Sage on the Stage

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Is lecturing really all that bad?

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Summer 2011 / Vol. 11, No. 3

Podcast: Guido Schwerdt talks with Ed Next about his new study.

An unabridged version of this article is available here.

In recent years, a consensus has emerged among researchers that teacher quality matters enormously for student performance. Students taught by more-effective teachers learn substantially more over the course of the year than students taught by less-effective teachers. Yet little is known about what makes for a more-effective teacher.

Most research on teacher effectiveness has focused on teacher attributes, finding that readily measurable characteristics such as experience, certification, and graduate degrees generally have little impact on student achievement. Relatively few rigorous studies look inside the classroom to see what kinds of teaching styles are the most effective. We tackle this underexplored area by investigating the relative effects of two teacher practices—lecture-style presentations and in-class problem solving—on the achievement of middle-school students in math and science.

Ever since John Dewey explored hands-on learning at the University of Chicago Laboratory School more than a century ago, lecture-style presentations have been criticized as old-fashioned and ineffective. It is said, for example, that lectures presume that all students learn at the same pace and fail to provide instructors with feedback about which aspects of a lesson students have mastered. Students’ attention may wander during lectures, and they may more easily forget information they encountered in this passive manner. Lectures also emphasize learning by listening, which may disadvantage students who favor other learning styles.

Alternative instructional practices based on active and problem-oriented learning presumably do not suffer from these disadvantages. But they may have their own shortcomings. Learning by problem-solving may be less efficient, as discovery and problem-solving often take more time than mastering information received from an authority figure. And incorrect or misleading information may be conveyed in conversations among students in middle schools.

Nonetheless, a number of small-scale studies have identified positive impacts of interactive teaching styles on student learning. As a consequence, prominent organizations such as the National Research Council and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, since at least 1980, have called for teachers to engage students in constructing their own new knowledge through more hands-on learning and group work. By the mid-1990s, in a study for the National Institute for Science Education, Iris Weiss could identify “some encouraging signs. The majority of elementary, middle, and high school science and mathematics classes worked in small groups at least once a week, and roughly one in four classes did so every day. Moreover, the use of hands-on activities had increased since the mid-1980s.” Even so, more than a decade later, traditional lecture and textbook methodologies continue to be a significant component of science and mathematics instruction in U.S. middle schools. A rigorous, large-scale study has yet to resolve a question that has divided pedagogical thinking for generations.

In our study, we examine whether student achievement in the United States is affected by the share of teaching time devoted to lecture-style presentations as distinct from problem-solving activities. Employing information on in-class time use provided by a nationally representative sample of U.S. teachers in the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), we estimate the impact of teaching practices on student achievement by looking at the differential effects on the same student of two different teachers, using two different teaching strategies. We find that teaching style matters for student achievement, but in the opposite direction than anticipated by conventional wisdom: an emphasis on lecture-style presentations (rather than problem-solving activities) is associated with an increase—not a decrease—in student achievement. This result implies that a shift to problem-solving instruction is more likely to adversely affect student learning than to improve it.

Data and Methodology

Our research draws on data from the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). The TIMSS data comprise information on students in two grades in a number of countries, but we utilize only information on 8th-grade students in the United States. Our sample includes 6,310 students in 205 schools with 639 teachers (303 math teachers and 355 science teachers, of which 19 teach both subjects). In addition to test scores in math and science, the TIMSS data include background information on students’ home and family life as well as data on teacher characteristics, qualifications, and classroom practices. School principals provide information on school characteristics.

Most important for our purpose, teachers were asked what proportion of time in a typical week students spent on each of eight in-class activities. The overall time in class apportioned to three of these activities—listening to lecture-style presentation, working on problems with the teacher’s guidance, and working on problems without guidance—likely provides a good proxy for the time in class in which students are taught new material. We divided the amount of time spent listening to lecture-style presentations by the total amount of time spent on each of these three activities to generate a single measure of how much time the teacher devoted to lecturing relative to how much time was devoted to problem-solving activities.

A change in our measure of teaching style can be interpreted as a shift from spending time on one practice to spending time on the other, holding constant the total time spent on both practices. For example, an increase of 0.1 indicates that 10 percentage points of total time devoted to teaching new material are shifted from teaching based on problem solving to giving lecture-style presentations. We combined the other teaching activities (besides lecturing and problem solving) into a separate measure of the share of total teaching time devoted to other activities and control for this measure throughout our analysis. We also control for the total number of minutes per week that the teacher reported teaching the math or science class, as more total instructional time could have an independent effect on student learning.

