In a previous post, I posed the question – based on student survey data and my own observations over the years – why do HS history teachers lecture so much? It generated more lengthy and numerous comments than almost any post in the history of this blog.

In that post I mentioned my old friend and former colleague Mark Williams who is as good as anybody I have ever seen at causing history to be learned and loved, with minimal lecturing. At my request, he offered his thoughts on the issue:

Since Grant gave me a nice shout-out in “Why do history teachers lecture so much?,” I am delighted to respond with my own two cents on the question he poses. I begin with this from the past:

Sometime around the middle of the 15th century Johannes Gutenberg developed (or copied, if you believe the plaintiffs in the lawsuit) a machine that used movable type to print on paper. It was at that moment that the death knell was struck for THE LECTURE. By 1500 some were discussing something called a “flipped classroom” where students were responsible for reading things called “books” that contained the content their teachers wanted students to learn, and classes were devoted to practicing the given discipline through discussions, experimentation, and other forms of teacher-guided student labor.

Ah, if only our textbooks had such a passage. If only it were true! To be fair, in my undergraduate days, I attended quite a few inspiring lectures. And, no, that was not before Gutenberg. I confess, too, that from time to time I do take a few minutes to tell my students something, rather than have them read it. I must add my support, though, to Grant and his commenters who share his view that lectures can kill.

I don’t want to go on at too great length here – I might be accused of lecturing! And besides, Grant has said it’s OK to lecture if you have some original research to share, and I do.

Some revealing research. When I was an undergraduate (in the 20th century actually), I was fortunate to be able to work on a project with a friend of mine who had developed a neat little machine that coded the verbal interactions between teachers and students in the classroom. We kept track of how long teachers talked, how long students talked, how long nobody talked, and how long everyone was talking at once. We broke down the “talk” into questions, statements that were answers to questions, teacher talk, and statements and questions from students that were volunteered without prompting. In turn each of those categories were coded by their cognitive level – for example, simple facts were a 1, explanations a 2, inferences, interpretations, and syntheses a 3.

In those days, along with movable type, we actually did have computers. You brought your boxes of punched cards to a window and machines that filled two stories of a whole building whirred and clicked and carried on for 15 or 20 minutes and spit out a big pile of paper with holes along the edges. So, we did correlations, and found that when teachers posed questions that were asking for level 2 or 3 responses, their students not only spoke longer and at the higher levels, but also asked questions and initiated statements at the higher levels. If teachers spent a lot of time talking, or asked a lot of level 1 questions for purposes of recitation or what they thought was Socratic dialog, students spoke a lot less (duh – couldn’t get a word in edgewise), asked few questions, initiated few statements, and seldom ventured into the higher cognitive levels of discourse.

Of course, correlation is not causation. One could argue that simple-minded students caused teachers to follow suit! So, we caused some causation by sharing the data with teachers (most of whom, even the long-winded ones, could not doubt causation when they saw the relationships). Just seeing the data changed teacher behavior and, as they turned to more sophisticated prompts and limited their babbling, their students responded with much more engagement at a higher cognitive level. Immediately!

A happy medium. Something that surprised us, nevertheless, was that in classes where teachers spoke very little and students were talking a great deal, the cognitive level of student questions and statements was low. In other words, there seemed to be a happy medium that involved some teacher talk as modeling (it ran in the three-minute range for each spurt of teacher lecture). I noticed some of Grant’s commenters, and Grant himself in passing, recognize that teacher modeling is important. With that in mind, then, it’s clear from some pretty strong correlations that if you want the kids to think, expect them to think, and show them, in economical ways, how it’s done.

Having been impressed by those findings as I entered the teaching profession, I tried my best to strike that happy medium; and I have also shared these discoveries with teachers I have mentored over the years, generally with good results. Some teachers have responded, as some did to Grant’s blog, that they think there is a place for good story-telling that brings history alive. While I have not done a study on enough teachers to provide reliable data, I have done surveys on some that have suggested there was a disconnect between teachers who thought of themselves as great story-tellers and their often disengaged students. (Someone should do some serious crunching on that. Certainly, teachers should do student surveys and assessments to see if their lectures are really arousing interest and actually teaching something.)

Surely another concern among some teachers who lecture a lot is that there is a lot of content to “cover” (so many dates, so little time!). When I hear this from teachers, it always reminds me of the exchange in the film Dead Poets Society (1989) between young teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) and Headmaster Gale Nolan (Norman Lloyd):

Keating: “I always thought education was learning to think for yourself.”

Nolan: “At these boys’ age? Not on your life! . . . Prepare them for college, and the rest will take care of itself.”

Thankfully, almost seven centuries after Gutenberg (has it taken that long?), I have seen many John Keating history teachers hard at work, and thankfully for Grant and me, our early intersecting careers did not place us under the watch of a Gale Nolan headmaster. Yet there are still many teachers who lecture a lot because they feel they need to cram a lot of information into kids’ heads in order to prepare them for college, or tests to get into college, or being citizens. I doubt those teachers will be easily convinced there is a better way. In addition, there are probably many who lecture a lot and actually think that they are teaching kids to think for themselves. Maybe the research I described above can challenge that.

The tug of content and the love of history. Even so, the tug of content is, and actually should be, a very real force for all of us. We all feel it. We think history is fascinating! Actually, I might suggest that this, not egomania, is the real reason some teachers lecture a lot. And this attraction to the content is a good thing! We are passionate about our subject and the wisdom that studying “the story” can convey. We wish people world-wide knew more of the story. Even for teachers who have a diverse arsenal of teaching techniques and who place independent thinking at the top of their list of goals, content is right up there as well. As Grant mentioned in his blog, I engage my students through role-plays, games, reenactments, debates, and a lot of other activities that get the endorphins rolling. But I love the stories. As a writer, I even create history content! I want to share my love of studying the past with my students. But how to do that…..

