The 29th Strategy

When we talk about effective instructional strategies, we talk about cooperative learning, simulations, graphic organizers. We talk about projects and Socratic seminars and problem-based learning. But on Pitt County’s list of 28 strategies for effective instruction, you won’t find the word lecture anywhere.

In Will Wiberg’s African American History class last week I was reminded just how effective a good lecture can be.

Before I go too far, let me list what good lecture is NOT:

  • Good lecture is not just giving notes and covering material.
  • Good lecture is not squeezing as much information into 90 minutes as a teacher can possibly squeeze.
  • Good lecture does not occupy the majority of class time.
  • Good lecture is not boring.

In Mr. Wiberg’s class, students were learning about major events prior to Lincoln’s election, focused, of course, on lives of African Americans. Students were actively engaged in the lesson, listening intently and recording important notes, which the teacher wrote on the board as he taught. It might sound old-school, but it worked.


Mr. Wiberg lectures through narrative. As he moved from Dred Scott to Harper’s Ferry, students recorded key information while listening to the detailed stories Wiberg has gleaned from his vast collection of books. Mr. Wiberg presents lecture not as a professor droning on, but as a partner with his students, drawing from their knowledge through questioning. His questions range from recall of key terms (incumbent, popular sovereignty, treason) to complex moral and political questions (“How does a store owner in Illinois in 1850 justify slavery in the South? Why would he say, ‘I’m okay with slavery?'”). And morality is an important theme throughout his instruction.

The lecture also transitioned into creative use of film. As students work their way through the details of African American history, they view clips from the epic film Roots, which reinforces much of the instruction they receive in the class.

In fact, Mr. Wiberg adheres to much of what Paideia guru Mortimer J. Adler recommends for didactic instruction. I’ve summarized a few key points below:

  • The teacher should “elicit active listening” by questioning students frequently and engaging them in the meaning of the lesson.
  • The lecture must be both enthusiastic and orderly—one without the other is not good enough. And it should arouse interest and attention.
  • Lectures should begin with something—a question or problem—that sparks wonder and excitement.
  • The teacher must find a middle ground “between their own knowledge and their students’ ignorance;” that is to say, the teacher should neither stoop to the students’ level nor lecture over their heads.
  • Didactic instruction should involve “two-way talk.” Students should ask and answer questions. A meaningful conversation should exist.
  • Lectures should begin with a statement about what the student should expect to learn and why it is important.
  • Didactic instruction, during which the student is either reading or listening, should not last too long. Be brief. (Adler 51-54)

As you plan your lessons and your strategies to help your students learn, don’t forget about the 29th strategy for effective instruction: lecture. It really can work.

Works Cited
Adler, Mortimer Jerome. Paideia program: an educational syllabus. New York: Macmillan, Collier Macmillan, 1984. Print.

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