Although it is difficult to determine from the TIMSS data exactly how much time is spent on lecturing as distinct from problem-solving activities, it appears that teachers generally follow the advice given by progressive educators. On average, they allocate twice as much time to problem-solving activities as to direct instruction. Specifically, teachers devote about 40 percent of class time to problem-solving activities (with or without teacher guidance); during roughly 20 percent of class time, students listen to the initial presentation of material to be learned. The remainder of the class time is allocated to such tasks as class management, reviewing homework, re-teaching the material, and clarifying content (see Figure 1).

Teachers who spent more time lecturing were more likely to be male and under age 50. Interestingly, they were also less likely to have the maximum number of years of teacher training registered by the background survey or to have taken pedagogical or content knowledge classes in the prior two years (see Figure 2).

A key challenge in studying the effects of teaching practices is that teachers may adjust their methods in response to the ability or behavior of their students. If teachers tend to rely more on lectures when assigned more capable or attentive students, this would generate a positive relationship between the amount of time spent lecturing and student achievement, even in the absence of a true causal effect. Similarly, there could be unobserved differences between students whose teachers rely more and less heavily on lecturing if, for example, teachers in schools serving low-income students adopt different practices than teachers in other types of schools.

To address these concerns, we exploit the fact that the TIMSS study tested each student in both mathematics and science. This allows us to compare the math and science test scores of individual students whose teacher in one subject tended to emphasize a different teaching style than their teacher in the other subject. In other words, we ask, if a given student’s math teacher spent more (or less) time lecturing than his or her science teacher, does the student perform better or worse on the math test than on the science test?


Contrary to contemporary pedagogical thinking, we find that students score higher on standardized tests in the subject in which their teachers spent more time on lecture-style presentations than in the subject in which the teacher devoted more time to problem-solving activities. For both math and science, a shift of 10 percentage points of time from problem solving to lecture-style presentations (e.g., increasing the share of time spent lecturing from 20 to 30 percent) is associated with an increase in student test scores of 1 percent of a standard deviation. Another way to state the same finding is that students learn less in the classes in which their teachers spend more time on in-class problem solving.

Importantly, the strength of the relationship increases when we restrict our analysis to the roughly one-third of students in the TIMSS sample who had the exact same peers in both their math and science classes. Among this group of students, a shift of 10 percentage points of time from problem solving to lecturing is associated with an increase in test scores of almost 4 percent of a standard deviation—or between one and two months’ worth of learning in a typical school year (see Figure 3). This pattern increases our confidence that the overall result does not reflect differences in the peer composition of students’ math or science classes. In fact, it suggests that peer effects may actually be leading us to understate the strength of the relationship between lecturing and student learning.

Do certain types of students benefit more from lectures than others? We find suggestive evidence that the relationship between lecture-style teaching and achievement is strongest among higher-achieving and more-advantaged students. For example, the positive effect is largest for students who report having more than one bookcase in the home, a rough indicator of the quality of their home environment. There is no evidence, however, that lower-achieving students or students from less-advantaged backgrounds learn less when their teachers emphasize lectures.

These patterns are consistent with the findings of a 1997 study by Dominic Brewer and Dan Goldhaber, which found that more in-class problem solving for American 10th-grade students in math is related to lower test scores on a standardized test. Because our results are based on comparisons of the same student in two different classes, however, they are less subject to the concern that teachers adjust their practices based on the students to which they are assigned. Furthermore, the other commonly investigated teacher characteristics (e.g., gender, experience, and credentials) do not show significant effects on student achievement in our analysis. This is in line with previous findings in the literature and underscores the importance of the statistical relationship between more lecture-style teaching and student achievement.

While the richness of the TIMSS data enables us to control for an unusually large set of teacher characteristics, our results could still be biased if teachers with different effectiveness levels are more likely to choose different teaching styles. For example, if more-effective teachers tend to spend more time lecturing because they are good at it and enjoy it, then our results could show a positive effect of lecture-style presentations, even if those teachers would have been even more effective had they devoted more time on problem-solving activities. Given the pedagogical emphasis on the use of problem-solving activities, it seems unlikely that the very best teachers would be using the less-effective teaching style (the only alternative explanation for our finding).

Still, it is important to keep in mind that our results are limited to student achievement as measured by the 2003 TIMSS test scores in 8th-grade math and science in the United States. Different results might be found for different subjects, grades, or tests. Depending on the teacher, the students, the content taught, or other factors, problem-solving activities could turn out to be the more effective style. Even though lecture-style teaching seems to be a more effective method in middle-school math and science, that does not mean it would be the preferable approach to elementary-school reading.

Also, our findings are based on student performance on the TIMSS math and science exams, which are designed to measure mastery of factual knowledge of the curricula that schools expect students to learn. Other tests intended to measure problem-solving ability and the competence to apply mathematical and scientific concepts in real-world settings (such as the Programme for International Student Assessment [PISA] administered by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) might yield different results. Unfortunately, we are unable to ascertain whether this might be the case, as PISA did not ask teachers about their pedagogical approach.

