Who is Burning the Cognitive Calories? Rethinking Lecture in Social Studies

I pride myself on my lectures. I was voted “Best Lecturer” in the 2013 Sherwood High School yearbook. I’ve been told that my lectures are easily understood, engaging, interactive with plenty of student discourse–and I’m pretty darn funny! My students consistently scored very well on the Advanced Placement U.S. history exam. So what’s the issue? Lecturing works.

There are a few issues. I was bluntly reminded of this when I read a recent blog post by Dr. Grant Wiggins titled, “Why do so many HS history teachers lecture so much?” Ouch. Wiggins said this post generated more buzz online than almost any other of his blog posts.

I need to say this about Grant Wiggins before I unpack this blog post a bit. He suddenly passed away in May. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, Wiggins co-wrote the very popular book Understanding by Design, which transformed teaching, curriculum writing, and assessment in American education. He was a giant in our field. I was fortunate enough to communicate with him on email and Twitter, and he was so kind and generous with his time, even agreeing to host an #sschat on Twitter on formative assessment. He will be sorely missed by many educators.

If Grant Wiggins’ data is valid, and anecdotally we know it is, lecturing is very, very common in history classes, especially high school. Why do we lecture? Too much to cover? Simulations and research projects take too much time? Take too much planning? Kids are unwilling to read and actively participate in class? Wiggins wasn’t buying it.

Despite my confidence in my stellar lecturing abilities, I know deep down I need to lecture less, and as the years have gone by, I have lectured less, and I’m rarely disappointed.

So why is lecturing in history class problematic? This is in no way an exhaustive list, and I make no claim to be an expert at the level of Grant Wiggins, but this is an outline of my thinking on the subject.

  1. What is a lecture? It’s presenting information and interpretation as an expert. We need to encourage our students to become the experts, become the historians. We need to facilitate their learning, not showcasing our learning. If we seek to become the “guide on the side,” rather than the “sage on the stage,” we need to shift our thinking and practice. Who is the “sage,” and what is the “stage,” and why?
  2. Who is burning the cognitive calories? I heard this reflective question from a curriculum writing colleague and it has always stayed with me. Lecturing, generally, is quite teacher-centered. Students can passively listen, or not. If they’re called on they might be able to muster a few words that make sense, then it’s back to passive time. Learning is work, and should be work. It’s mental exercise. Should a personal trainer do all the work, while the client watches, hardly breaking a sweat? Makes no sense. We need to condition our students for active learning, and that requires them to be the main attraction in lessons.
  3. Inquiry, Inquiry, Inquiry. Social studies should be about inquiry–asking and answering questions, making claims, supporting those claims with evidence, corroborating primary and secondary sources, and so on. Students need to get their hands dirty with sources. Displaying sources on a PowerPoint or having students write a DBQ once a month isn’t enough. Primary sources should be an integral part of a history lesson, daily. And students need to read these sources closely. Not skimming it for the “main idea,” but reading and rereading for deeper meaning.
  4. Are students really all that tech literate?   Sure, students can text, snap a pic on Instagram, and navigate YouTube like a champ, but are they really all that tech savvy? Conflicting articles and studies argue about this. While some might label our students “digital natives,” can they locate reputable sources to answer a meaningful question? Can they communicate self-generated claims and evidences in multiple multimedia formats? Are they writing and creating for an audience that solely consists of their teacher and classmates, or are they building digital literacy skills by publishing for a global and interactive audience? Common Core and C3 standards, among others, require this level of digital literacy. The traditional lecture format with occasional assessment for a teacher’s eyes only does little to condition digital skill development.
  5. Flipping the classroom isn’t the only answer. The thought behind the flipped classroom model is that students should do work in the classroom that traditionally is assigned as homework. Viewing online lectures to generate discussion is also a pillar of flipped classrooms. Student discourse is very important, but this model cannot come at the expense of all other student-centered learning strategies. Students need to dig deep with source material, and synthesize that material to draw claims supported by evidence in a variety of ways. Rather than transferring lectures to a digital format, just reconsider the role of the lecture altogether.
  6. Student choice and engagement. Students are more engaged in lessons in which they have choice. The traditional lecture limits choice. Rather than a lecture on the Civil Rights Movement with a teacher highlighting people and events in a rapid-fire Wikipedia-like manner, students can choose key people and events, pre-selected by the teacher, aligned to content themes and objectives, and explore them in greater depth and meaning through video clips, podcasts, and appropriate primary and secondary sources.

I’m quite aware these are viewpoints, and many have strong feelings about pedagogy in social studies and in all disciplines. Wiggins argued there are only 2 reasons to lecture:

  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’m not sure I’m willing to go that far. I think students need clear explanations and modeling. I think students need memory aides. I think students need to see their teachers’ passion for content. It’s contagious. So I think lecturing has its place as one instructional strategy in a toolbox of strategies. But lecturing as the sole or main lesson component seems, to me, problematic.


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  1. Ryan Reed said:

    I agree with this wholeheartedly. One piece of advice though- prepare for blowback from some students (and maybe even adults). This type of learning is a shift for them too. A few times I have heard “You aren’t teaching me anything!” when engaging students in inquiry-based learning.

  2. Chris Woodard said:

    This should be shared with administrators and people who say lecturing is not a good method of teaching.

  3. Max Brooks said:

    Awesome article! They should have you deliver this article in musical form at Rock & Roll Revival. 😉 (Sherwood alumni get this)

  4. Lauren S. Brown said:

    This article makes great points and raises key questions. I also did a post in response to the post you mention by Grant Wiggins. (Check it out at http://ushistoryideas.blogspot.com/2015/05/to-lecture-or-not-to-lecture-that-is.html) I would agree with you that there is a place for lecture. As a student, I have a learned a great deal from great lectures. And I have learned from even average ones. But giving a great lecture is no easy task for many. And you’re right to point out how teacher-centered it is. I love your 6 points. I think Wiggins’ 2nd reason to lecture covers many things. To expand on your Civil Rights example, an introductory lecture that overviews key issues, shifts, groups and individuals involved in the Civil Rights movement might be a good thing to do BEFORE you set students off on the tasks you suggest.

    • Joe Sangillo said:

      This is excellent analysis and suggestions. Thank you!

  5. Regina Schaffer said:

    As a former secondary history teacher, I wish I had this article in meetings when I was trying to make the case for less lecture and more inquiry based learning. Parents and some staff and students thought I wasn’t “teaching” unless I stood in the front of the room and lectured. Now don’t get me wrong, I am a “talker” and deliver an informative and lively lecture, but inherently I know that covering content is not learning. So much of lecture, in secondary, is tied to the idea of the teacher as the expert and the one in control of learning. If we are to truly to shift our thinking about teaching and learning we have to help teachers understand that in the age of instant information, the former paradigm just does not work. I have seen high school students Googling points the lecturer was making and challenging them; only to be shut down (teacher centric model) which in turn causes the student to shut down. Now there is no learning occurring. Thank you for giving me something to reflect on tonight.

  6. jasmeine said:

    guys, I’m not sure I’m willing to go that far. I think students need clear explanations and modeling.

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