It can be said flatly that the mere act of listening to wise statements and sound advice does little for anyone. In the process of learning, the learner’s dynamic cooperation is required…

Teachers, since it is their avowed objective to extend the knowledge boundaries of others, are particularly beset by the temptation to tell what they know… Yet no amount of information, whether of theory or fact, in itself improves insights and judgment or increases ability to act wisely under conditions of responsibility.

When should we not lecture?

The wise old words in the quotes above suggest the answer. They were written in 1940 by Charles Gragg, a Harvard Professor of Business, in which the case method is described and justified as the appropriate pedagogy for a business program. The title of the article? “Because Wisdom Can’t Be Told.”

In the next page, Gragg says why:

The key to an understanding of the Harvard Business School case plan of teaching is to be found in the fact that this plan… [opens] the way for students to make positive contributions to thought and, by doing so, prepare themselves for action.

If the learning aim is more intelligent and effective student action, then lecturing is the wrong pedagogy.

Thus, we return to where I began in Part 1 of these posts on the lecture. There is nothing inherently good or bad about the format. Its strengths or weaknesses derive solely from the goals that we claim to be honoring through extended teacher talk. And so, as Gragg points out, if the goal is for students to apply their learning with good judgment in real situations, then a series of lectures simply cannot do the job. That is logical, not ideological: IF… THEN…   The choice of pedagogy depends upon the logic of the learning goals. Alas, many of our key goals cannot be met by lectures.

Different goal types, different pedagogies. I mentioned in the first post that we can, broadly speaking, identify 5 very different types of learning goals that we all tend to aim at in teaching. Those goals can be summarized as TRANSFER, UNDERSTANDING, KNOWLEDGE, SKILL, HABITS & ATTITUDES. We asked hundreds of secondary and college-level teachers to take a survey about their goals for a course they were presently teaching. As the results showed, almost every respondent ended up striking a balance between these categories as reflective of their aims. Not one teacher of Professor said “content knowledge” was the chief or only aim.

Clearly, the goals of transfer and skill development are not effectively addressed by lecturing extensively, no matter how excellent the speaker.  Merely talking to someone cannot  change their abilities and behaviors. (Do the thought experiment of imagining engineering, soccer, and piano, taught exclusively by the lecture method). Indeed, MIT was founded as a ‘modern’ alternative to traditional colleges, where practical experience in laboratories and student research could be made more central to the academic experience. (Lab work in science classes is a fairly recent invention, begun in Germany in the early to mid 1800s and not widespread in the US until the 1900s.)

Though Gragg didn’t use the word ‘transfer,’ that is clearly the goal of the case method. Transfer requires judgment in applying learning to specific, contextualized situations, not mere de-contextualized knowledge; and on feedback based on the students’ attempts to make sense of and address the issues of the case. That’s precisely what the case method elicits and strengthens.

Similarly with skills: we need skills to be modeled by a coach, we need to practice them, and we need to receive timely and ongoing feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of our use of those skills if we are to develop them. (Even the most hide-bound lecturers – say, in HS and college history – acknowledge that the development of skills in ‘doing’ history is vital.)The arts, athletics, and foreign language learning provide clear examples of how this should work in terms of use of class time. And as I noted last time, numerous Professors, led by Eric Mazur and others, have created a completely different “lecture” experience that addresses the students’ need for applying ideas and getting feedback.

UbD and the Paideia Program. This is why in Understanding by Design we explicitly call for all curriculum designers to identify transfer goals and meaning-making goals, as well as skill and knowledge goals. Because a complete, coherent, and effective education demands all these types of learning, valid course, unit, and lesson design requires thinking through how to honor each goal type in limited time.

Much of the UbD framework was a deliberate adaptation of the construct proposed thirty years ago by Mortimer Adler in The Paideia Proposal. Adler delineated three different types of goals with three correspondingly different pedagogies:


Acquisition of Organized Knowledge Development of Intellectual Skills — Skills of Learning Enlarged Understanding of Ideas and Values


  • Didactic Instruction
  • Lectures and Responses
  • Textbooks and other Aids
  • Coaching
  • Exercises
  • Supervised Practice
  • Maieutic or Socratic Questioning
  • Active Participation


Interestingly, Adler stresses that the middle column (not the first) represents the Liberal Arts, culminating in the ability to think critically as an adult. He notes that these are not so much (discrete) skills as “habits of performance” – the “know-how” possessed by scholars in each field. Consequently, “the method of instruction cannot be didactic; it cannot be dependent upon textbooks. It must be coaching, the same kind of coaching used in the gym to develop bodily skills.” And, given the aim of personal understanding of big ideas and important values in the 3rd column, the method of instruction must be “Socratic or maieutic [from the Greek word for midwife] method of questioning and discussing.”

Ken Bain’s research on the best college teachers. This is all buttressed by what Ken Bain and colleagues found in their national study of the best college teachers (as determined by surveys, organized observation, interviews, and videotape analysis). Bain found seven principles common to the practice of the best teachers:

  1. They create a natural critical learning environment
  2. They get student attention and keep it
  3. They start with the students rather than the discipline
  4. They seek commitments from students
  5. They help students learn outside of class
  6. They engage students in interdisciplinary thinking
  7. They create diverse learning experiences.

Here are Bain’s comments on the first Principle, and his summary of what the best lecturers do in terms of that principle:

“They create a natural critical learning environment: “natural” because students encounter the skills, habits, attitudes, and information they are trying to learn embedded in questions and tasks they find fascinating – authentic tasks that arouse curiosity…”critical” because students learn to think critically, to reason from evidence… and to ask probing questions….

“Lectures from highly effective teachers nearly always have the same five elements of natural critical learning noted above. They begin with a question (often embedded within a story), continue with some attempts to help the students understand the significance of the questions, stimulate students to engage the question critically, make an argument about how to answer the question, and end with questions. The only exception? Sometimes the best teachers leave out their own answers whereas less successful lecturers often include only that element, an answer to a question that no one has raised.”

Any questions?