Finally, our information on teaching practices, which is based on in-class time use reported by teachers, does not allow us to distinguish between different implementations of teaching practices. In other words, a certain teaching technique may be very effective if implemented in the optimal way. But the strength of our approach is that it examines which teaching style turns out to be effective, on average, for teachers in general. Optimal teaching methods that cannot be executed by teachers in general may do more harm than good.


Given the limitations of the data, our finding that spending increased time on lecture-style teaching improves student test scores results should not be translated into a call for more lecture-style teaching in general. But the results do suggest that traditional lecture-style teaching in U.S. middle schools is less of a problem than is often believed.

Newer teaching methods might be beneficial for student achievement if implemented in the proper way, but our findings imply that simply inducing teachers to shift time in class from lecture-style presentations to problem solving without ensuring effective implementation is unlikely to raise overall student achievement in math and science. On the contrary, our results indicate that there might even be an adverse impact on student learning.

Guido Schwerdt is a postdoctoral fellow at the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) at Harvard University and a researcher at the Ifo Institute for Economic Research in Munich, Germany. Amelie C. Wuppermann is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Mainz, Germany.

An unabridged version of this article is available here.

Comment on this article
  • Karl Wheatley says:

    The people who critique extended lecture also believe that much of what is on the tests is not high-priority content, that much of what matters most is not on the tests, and that extended lecture undermines many of the student outcomes we value most–creativity, initiative, leadership skills, etc. The people who quote Dewey a lot simply don’t take test scores as the gold standard for student learning and development.

    You said …”For both math and science, a shift of 10 percentage points of time from problem solving to lecture-style presentations (e.g., increasing the share of time spent lecturing from 20 to 30 percent) is associated with an increase in student test scores of 1 percent of a standard deviation. Another way to state the same finding is that students learn less in the classes in which their teachers spend more time on in-class problem solving.”

    Since small changes in test scores have such weak predictive validity for individuals and nations (and the correlations with success are sometimes negative), why should anyone take 1% of a standard deviation seriously?

    One would expect that students who get more lecture will be exposed to more of the idiosyncratic content likely to be helpful with content test scores in the short run. However, learning such material more slowly may actually be far superior, especially if that means the content learning is accompanied by opportunities to apply what you are learning. Faster learning of low-level content is also not taken as very convincing by those who quote Dewey a lot and quote Skinner not at all.

    After the test is past, we forget much of what we learned for the test, and there is some evidence students forget faster if they learned it for a test.

  • Jim says:

    Studies in comparative pedagogical approaches often seem to ignore the fact that not every teacher has the talents and aptitudes to successfully implement every teaching method. Teaching is a craft, and some very good teachers are more successful at some aspects of the craft than they are at others. Could it be that the teachers who self-selected for lecture-based instruction did so because they felt more comfortable with that approach and were good at it? Does this study mean that all teachers, includng those who are not particularly good at the lecture method, should begin to rely more heavily on lectures? Think back to college, where lectures are more prevalent. Were there some lecture-based courses that were absolutely engaging and informative? Were there other classes where the lectures were stupefyingly dull? The abilities of the individual instructor matter.

    I don’t think that educators should avoid lectures, just because the latest trends argue for “hands-on”, “project-based”, or “problem-solving” approaches. But there’s a reason why everyone recalls Ben Stein’s performance as the economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (“Class? Anyone?”). We need to recognize that not every capable teacher is capable of relying on lectures to teach a class.

  • J.D. Fisher says:

    I love the fact that every time some research comes out in support of more traditional methods (with, as this paper at least clearly shows, some strong caveats), you find commenters who will dismiss the results because, as they say, tests don’t matter.

    No alternative is proposed. And, thus, student achievement becomes objectively unmeasurable. Convenient.

  • Dan says:

    If teachers self-select for the approach they’re better at, then why did the lecturers get better results? Did the teachers who self-select the other approach self-select incorrectly? I don’t think that explanation holds up.

  • Jim says:

    Dan, my suggestion was not that the teachers who self-select for the other approaches somehow self-selected “incorrectly”. They probably selected what they were best at (as most of us would do), even though that may not be the best conceivable approach in an ideal world. It is quite possible that asking the “non-lecturing” teachers to become “lecturers” may simply be asking them to adopt an approach that they are even less likely to be effective at, consequently lowering their overall impact on student achievement. Consider a freestyle swimming race. The butterfly may be the “fastest” stroke to use if one is good at it, and the people who are good at it may tend to get the best times as a group. But swimmers who are NOT good at the butterfly may get their best times with the backstroke or the breast stroke. Some of those may even get winning times on occasion, even though, as a group, they may tend not to win as often. My point: it may not be the best strategy to expect everybody to use the theoretically “best approach” if some teachers are unlikely to become good at it or are already reasonably good at another approach. Some best practices are easily replicable at scale. But not all.

