Irrationality of the claim that “lecture doesn’t work”

“Lecture doesn’t work” is a slogan of the reform movement that wants to replace traditional lecture-driven instruction by more “active learning.” I agree that much traditional teaching is horrendous and that active engagement is a sine qua non of meaningful teaching.

But the reformers do not stop there. Instead of having the courage to stand for their opinion and being prepared to debate the matter in an open court, the reformers pretend that opinions have nothing to do with it and that honest debate is pointless.

They do this by hiding behind appeals to “research” and “evidence.” “Research” has shown that they are right, so anyone who disagrees with them is obviously a fool who ignores “the facts.” Hence they feel that there is no point in having any kind of open-minded discussion with their opponents, since such opponents must be obstinate reactionaries who are stuck in old ways despite “the evidence” proving them wrong. The predictable result of this is of course that the reformers are caught in an insular echo-chamber that only further magnifies their irrational belief that they are obviously right.

An industry of “research” is devoted to proving that “lecture doesn’t work.” For example, a recent study marshals no less than 225 previous studies in support of its titular claim that “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics.

All of these 225+1 studies should go straight in the trash if you ask me, because the very notion of testing whether “lecture” works or not is ridiculous in the first place.

Suppose someone put together a list of 225 medical studies in which patients were given some pills, which, however, turned out not to have the desired effect. Would any sane person conclude from this that “research shows” that “pills don’t work”? This stupidity of such an inference is just mind-boggling, yet in educational “research” this is the standard way of reasoning.

A rational person would realise that a medical treatment should not be evaluated on the basis of whether or not it is a pill. It should of course be evaluated based on its specific ingredients and how, specifically, these ingredients are supposed to act in the particular situation at hand.

Likewise teaching cannot not be rationally evaluated based on whether or not it involves lectures. Some pills kill you and others are just what you need to survive. So also with lectures. When a pill doesn’t work it is not because it is a pill but because it has the wrong ingredients. So also with lectures.

This is yet another instantiation of the point I made in the Manifesto that “reform” efforts in teaching are usually worthless since they focus on surface form rather than substance. For the same reason, virtually all mathematics education research should be committed to the flames.