Lecturing, Screencasting, Flipped Classrooms

I attended a webinar today about the pros and cons of flipped classrooms (i.e. information gathering such as video lectures or textbook-reading happen at home; experimenting, exploring, and inquiring happen in class).  There was lots of great discussion and food for thought.  Several presenters brought up this important point: A video lecture is still a lecture.  Sure, it has some advantages.  But why are we (video) lecturing at all?  Lectures were born in the days when only one person owned a copy of the book.  If you wanted to know what was in it, they would read it to you.  In medieval Latin (the language of European scholars pre-Gutenburg), lecture means “to read.”

This alone is not sufficient evidence to either keep or get rid of lectures.  Nowadays, the word “lecture” doesn’t always mean “reading the book at you.” Sometimes it means “storytelling,”  sometimes it means “asking short questions of one student at a time,” sometimes it means “direct instruction,” sometimes it means “modelling my work or my thinking,” sometimes it means “teacher talking, broken occasionally by outbursts of student discussion.”  I’m not interested in “are these useful tools.”  Of course they are.  My question is, “are these the best tools for my purpose.”  The answer to that is more difficult, also more dependent on my purposes and my students.

There are a few topics where I don’t think lecturing is the best tool for my purpose, but I do it anyway (the inner workings of a P-N junction, for example).  If I’m going to lecture, a 5-min video buys me at least an hour, considering that it would take me 15-20 min in class, plus repetition for students who were absent or needed to go over it again.  The reason I do it, just as Jerrid Kruse mentions, isn’t that I think it’s ideal; it’s that I haven’t found a suitable collection of examples or a good way to guide a discovery process.  So ultimately, the PD I need isn’t a lecture about why I should move away from lectures; it’s a guided exploration where I can explore my intractable problems with some guidance (inquiry-discover-model-constructivist-project-engaging-self-directedness: not just for students anymore).  Somehow, we need to create that course.


  1. I think I had a similar reaction as you did to the webinar. “Lecture is bad” over and over gets a little tiresome because there are situations where it works. For me, I noticed an interesting separation between the needs and issues for K-12 and for highered in this regard. Take physics beyond the freshmen year. Students have had a lot less experience with it and many of the seminal experiments are hard to redo (Take the original Michelson/Morely one, for example).

    Inquiry-based learning is hard to argue against. The depth of understanding that students get through it is fantastic. I think I agree with you, though, that sometimes we work with students on material that’s hard to do in an inquiry way. I second your call for PD focused on that!

    • Also, I think we’re not very clear about what we mean by lecture. Is a webinar a lecture? I found lots of things about today’s webinar thought-provoking — and it’s because of that webinar that I was able to crystalize my thoughts about what I need next. Is a TED talk a lecture? Here’s a video that helps my students improve the quality of their engineering logs. It’s George Dyson narrating footage of the original design/testing logs for Von Neumann’s Manhattan Project computer. Why video is a good medium: it allows you to see those old documents. Why lecture is a good approach: storytelling by someone who has personal experience of a historic event makes you feel less removed from these towering intellects. Result: my students’ design logs become less overwrought and vague, more willing to document failure. Is there a better way? I’m certainly willing to look! Until then, I’ll keep using this (among other approaches).

      As for the PD, I’m imagining something where four people who have some insight into each others’ subjects choose one of their difficult topics and hash out an inquiry plan together (maybe even test it on each other). Next month, it’s another member’s turn, until everyone has a new lesson plan. Sort of “the barn-raising approach to lesson planning.”

  2. You’d both love my classes. The goal is to figure how to DO the inquiry, exploration, etc. However, the course presupposes that there is something better than lecture. Right now, I’m not convinced all educators are on that page. Some educators (not so much those in today’s webinar) are trying to hold onto lecture with all their might. I suspect some don’t even realize now addicted they are. That is why I continually asked, “why lecture at all?” IMO I don’t think there is a compelling answer for that question. Once we realize that there is not a compelling answer, we can move onto the “what next”. You are both ready for “what next”. Not everyone is…yet.

    • I think I would very much enjoy your classes, Jerrid (want to visit Canada??). No question that we don’t realize how addicted we are (I could quit any time!). Self-assessment is painful and usually inaccurate, for us no less than for our students. If nothing else, making screencasts has made me much more aware of when I lecture, about what, and for how long (which I inevitably underestimate). Maybe it is a gateway drug…

  3. I like your thoughts on this. I caught a small portion of the webinar as well.

    I, too, think there is a place for some “lecture”. While I also agree with Jerrid that some educators are addicted to “lecture”, I don’t think everyone is fair about what a “lecture” is. Your original post has many names for anti-lectures: “inquiry-discover-model-constructivist-project-engaging-self-directedness”. I think there is a similar list of terms that describe lectures – some are good, some maybe not so good. I haven’t perfected this list yet, but some thoughts are guided-lecture, guided-discussion, demonstration, question and answer, explanation, show and tell,… For some topics and some types of students, I think there is a place for these.

    I teach AP Calculus to a group of highly motivated students. I also record the class and post to Moodle for students to use if they miss class or need to revisit a topic. I have not “flipped the classroom” yet, but I hope to experiment next year with a couple of carefully chosen topics (haven’t decided which yet) and see how it goes.

    • Thanks for your comment, Dan. I like your additions to the list of what sometimes qualifies as lecture… can’t believe I forgot show-and-tell. What about “field trip”? That often involves getting a tour of someplace, which is much more lecture than inquiry. It definitely has a high chance of coming across as pseudoteaching. On the other hand, it can have interesting and irreplaceable effects on the students. I need a pattern language that could help me make decisions about which medium suits which purpose, and under what circumstances. I may also have to accept that these questions have probabilistic answers, not deterministic ones.

      I’d love to know more about your calculus recordings — from how you’re making them to how your students are using them. If you don’t have a blog, I hope you’ll consider creating one.

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