  • MagisterGreen says:

    “After the test is past, we forget much of what we learned for the test, and there is some evidence students forget faster if they learned it for a test.”

    Actually, there’s plenty of evidence ( to show that this is not only wrong but almost completely backwards. Frequent testing can help recall of material, even more than constructivist approaches such as concept mapping or other, “student-centered” approaches. The act of recalling information affects how we store it in memory. Now, if all you’re doing is cramming for a test then yes, you will forget it all afterwards because you never really placed it into long-term memory in the first place.

    And the issue isn’t so much about what works best for individuals but trying to find what is most effective in general. I would posit that effective lecturing techniques can be taught more easily than effective techniques to differentiate and simultaneously ensure that multiple, semi-independent student groups are effectively using their time.

  • Parker says:

    “And the issue isn’t so much about what works best for individuals but trying to find what is most effective in general.”

    This is critical to the discussion. Too many people want to make education policy based on what is best for the individual, but education policy is similar to public health policy; sometimes individuals must not get the best in order to ensure better overall results.

    We know home-schooling can work well because the students get very individualized instruction but that does not mean we can or should implement that in the classroom.

    My experience in an education school graduate program is that all the professors took research that should how best to teach an individual and then used that to justify how a group should be taught. At least I think that is what they did; I don’t remember actually having to learn anything or do anything to get my degree. I’m pretty sure high school required more effort.

  • The Principal says:


    Your proposition that teachers who may be better at methods other than lecturing “self-select” those methods and are, therefore, more effective may be correct, but when the demand in many schools today is for the teacher to only use constructivist approaches in the classroom, where does that leave the teacher who would self-select the lecuture method that he finds to be more effective for him, and his students? Many teachers today find themselves in schools where constructivist methodology is viewed as the “best” and therefore “only” method to be employed by teachers in the classroom, regardless of the teachers “strength” in using that method.


    I think you are exactly correct when you write that: “And the issue isn’t so much about what works best for individuals but trying to find what is most effective in general. I would posit that effective lecturing techniques can be taught more easily than effective techniques to differentiate and simultaneously ensure that multiple, semi-independent student groups are effectively using their time.” But, try to find a school of education that agrees with your premise, or will even consider the research above as valid, or something to be considered when teaching methodology. Even on this forum, the first couple of posts dismiss the findings of this study–and many other studies that have shown that constructivist methodology is not as effective as direct instruction–out-of-hand.

  • […] working paper from the right-leaning Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard — summarized in the Summer 2011 issue of Education Next — suggests we shouldn’t be so quick to condemn […]

  • […] A University of Munich study has finally tackled the long-running debate on which teaching approach performs best in the classrooms. After comparing the relative merits of “the sage on the stage” and “guide on the side” styles, study authors Guido Schwerdt and Amelie Wuppermann found that direct instruction was superior to discussion and problem solving in improving student achievement. The Munich researchers drew their data from the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMMS) which tested a nationally representative sample of U.S. 8th graders in science and math. In addition, the survey asked teachers to indicate the percentage of class time they spent direct-teaching, versus the time students spent problem solving with and without assistance. According to TIMMS, teachers reported spending nearly twice as much classroom time on problem solving than direct instruction. For more information, check out the EducationNext coverage of this story here. […]

  • Jim says:

    You are absolutely correct that many schools discourage lectures and direct instruction, and that is a shame. And I suspect you are right that few, if any, schools of education still endorse the “sage on the stage” model. In fact, there seems to be general derision of that approach in the higher circles of education. (Why so many educators have adopted such a dim view of teachers’ abilities to use such a basic teaching tool is quite puzzling.) A teacher should definitely be free to employ lectures when that is the best way to convey the material.

    My perspective, I confess, has been conditioned by so much of the micromangement of the “inputs” that go into schools and teaching, which has not been accompanied by enough rational evaluation of results. Teaching is a difficult, complicated process still carried out largely by variable human beings, each with unique talents and aptitudes. Many, if not most, teachers could benefit from better coaching and mentoring to encourage better practices. But I don’t think we are likely to develop a one-size-fits-all approach that every teacher can use successfully.

    Instead, I would like to see greater attention paid to giving more choices to the student and parent “end users” in the system, so that they can select the pedagogical approaches and learning environments that work best for them. That kind of choice-driven accountability would enable schools to get better feedback on what is really working for their “clients”, rather than simply processing students who have no choice of other schools to attend. There are probably many paths to success. We just don’t give people the chance to find and choose them. I believe, with the right choice structure and choice-driven accountability, we could see many of the improvements that decades of top-down focus on instructional “inputs” have not delivered.

