a reaction will go. I never got such a firm foundation through lecture.

    But I also must admit that the reason I went into teaching was a lecture given to me by my 9th grade teacher about global warming. My teacher was so passionate and interested by the topic that 20 years later I still remember it.

    So like all things there is a balance. Mastery comes from a firm foundation and dreams are built from passion.

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