First, some self-awareness is important. We history teachers love history because we came to it on our own terms. We “discovered” it. We felt the thrill of the aha moment. It wasn’t the memorizing and the tests, that’s for sure. I hate tests. I don’t even like the new US History AP test for all its creators’ thoughtfulness about what really needs to be tested. I just don’t think you can assess historical thinking in a timed exercise. We historians wake up in the middle of the night with our realizations and understandings about what was really going on. We historians write while surrounded by notes and images of documents. We historians think and rethink, and we glory in the invention of word processing that allows us to cut and paste and insert and delete. Timed tests are just not consistent with what historians do.

It is, in fact, the doing of history that we love, even for those of us who just read and don’t necessarily write history. We come to the subject as naturally curious wonderers. But we have to realize that most people are not naturals when it comes to the past. While we may desperately want to share our love for the subject, the content as well as the discipline, everyone needs to come to it on his or her own terms as well. Thus, the soul of pedagogy is NOT “repetition,” it is motivation. Once we get them hooked as we are hooked, then they can learn BOTH independent thinking and content. There will, in fact, be no distinction, as there is none for us.

A revealing case study. Here I must lapse into anecdote, just to give an example of one of the many times I have seen gifted teachers share the love effectively. The teacher was a young man named Greg Hunter, who sadly lost a battle with cancer at an all-too-early age. He had his class of 9th graders learning about how the American government worked after the Constitution was “ordained and established,” and particularly what role the Supreme Court plays.

All year long he had worked hard at getting them involved through debates, role plays, and most of all, challenging intellectual puzzles. The latter they learned to love because Greg insisted they were smart enough to handle them. By the time they got to the section of the course I was observing, they were quite invested. He had just given them an article from a 1954 issue of the New York Times, talking about the dramatic decision in Brown v. Board of Education. He asked them to develop questions from the article, and most of them had agreed the biggest question was addressing why the Supreme Court did an about-face and declared the separate-but-equal rule unconstitutional. Following up on this question, which he had helped them to articulate, he had them reading excerpts from briefs submitted to the court and decisions written by the justices, especially C J Warren’s.

They began by responding that the court rejected the old Plessy v. Ferguson rule because times had changed and people were tired of segregation. The Civil War was long over, etc. Greg was not happy with this off-the-cuff guessing. He demanded they give him evidence, and the evidence wasn’t very good. Then he said he had to do something and just left the room, telling them to work this out by the time he came back!

He literally left them to their own devices. It turned out their devices (not the electronic ones) were pretty good. Granted, this was late in the year, and Greg had trained them well in doing close reading of sources. He had also made this into a real puzzle that intrigued them, not only by giving them the NYT article, but also by having them shape the question. Finally, he had spent a very few minutes telling them about how important it is for the court to be consistent over time (stare decisis). And yet this was a big break with the past. “How do rights get won?” he put it. And left. Granted, I was still there, so they didn’t feel like goofing off too much. Still, I was impressed – they didn’t seem to pay any attention to me.

They really struggled with Warren’s decision after deciding that it must hold the key. After some time, they got it that Warren was citing a lot of cases that had been decided fairly recently – the court had already moved in the direction of Brown. They got it that Warren was impressed by the veterans’ organizations that had lauded the brave and patriotic contributions of African Americans to the fighting of two world wars and the Korean conflict, and by support for the plaintiffs from both Jewish and anti-communist organizations. They got it that Warren was most impressed by new social science research that showed that African American kids were stigmatized by segregation and thus learned less (separate can never be equal was Warren’s conclusion). So, Greg returned and heard all that.

But he STILL wasn’t satisfied. How could this reversal be so absolute? How could the court change so radically? The Fourteenth Amendment had been around long before Plessy v. Ferguson. Justice Harlan used it in his dissent in that case. No, he demanded that they find yet another even more obvious (not to them) reason the court changed the law and said the Constitution did not say what it said to the court in 1896. Then some wise guy piped up and said, how could the Constitution say anything in 1954 to the judges of the 1896 court – they were probably all dead. (laughter) Bingo. Probably so. Every last one of them. Quite dead. Why would the 1954 judges be so different, asked Greg, who was not laughing but smiling? The eyes lit up. Who appointed them, one kid asked? Tell me, answered the thoroughly unhelpful Greg. They had to look in the Constitution. Article II, Section 2, para. 2.

So, presidents and senators in the 1880s and 1890s must have wanted people on the court who were OK with segregation. Why? Greg asked, now relentless in pursuit of the solution. And so it went for another class period, until through digging into various reference sources and textbooks (I am really crunching the time line here) they found out about the end of Reconstruction, the political imperatives of reconciliation (or wanting to get elected) after that, Jim Crow, and the abandonment of the cause of freed Blacks by the Republican party; then the massive sea change in voter sentiment, coalitions and power in the 1932 election, and the fact that nearly all the justices in 1954 had been appointed by two progressive Democrats. Conclusion: the Supreme Court is made up of people, and who those people are and where they come from politically, regardless of their supposed independence, makes a big difference in what the Constitution says.

Look at all that content! And look at how they learned it, AND how they learned the importance of chronology and context, two the most important elements in a historian’s skill set. Could any lecture, no matter how lively and captivating the speaker, have taught all that content and all that independent thinking as well? (laughter, and smiles)

Mark can be reached at mark_williams@loomis.org