  • Karl Wheatley says:

    MagisterGreen misunderstands my point about forgetting faster what we learn for a test when s/he writes

    “Actually, there’s plenty of evidence ( to show that this is not only wrong but almost completely backwards. Frequent testing can help recall of material,”

    Most commentators misread that study at the time, thinking it argued for the kind of high-stakes testing we are doing now, when it proved no such thing. In that study, testing was used as a teaching technique, a form of rehearsal that matched the final assessment. If you rehearse in the form that you will be assessed, that generally yields better performance on the final assessment. If you will be assessed multiple choice, better to rehearse that way, if to be assessed in essay, rehearse in essay. The study didn’t answer the deeper question of whether the kind of learning assessed on standardized tests is all we value, most of what we value in education. I’d argue than perhaps one third or less of what really matters in education can be assessed reasonably well using standardized tests, and only then if the tests are low stakes.

    My original point was entirely different: When the point/motive for learning is just to learn, people forget what they learned more slowly than when the motive for learning was to pass a test.

    In response to JD Fisher (4/19), I’m not trying to be convenient–I have been saying for over a decade that most of what matters in education is not on the tests. Also, there is no “objective” assessment, never has been, never will be. Attaching numbers to assessments does not magically make them objective–all assessments at root reflect this value or that, and this theory of learning or that one. There also is no real measurement in education.

    Now, there is also a pretty consistent pattern in which similar or slightly higher test scores for direct instruction go hand in hand with substantially better understanding and real-world applications for constructivist methods, so if I see slightly better test scores for traditional methods, I think “of course,” that’s the usual pattern. When kids got a slight edge on low-level skills through lecture or drill, if you start asking the kids what they are reading, or what the math means, that’s when the wheels often come off. In the best education, low-level knowledge and skills grows in tandem with understanding and applications, and without sacrificing motivation.

    What’s odd about such studies is they never ask what was lost in the process, and generally, much is lost.

    Earlier TIMSS analysis finds understanding was generally better in countries that avoided a “back-to-basics” movement. The videotape analyses in earlier TIMSS were also pretty kind to constructivist methods.

    MagisterGreen 4/21 said I/others dismissed the study’s findings out of hand, and I think that’s a fair point: I have seen this movie before over my three decades in education.

    Of course drill and direct instruction is faster for teaching low level knowledge and skills in the short run, but we care about much more than that, and what we really care about is the long run, and when we watch the movie to the end, it ends badly for teacher-dominated instruction. Students become responders and memorizers, not real learners.

    Chewing and swallowing my food really fast also saves me time eating dinner (more time to be productive), but it gives me indigestion and makes me more likely to gain weight (which undermines productivity long-term).

    Quality education can never be figured out based on the rapidity of test scores gains in a subject or two. You have to look at the whole forest over years, not just a couple of trees today.

  • Michael Paul Goldenberg says:

    Aside from the ludicrously small effect size this study manages to squeeze out of a study that, like so many I’ve seen that lecture uber alles lovers cite to prop up business as usual in classrooms (particularly in K-12 classrooms), isn’t a well-constructed experiment, but rather an ex post facto analysis of already-existing data, there simply seems to be no real thought given to the selection of what measure of success will be used. Or perhaps there was, and that is where the problem lies.

    If you want to find out about success on multiple-choice tests, by all means, set up some nice studies with controls to find out what works best to that end. But don’t purport to measure anything deeper than that. Even while the authors advise caution (which they know full-well will be utterly ignored by the usual suspects), they never seem to consider that there really are other sorts of tests besides multiple-choice. Or that multiple-choice tests fail to measure a host of things that matter to teachers, parents, kids, and other stake holders.

    It may be unfair of me to suggest that this study had not only its thumb on the scales, but in fact its entire body, yet it’s hard to ignore how much this study looks like a rigged game.

    @Josh Fisher seems to be claiming that: A) critics of this study and those like it dismiss the meaning of all tests; and B) that they offer no alternatives. To both of which I must reply: poppycock. What I and many colleagues dismiss is the abuse of tests, the violation of basic precepts of psychometrics that seems to have fallen upon the land like a plague, and the uncritical acceptance of the results gained thereby on the part of far too many people who should know better (academics) and countless others who apparently don’t know better (politicians). I will give Mr. Fisher the benefit of the doubt in putting him in the former category, but I can’t understand how he expects his comments above to serve as a serious defense of the indefensible. No one but a true believer or an ignoramus would come away from his remarks convinced that critics of this study and its ilk don’t believe in assessment and have no good alternatives.

    There is a large body of evidence in support of formative assessments used intelligently as a truly meaningful way to use testing to improve student learning and achievement. In this regard, the work of Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam has been paramount in collecting and summarizing the research results and then moving forward to help “assessment for learning” be implemented and studied. Their seminal work that is summarized in the 1998 Kappan article, “Inside the Black Box,” the follow-up Kappan article in 20o4, “Working Inside the Black Box,” and the 2003 book, ASSESSMENT FOR LEARNING: Putting it into practice, all offer detailed alternatives to mass standardized multiple-choice testing. The work isn’t exactly brand new, it seems, and yet far too many people in the current debate are either ignorant of it or simply choose not to mention it.

