Why Are Lecturing and Questioning Still Around?

The lecture is 800 years old (Lecture).

Teachers questioning students is millenia-old.

Yet these staple instructional practices while criticized–often severely by pedagogical reformers are alive and well in charter schools, regular public schools, and higher education. And they exist amid a revolution in teachers and students using high-tech devices in and out of the classroom.

Are these ways of teaching simply instances of traditional practices that stick like flypaper because they have  been around for a long time–inertia–or have these practices changed with the times because they are useful ways of communicating knowledge and learning?


Lecturing has been panned by pedagogical reformers for decades.  Over and over again, critics have said that lectures are inappropriate because students forget the facts and learn better when they interact with teachers. Furthermore, with so many high-tech ways of presenting information, prepared talks are obsolete. Yet lecturing remains the primary way professors teach undergraduate courses, high school teachers present information, gurus, and officials across business and government communicate with followers (e.g., TED talks, podcasts, U.S. Presidents speaking from the Oval Office).

If lecturing is so bad for learning and seen as obsolete, how come it is still around? Surely, it is more than inertia or hewing to a sacrosanct tradition of  transmitting knowledge. With new technologies and media (e.g., the printing press, television, computers) no longer is the familiar (and medieval) dictation of text to students necessary. Yet the lecture persists.

As Norm Friesen argues (see The Lecture ) , the persistence of the lecture as a teaching tool for 800 years is due “to its flexibility and adaptability in response to changes in media and technology ….” Lecturing is performing, a way of conveying knowledge in a fresh way, a way of bridging oral tradition and visual culture that teachers, professors, and so many others have continually adapted to new media. The expansion of online learning in higher education and during the 2020 pandemic have not lessened lecturing. Savvy lecturers now use PowerPoint, YouTube, and elaborate technical aids such as Elluminate Live, Prezi, and Zoom to turn talks into live performances. But not all professors and teachers are tech-savvy; lecturers span the spectrum running from thought-provoking talks to eye-glazing tedium. So continuity and change have marked the path the lecture has taken over the centuries.


Socrates, according to Plato, was one sharp questioner. The persistence of teachers questioning students, seldom in the Socratic tradition, is familiar to both kindergartners and graduate students.

In U.S. classrooms, patterns of teachers questioning students based on what is in the text began with the creation of mid-19th century age-graded schools and self-contained classrooms; teachers were expected to complete chunks of the curriculum by a certain time. Students reciting text easily morphed into teachers asking students specific question after question–what became known as the grammar of instruction.

*A researcher (p.153) cited an 1860 book on teaching methods: “Young teachers are very apt to confound rapid questioning and answers with sure and effective teaching”

*A classroom observer in 1893 described a teacher questioning her students’ knowledge of the text: “In several instances, when a pupil stopped for a moment’s reflection, the teacher remarked abruptly, ‘Don’t stop to think, but tell me what you know.’ ” Persistence of Recitation, p. 149)

*Between 1907-1911, a researcher using a stopwatch and stenographer observed 100 high school English, history, math, science, and foreign language lessons of teachers who principals had identified as superior. She found that teachers asked two to three questions per minute (pp. 41-42).

Many other studies document the historical use of questioning as the basis of classroom lessons.

What is not recorded in many of these studies is the teacher’s ever-present follow-up to a student’s answer: “correct,” “very good,” “incorrect,” “well done.” When a student’s answer is not what the teacher expected or wanted, the teacher will prompt the student with another question or give a clue to the right answer. In effect, teachers judge the quality of the answer and then move on to the next question. Using sociolinguistic theory researchers have analyzed these persistent forms of questioning as a cycle of Initiation-Response-Evaluation (IRE).

IRE is pervasive in classrooms from kindergarten through graduate school seminars. Not the only form of questioning, but it is inextricably tied to the transmittal of information–a task that remains central to teaching, past and present.

Then there is the “Essential Question” that many school teachers and professors use to frame a unit they teach in order to get their students to figure out answers. Examples:

*Is there ever a “just” war?

*How can I sound more like a native speaker?

*What do good problem solvers do, especially when they get stuck?

*What is the relationship between fiction and truth?

Such questions are the basis of units that look very different from content-driven units in a textbook.

And that is why lecturing and questioning have persisted as pedagogical tools. They are flexible and adaptable teaching techniques. With all of the concern for student-centered inquiry and using tougher questions based upon Bloom’s taxonomy, one enduring function of schooling is to transfer academic knowledge and skills (both technical and social) to the next generation. Deeply embedded social beliefs that transmitting knowledge is a primary purpose of schooling remain strong and abiding. So lecturing and questioning will be around for many more centuries.


Filed under higher education, how teachers teach, technology use

8 responses to “Why Are Lecturing and Questioning Still Around?

  1. Reblogged this on Paul's Random Thoughts / Gedachten and commented:
    Lecturing and questioning have persisted as pedagogical tools because they are flexible and adaptable teaching techniques.

  2. Arthur Sheekey

    I enjoyed your recent thoughtful comments. Rosevelt high school and Shepherd Park are proud of your lasting reputation. Art

  3. EB

    The best lectures show the teacher’s mind at work as s/he structures concepts, facts, and thinking processes into a whole, with respect to the topic at hand. In other words, they show how an expert approaches the content and skills that are necessary in that domain. This is true from elementary school all the way through post-doctoral work.

    Questions can be used to check for understanding — this is a legitimate purpose, since it lets the teacher know if they are succeeding in communicating well with the students — but I especially like Engelmann’s use of whole-class response to since it doesn’t single any child out for “correctness” and allows engagement by more children.

    But the best questions are open-ended. They may indirectly reveal whether students understand what’s been taught, but they also encourage students to go beyond that.

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