Recently, Stephen Kosslyn, the founding Dean of Minerva Schools, offered a great explanation of why active learning is superior to lectures. While I admire and appreciate radical innovations in educational models like Minerva, I’d like to share a point of view that presents the lecture and active learning as complementary, not competitive, instructional models.
Introducing the Interactive Lecture
We all remember our great teachers. They created engaging and participatory lecture-style presentations that relayed information to their students in a way that was tailored to the objectives, content, pace and direction of their lessons. Overall, they were inspiring and fun, and they made students active protagonists of their lessons.
While building Nearpod, I was privileged to meet many amazing teachers—some of whom had wholly adopted new instructional practices such as project-based learning or hands-on inquiry. But more commonly, I saw incredible educators executing something a little more familiar: lectures.
These lectures were far from the teacher-centered, direct instruction we are accustomed to. Instead, I saw educators create an experience that effectively combined traditional lecture-style teaching with student-centered tasks (including formative assessments and checks for understanding, cooperative learning activities, and opportunities for student-generated products). These opportunities gave learners a chance to process ideas and think deeply about what they just heard or seen.
This new model—the interactive lecture—leverages all of the purposes and benefits of traditional direct instruction, while integrating active learning activities throughout a lesson. In an interactive lecture, students engage with and reflect on content through listening, discussing, reading, writing, solving, collaborating, reflecting, and creating.
The Lecture, As We Know It, Is Dead
As student-centered, active learning receives considerable attention and is touted as an ultimate goal of 21st century instruction, the impetus to end traditional lecture-based teaching seems logical. Despite its noble purposes, the lecture has earned a negative reputation and many schools and programs have communicated their curricular approach through the lens that ‘active learning is a better replacement for lecture-based instruction.’
Active learning alternatives—such as hands-on exploration, project-based learning, design thinking, and inquiry-based learning—all share two core tenets: they require high engagement from students and promote meaningful learning. But these same values are found in the interactive lecture.
We should do away with the outdated lecture model characterized by an instructor talking for an hour (or more) in front of students who engage only by taking notes. Engagement in the learning process demands much more from students; it requires them to think, process and evaluate information as it is introduced. Students must be able to use information in new ways and—more importantly—to question.
Instead of leaving lecture-based instruction behind, all of us involved in building innovative educational models should recognize its traditional value and focus our efforts on improving the design of lectures so that they embody the core values of active learning.
Making the Transition
Delivering engaging, interactive lectures can be relatively simple. Inserting a reflection prompt or check for understanding questions between lecture slides is a quick way to turn a teacher-centered lecture into an interactive learning experience. Teachers aren’t leaving their lectures behind—they’re taking what they have already created and breaking up the monologue with checks-for-understanding, partner discussions, cold calling, quick writes, reflections, or comprehension tasks.
Today’s hyper-connected students simply do not accept the idea of sitting still in a class. But there are tools that can enhance the learning experience.Technologies like Nearpod, Socrative, PollEverywhere, Educreations, Desmos, Kahoot, Google Expeditions, Explain Everything and others enable teachers to explore new possibilities for active learning by adding simulations, collaborative learning experiences, and opportunities to interact and create. When used properly, these tools can facilitate an environment for sharing, enable class-wide participation, and capture data about student comprehension or opinions in real-time.
There are multiple paths through which deep, meaningful learning can occur within the classroom. Rather than pitting one method against another or advocating a whole-scale substitution of instructional approaches, teachers and administrators should consider and leverage what works in a more integrated way. In conversations about strategies that promote an actively engaged classroom, we need to keep the interactive lecture in the discussion as one of many ways to promote optimal student learning.