    I suggest that the authors of the study, its defenders and those who wish to make a great deal of it, like Mr. Peterson, and those who falsely claim that critics are opposed to assessment and offer no alternatives, like Mr. Fisher, would do well to read and consider this work carefully before cracking out of turn again.

    By the way, I know of few people who suggest, as the typical direct instruction people do, that there is one best way to teach or that no alternative methods should be blended in with the “one true way.” To be more direct, I know a lot of direct instruction/lecture is best advocates who wish to take weak (and I’m being polite) studies like the one in this article and the infamous misuse of the Project Follow-Through results and “prove” that direct instruction (or more particularly, DISTAR and its bastard children) are THE best ways to teach and should not be sullied by anything else. On the other hand, most educators with whom I’m in contact who aren’t in the DI camp are comfortable with the idea that lecturing has a useful place in an overall instructional approach to, say, teaching mathematics effectively to mixed-ability groups.

    The problem comes when supporters of DI take any hint that it isn’t The Grail as a call for doing away with any sort of lecturing and the like. They find the occasional enthusiast for other sorts of teaching methods who may in fact be as fanatic about NEVER lecturing as they are about always lecturing, and scream that babies are being thrown out with bath water. (Actually, they scream a lot that is more absurd and false, but it suffices to read their somewhat more buttoned-down exaggerations).

    So let me, as the unofficial spokesperson for more balanced approaches to teaching clear the air once and for all: it’s okay to use lecture and other DI methods as part of an arsenal of instructional approaches. It is NOT okay, however, to do 99% lecture and throw in a token lesson that strays from that, done poorly, half-heartedly, with little or no preparation, and then scream, “See, I told you it doesn’t work!” when kids who’ve never been exposed to student-centered methods go off the wall given fifty minutes in which they’re not talked at to death, handed lame worksheets, and controlled by the teacher for every second of class time. In other words, if you’re going to use a method well, you’d better learn how to do it, and practice it seriously, which means helping students who’ve never been exposed to it to learn how to engage in it meaningfully.

    Nearly every US student knows what it means to behave well during teacher-centered instruction (which doesn’t mean they will do so). They either take notes and then dutifully perform the exercises assigned, or they get lost and lose focus, or they resist. But they can’t honestly claim not to know which they’re doing (though they are well-trained in many districts at denying that they’re off the reservation, as most teachers are all-too-familiar with).

    On the other hand, few kids, particularly those in inner city and rural schools of poverty, the kids that the DI lovers are often most successful at seeing to it that a steady fare of DI/Lecture is all they are going to get, like it or not, get the sort of long-term guidance needed to make use of more student-centered methods. And, sadly, not nearly enough teachers are ready or willing (and perhaps able) to do the long-term hard work necessary to get themselves and their students up to speed with inquiry-learning and other student-centered methods.

    It’s no surprise that teachers who themselves know little or nothing but passive, lecture-driven, teacher-centered instruction/learning are hard-pressed to shift their pedagogical paradigm. Black, Wiliam, and their colleagues make this pointedly clear in all their published work. And thus, they are careful to repeatedly state that it’s a long-term effort requiring a good deal of professional development and patient support from districts to give teachers and students the time needed to change.

    I see nothing in what they write, however, that appears intended for proscribe lecture as a piece of the puzzle. Would that the Siggy Englemanns of this world be quite so – dare I say it? – liberal and tolerant of non-DI approaches. And, if nothing else, would that some who are already trumpeting the “triumph” of lecture on the basis of studies as lame as this one show a bit more intellectual honesty and modesty. But then, we’re not really in the age of miracles, despite Michelle Rhee and company.

  • […] and it is an age-old conference format with a technological supplement, the projector. And criticism of that format, at least for “learning”, is a century-old […]

  • Ryan Katz says:

    Does anyone find it funny/weird that there are no students (below the age of 18?) commenting on this article?

    If I missed a comment, my apologies. But a quick note on the validity of this article in regards to one excerpt:

    “Relatively few rigorous studies look inside the classroom to see what kinds of teaching styles are the most effective.”

    I disagree. Maybe I disagree with what “relatively few” is implied to mean, but there are plenty of studies. Plenty. And I think the aforementioned comments show the varying conclusions. There is a reason education seems to be a disaster – there a many ways to do it well…there are also many ways to do it poorly.

  • Karl Wheatley says:

    Actually Ryan, I think kids below 18 are mostly too busy doing homework on low-level information to engage in the give and take of democracy!

