CSTA Classroom Science

What Is the Role of Lecture in NGSS?

By Peter A'Hearn

Is there a role for lecture in NGSS classrooms? Anyone who has spent much time working on the NGSS knows that NGSS is learner centered, more about helping students to develop the tools to investigate the world than about teachers supplying knowledge. The traditional teaching style of the teacher talking and students taking notes seems to be opposite of this vision.

This vision is supported by research indicating that traditional lecture is not an effective way to teach science. Nobel Prize winning physicist Dr. Carl Wieman makes a strong case against lecture as a way to teach science.  Click here to read a summary of his findings.

The biggest problem with lecture is that there is too much new information delivered too fast for deep processing and integration with existing knowledge. The people who get the most out of lecture already have strong prior knowledge about the subject. Novice learners end up understanding very little and fail to integrate what they learn into meaningful knowledge structures.

I have done a bit of lecture bashing on Twitter.


On the other hand, lecture is still the most common method of instruction in college classes. They are also a form of entertainment. People enjoy lecture in informal settings as a way to learn. Museums, universities, and libraries hold popular public lectures. TED talks are very popular way for people to learn about new and challenging ideas. The key is that people attend (or download) these lectures because they are interested in finding out what is being presented. As a teacher it might be good to ask yourself how many of your students would choose to attend your lectures in their free time.

So is there a place for lecture in NGSS? I think the answer lies in the Science and Engineering Practice of “Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information”.

NGSS wants students to engage in the Science and Engineering Practices, which means that students should be learning by doing what scientists do.

Do scientists attend lectures? Absolutely. A lecture is a place to get the latest information from an expert in the field. Lectures are a place where scientific argument takes place- claims are made and supported by evidence and reasoning in front of very tough and skeptical audiences. Is this the goal of lectures in your class?

So teachers should teach students to use lecture the way that that scientists use it – as a way to help answer questions that arise from the work they are engaged in. The way Common Core sees lecture, it’s a form of text. Text doesn’t just mean THE TEXT, but the many ways to obtain information in the modern world. So teachers should treat lecture as a form of text that students will use to answer questions. Students need to be taught how to get information out of many forms of text and lecture is no exception. So how to use lecture in an NGSS classroom?

Photo by Jo Garbutt
Licensed under Creative Commons[/caption] 

•    Your students should use lecture like a scientist would- to get expert knowledge about a subject that they are deeply involved in. Find an expert (probably online) and teach your students how to access the information.
•    We teachers tend to use lecture as a way to regurgitate predigested information to our students. This might be okay in younger grades, but our job is to get them to digest solid food. Just as with reading under Common Core, this means using challenging material and teaching them the tools to get meaning out of it.
•    Are you the expert? Unless this is the subject of your own study you probably aren’t. I could give a solid lecture on brewing beer (which I did professionally for a while), but I would be a raging ego-manic if I thought I could lecture as an expert on evolution or photosynthesis. Find an expert in a YouTube video or in your community.
•    Prior knowledge is a huge key to understanding what is said in a lecture. Ideally your students already know something about the subject and have questions before they look to a lecturer for answers.
•    Lectures are best approached critically. Good listeners, like good readers, are constantly questioning what they hear. “How does this compare with what I already know or think?” What is the evidence for this?” “Does this make sense?” “If I don’t understand this, where can I get answers?” These skills of active listening will serve your students well in college or career.
•    Use frequent checks for understanding and frequent opportunities for students to talk to each other about what they are learning. This is a key to making lecture interactive and keeping it from going over the audience’s heads.
•    Make sure the big picture is part of the lecture- how do the details fit into the bigger picture of the subject. Using graphics like concept maps to organize the content can help with this.
•    Good lectures tell a story. If you’ve ever seen a TED talk, you know they are popular because they have a storyline where a problem is solved in a novel and surprising way. People learn better when information comes in the form of a story.
•    You might be thinking,” Most lectures are ineffective…but MINE are GREAT! I am a GREAT lecturer!” Reality check- You probably aren’t. But you might be a raging ego-maniac.
•    You might be thinking, “I really like to be an expert and talk about what I know in front of a captive audience!” – You are a raging ego-maniac.
•    A Mini-lecture is a different animal. A mini-lecture is short, focused, and used to make sure there is a common understanding of a topic. Mini-lectures are a fine way to summarize learning that has already happened and to provide formal terminology for ideas that students have already begun to understand.

So lecture does have a place under NGSS. It’s not the Queen of the classroom anymore, but does get to go to the ball.



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