Why Do High School History Teachers Lecture So Much?

mikewillis-boring-staff-meetingWhy Do High School History Teachers Lecture So Much?

by Grant WigginsAuthentic Education

Why do high school teachers lecture so much?

Almost every high school I go to I see teachers talking and kids listening (or not) more in History than any other course.

And you needn’t take my anecdotal word for it. For the past year, students taking our survey have been asked to respond to questions about use of time in class. Here are the results for HS students (the “skipped” vs “answered” number refers to prior years when the question was not asked; this reflects all HS students from this school year, with no filtering out of answers):

Where%20Most%20lectures%20Chart_Q22_150423

Chart_Q23_150423

So, half of HS teachers lecture at least 3/4 of the period regularly – some all period.

We also asked students what they think the ideal amount of lecturing is. Interestingly, below is not only the aggregate data, this is almost a universal answer across each school – there is practically no range on the answer to this question:

Right%20Amount%20of%20lecture.Chart_Q24_150423

My question is basic, history teachers. Given that most history textbooks are comprehensive and reasonably well-written, why do you feel the need to talk so much? Your colleagues in science and English, for example, do not feel the same urge.

And please don’t tell me there is ‘so much to cover’ – that is silly. You are paid to cause understanding, not on how many words you speak. And don’t tell me you can’t do projects and simulations. My old friend and former colleague Mark Williams has prepared kids for AP for decades by doing cool simulations and performance challenges (e.g. Silk Road trading game plus debrief, editorial team decision on how to eulogize Sam Colt, etc.). The best teacher I have ever seen at the HS level, Leon Berkowitz at Portland HS years ago, organized his entire history course using the Steve Allen Meeting of Minds format.

Furthermore, most history programs have mission/goal statements that identify skills, performance abilities, and critical thinking that should be highlighted. (And the new AP framework which also does so is based on UbD.) That requires coaching kids to do things.

I can only see two good reasons for lecturing at length, sometimes, in history:

1. You have done original research that isn’t written down in a book

2. You have rich and interesting knowledge based on research that can overcome confusions and missing elements in the current course.

I am NOT saying “Don’t Lecture.” I am wondering why you do it so much, more than I think reasonably is necessary to achieve your goals. (You might want to read the research on lectures while you’re at it, especially the forgetting and disengagement that comes after 20 minutes for college learners, never mind HS kids).

What am I missing? Or: what might you do differently for 3/4 of the period, to engage and equip students? I think any reasonable job description of “teacher” demands that you rethink this habit.

PS: A number of tweets and a few comments below cite the reason as: “Kids can’t/won’t read the text.” But then that is a more serious problem than you lecturing all the time: they will be utterly unprepared for college at any level. Why isn’t this treated as a departmental priority? Why aren’t you looking for better books? Why aren’t you proving them with better incentives to read (e.g. necessary for simulations, debates, and Seminars)?

PPS: David McCullough on the 5 important things to learn in US history.

Here is a typical lecture, found on YouTube in a search on HS History Class Lecture.  Is this the best use of class time?

PPPS: In response to a query: the data for just MS students:

MS%20Only%20lecture%20Chart_Q22_150424This post first appeared on Grant’s personal blog; Grant can be found on twitter here; Why Do High School Teachers Lecture So Much? image attribution flickr user mikewillis

14 Comments

  • I love telling stories! I guess I just feel that students will have a better chance of remembering History if I tell it like a story. I might be wrong…

  • I would be interested in the question, “how often do you complete textbook reading that is assigned to you”. I’m guessing for most of the student population it is a very low number. As a history teacher a majority of my students do not read the textbook. Since their tests, and the district test that is given and I’m evaluated on is based on the textbook, I am forced to lecture when I wish I didn’t have to. No time for cool projects when you have 2-4 standardized tests that you are giving through out the quarter!

  • I have found that my student’s attention span is about equivalent to their age. So for my Freshman, Every 15 minutes or so I switch to a new activity in the lesson.

  • I think that is alright for History teacher to tell the story in order to create the interest of students, BUT…probably teacher should not finish the story but let the students to do their own research and to finish the second half.

  • I think the article is academically sloppy and highly polemical. I expect more reasoned and nuanced analysis and arguments from my high school students. Has any analysis of the data been carried out – by grade, region, type of school and syllabus, for example? How were the respondents selected? How was the following conclusion derived from the data? “So, half of HS teachers lecture at least 3/4 of the period regularly – some all period.” It doesn’t say history teachers here, but high school teachers. Is there a peer-reviewed paper on this?

  • Instead of this article, why don’t you get Leon Berkowitz from Portland to write out a day-by-day plan for all History teachers. This article does nothing to help.

  • This entire website is crammed with alternative activities to lecturing. But if you are not interested in reading through it, here are some ideas – discussion, inquiry and investigation, role play, make a memory box and have students research the contents, have the students make a memory box, read primary sources, debates, practice local history, go to a local archive, do oral histories… I always hated being lectured to, especially by people who were merely one chapter in the textbook ahead of me. I have a graduate degree in history +30 and I am more aware than ever of where the discrepancies in my own learning are, and as a result, I haven’t made a practice of lecturing in my history class in 12 years. This comment list looks like a bunch of history teachers were directed to this post by admin and refuse to engage with its content.

  • Here’s an article I just wrote on the same idea….like you… I understood that lecture has it’s place…but …is not all inclusive….

    One of the greatest experiences I have had in teaching World History is to create a blended-learning class that is based on using technology with thematic learning, in-class activities, and world projects. When students can physically and intellectually wrap themselves around a subject doing real-world and simulated activities it helps them take their learning a mile deep.

    The use of technology to do blended thematic learning is a great example of this type of teaching. To do this a teacher would teach all or part of their course based on the impact of such things as how technology, science, etc impacted the development of civilizations. This impact would be based on a student’s analysis of the social, economic, political, religious, family, and educational institutions in each area of the world or time period of history. Another way to approach thematic learning is to investigate how each region of the world developed based on a study of their art, literature, and music. Each of these methods are challenging ways to teach but, amazingly fun especially if you include the use of all the resources now available to the classroom. It can even include activities with other teachers or outside experts.

    Another idea is to have traditional “class activities” can be made to come alive in each time period. For example, activities that are group-based can be scaffolded into interesting critical thinking exercises. An activity might ask the students to create their own civilizations along the early river valleys (a 2 person activity) and build into larger group activities such as whether the castles or cathedrals were the most powerful institutions during a countries middle ages. Other examples would include asking students questions like: “Did colonization drive the nation’s states or vice versa?”, or “Can war be avoided?” or “How can we make a lasting peace, ” What is the nature of modern warfare and how does it impact a civilization?”. Any of these types of activities can be developed to create in-depth studies into certain time periods of history and include a plethora of amazing presentations and discussions using technology.

    Finally, creating a global project that spans the entire semester or year that takes the place of the old Friday current events activity. For example, a teacher might ask students to study ancient issues that become modern problems and come up with solutions. Some exciting topics might include: the child soldier, refugees, ocean acidification, or other debatable issues, The chance to discuss or collaborate with other nations or international organizations on any of these topics is a true project-based learning activity In each of these areas there are real world outcomes at can be presented at the end of the semester. An example of this was when some of my students studied the refugee issue, selected organizations to support, ,and created a “Rock for Refugees” project that raised money for international organizations they selected. There are many places to find such projects that include: the UN Julie Lindsay’s, Global School, Tracy Hanson’s NGGE or Yvonne Andres’s, Global School net.

    Thanks to the proliferation of technology the teaching of World History does and should NOT have to be all lecture and read. It can be much more!

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