    As for the gist of Ryan’s comment: Most educational research that aims to determine effectiveness studies relatively short-term effects on tests of low to mid-level knowledge and skills in a narrow range of subjects. This is the body of research that winds up being more favorable for direct instruction as a primary mode of teaching.

    If you ask what works best in the long run for the range of goals parents and CEOs value most, including deep understanding, real-world applications, critical thinking, initiative, creative, love of learning, social/leadership skills, then the needle shifts in favor of constructivist methods and education with more democracy and less autocracy.

    The fundamental question is deciding which set of goals you value most, for this determines which general approach appears more effective. Once you know this distinction, the pattern of educational research findings is quite predictable and consistent.

    Then …. EdNext’s featured comments by C. Mueller only compound the misconceptions about learning:

    Mueller “Critical thinking skills are only used when a person has background knowledge…”

    Comment: Very misleading. Critical thinking is both a skill and a habit, and young children often have a better developed habit of critical thinking (even if their knowledge is weak) than do graduate students, because a great deal of traditional schooling punishes critical thinking and rewards regurgitation of facts.

    Also, all kids have some background knowledge to think with, and when you are actively try to make sense of something, compare contrasting ideas, evaluate possibilities—you always do it with whatever background knowledge you have on hand at the time. Kids allowed to think and question and debate and explore are engaged in critical thinking. Yes, more information improves the quality of the process, but they can get knowledge through reading, investigating—through many routes other than more lecture. Furthermore, self-initiated critical thinking often provides the most powerful impetus for learning more knowledge.

    Mueller: “… This is why lectures work: they impart KNOWLEDGE from the teacher to the student. Every good teacher then has the students use the knowledge in a practice session–either worksheets or labs. That’s when critical thinking is used.”

    Knowledge can’t simply be transmitted directly into learners’ minds. Children have to be paying attention, care, choose to make active use of the information—for it to be remembered and usable. The overwhelming percentage of what you or I have heard in lectures we have forgotten. In a 50-minute class period, there’s not enough time left over to make active use of even 20 minutes of lecture material, so we forget most of what we hear.

    Worksheets are actually one of the prime suspects in killing critical thinking (and motivation).

    Even the label/link for the featured comment makes causal claims that this correlational study doesn’t deliver and can’t deliver. Instead of making the study look better, giving it that label simply makes Harvard look bad.

  • Zeba Clarke says:

    How can anyone validly extrapolate that ‘sage on the stage’ is better based on this study? It looks at one age group studying one subject (despite the attempt to broaden relevance by the sub-title ‘A within-subject between-subject approach’ the study is essentially about teaching Maths to 8th grade students in the US).

    As someone teaching 11-18 English language and literature skills to first, second and third language speakers of English in an international environment, this study has virtually no applicability. The title is attention-seeking, but even a cursory glance shows that the results have limited application because as other commentators have mentioned, the study is hardly longitudinal and any serious work regarding effectiveness of teaching methods should surely have longitudinal measures, tracking students and providing a cross-section of achievement across a range of subjects.

  • Eimhin says:

    “If teachers self-select for the approach they’re better at, then why did the lecturers get better results? Did the teachers who self-select the other approach self-select incorrectly? I don’t think that explanation holds up.”

    Here is some quality insight from neurology that everyone seems to have missed. Recently in Parma Italy a group of neurological researchers have discovered a function of the brain commonly referred to as ‘mirror neurons’. For more info I reccomend further research, it will suffice here to say that our brains provide a simultaneous inner representation of our outer percieved environment to extents never before conceived. If I watch you pick up an apple then the same neurons fire in my motor cortex as in yours. The nervous repsponse informs the brain not to initiate action, otherwise the same thing is happening in my brain as in your yours.

    Now the Buddhists have always taught that the dharma/enlightenment can only be directly transmitted from a realised master to the student. Learning theory from an unrealised monk was deemed pointless. If we now take into account the mirror neuron function we can see that perhaps enlightenment is a particular brain-state that must be ‘experienced’, albeit subconsciously, by the student through direct transmission which is consequent of learning via the mirror neuronic function of the brain.

    In this case lecturers who are more involved with their work in an experientially creative way influence the minds of their students by the content of their minds as they proceed through the lecture whereas those lecturers teaching second or thirdhand material off the page or screen are less involved with the subject and so they have less effect on the minds of their students.

    These same lecturers might be those who self-select the other method for what they are ‘best at teaching’ but still this would not yield a better result than an actively involved lecturer in the same subject. This much appears to be consistent. We always advise students to go to the source, to find the original text, to hear it ‘from the horses mouth’ as it were; it would appear that we are semi-unconsciously aware of this facet of our subception.

    In light of this, the best universities are those which have lecturers involved in a dynamic way with the ‘present-state of possibility’ in their field/subject. For those universities without this human resource the better option is to rely on video lectures of those who are in such a position. Its not quite interactive but its the next best thing.

    I hope this helps someone out there.

  • Education Next says:

    A number of readers shared questions and comments about this study in response to Paul E. Peterson’s Editor’s Letter “Eighth-Grade Students Learn More Through Direct Instruction” (see

    Guido Schwerdt, one of the authors of “Sage on the Stage,” responds in “Defending the “Sage on the Stage”” –

  • Peter D. Lenn says:

    The primary argument against lecture is not that is it waste of time. Rather the issue is whether students have the time and assistance necessary to master one topic, concept or skill before going to the next lesson. Without this, all but the top students soon lack the foundation to succeed with subsequent lessons. This is especially true in cumulative subjects like math and science, but also in foreign languages. Lecture inherently results in lock-step pacing, whether you spend 20% or 30% or 40% of the time lecturing.

    To accommodate individual differences among students the alternative is to videotape the lectures. This allows the flexibility for each student to watch the video when ready for it. It also is available for review at the student’s choice and to repeat lectures for students who have been absent. With videotaped lectures the teacher can then spend most of each class hour tutoring and coaching students one on one while most students are doing assignments or projects and some are watching videos as they start into new lessons.

    Though what’s needed is only 1 player for every 4 or 5 students, not all classrooms have enough video plyers or computers to avoid bottlenecks. To some extent this can be alleviated by having students view the videos at home, since more and more homes have a computer and Internet access. Note that typically the video lecture for a lesson takes about 10 minutes. Then the student is ready to begin doing the practice that leads to mastery. If this is done in the classroom rather than at home, there is more help available as needed from the teacher and from peers. This learning center approach has been well documented to deliver big results, way better than a few per cent of a standard deviation reported in this research.

  • […] Guido Schwerdt and Amelie Wuppermann of the University of Munich figured out a way to test empirically the relative value of … two teaching styles (see “Sage on the Stage,” research) … These analysts took advantage of the … the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMSS). (It included) … a nationally representative sample of U.S. 8th graders in math and science […]

  • Susan Toth says:

    Within the philosophy taught in schools of education, hands-on, problem-solving, group work, and so on ARE the curriculum. Every student does not need an “academic” education. The “precise results that are to be achieved through the educative process” are “attitudes, beliefs, tendencies, skills.” (page xxiii in the Reginald D. Archambault’s introduction to John Dewey on Education: Selected Writings).

    A different perspective would be that every student does need to learn about the world: an academic education. Hands-on, problem-solving, group work, and so on are techniques that, judiciously applied, can support learning the content of academics. The central function of school is not to teach “attitudes, beliefs, tendencies, skills” but rather to transmit information about the world.

    And sometimes this is done by lecturing. It is necessary to actually tell children things they do not already know.

  • […] the progressivist theory, and it dominates pedagogy studies and training programs.  Here’s a study from Education Next, however, that reverses the outcome.Guido Schwerdt, post-doc at Harvard […]

  • Tony M says:

    Teachers who cannot lecture effectively do not belong in the classroom. Lecturing is a skill, all teachers must have. It’s the most basic method of providing information to students. Lecture must occur first before students can problem-solve. Often, teachers place students in small group work stations without content knowledge. It’s about time somebody advocates for the lecturing method, we have too many new best practices from so called experts that are not working.

  • EB says:

    Full-scale lecture (in the sense of 50 minutes of pre-written oral presentation) is rare even at the college level, unless we’re talking about those mammoth introductory classes held in auditoriums. For K-12, when we say “lecture,” we mean structured presentations, usually interspersed with opportunities for children to make comments, ask questions, request a repeat explanation, or agree/disagree with the teacher. The “chunks” of instruction can be quite short; good teachers read their students and figure out when they need a discussion, a repeat, some practice, or any of a number of other reinforcing techniques, including group work, inquiry-based activities and so on. Commenters who equate Direct Instruction with lecture are lumping two quite different techniques together. Direct Instruction is highly interactive, highly skill-oriented, and highly responsive to whether the children are mastering the lesson content or are disengaged or confused.

  • Robert says:

    “sometimes individuals must not get the best in order to ensure better overall results.”

    Many schools are large enough that it is possible to have two or more classes teaching the same subject with different techniques for most core curriculum subjects.

  • […] style of presentation where the instructor dispenses knowledge that students need. It is a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching because every student, regardless of their individual learning style or […]

  • […] not all schools think that technology in the classroom benefits learning. Some research actually suggests that the traditional instruction model–teacher lecturing at the front of a classroom while […]

  • Dyad Sherman says:

    Scope and interpretation – shallow – predetermined from design and methodology – as well as narrowness of range of learnings. No new light.


  • […] learning. For example, in an article written about lecture based learning vs other methods, “Students’ attention may wander during lectures, and they may more easily forget information they e….” The previously mentioned is why I’m careful not to lecture on a certain topic for […]

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