The Durability of Teacher Lecturing and Questioning: Historical Inertia or Creative Adaptation?

The lecture is 800 years old (Lecture). Teachers questioning students is millenia-old.

Yet these staples of instructional practice in K-12 and higher education, while criticized–often severely by pedagogical reformers–are alive and well in charter schools, regular public schools, and elite universities. 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 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. Savvy lecturers use YouTube, Prezi, and other elaborate technical aids to turn talks into live performances. But not all professors and teachers are 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 appeared in 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 passages from the text easily morphed into teachers asking students specific question after question. And there were periodic and end-of-year tests to insure that students absorbed what teachers taught.

*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.

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. Social beliefs in transmitting knowledge as a primary purpose of schooling remain strong and abiding. So lecturing and questioning will be around for many more centuries.


Filed under how teachers teach

12 responses to “The Durability of Teacher Lecturing and Questioning: Historical Inertia or Creative Adaptation?

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  3. “Lecture” works fine as an umbrella term for teacher-directed pedagogy in the modern age, but lecture in its historic understanding, specifically the “reading” (the etymology of the word “lecture”) of authoritative text is the pedagogical model that deserves destruction. What you describe toward the end of the article is anything but lecture, in the classical understanding. It is dialogical, dynamic, and vibrant, and nothing akin to the process illustrated in the first image of this post. Effective presenters, as can be seen in TED lectures, do not “read”, but instead express what is at the heart of their hearts. And they are brief.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for reinforcing my point about the adaptability of the lecture over time. Telling is telling and the act itself has changed over time.

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  5. One thing I didn’t see was whether lecture is effective today. When you see math and science scores dropping, the new National Report Card on United States History showing mixed results from the last time it was given, one has to ask if lecture is effective? As one who teaches students and adults, the one effect I do see is the glazed stare. Certainly lecture is needed, and one can make it more entertaining than the typical Ben Stein, “Voodoo Economics.” However, when middle or high school students go from one 90 minute lecture to another 90 minute lecture you cannot possibly think information is sticking. Every Sept., teachers complain that kids forgot what they learned from the previous year. I’d argue they didn’t forget, rather, they didn’t really learn it.

    Students need to apply their knowledge alongside hearing it via lecture. In Social Studies for example, they need to examine primary source documents, learn how to research by doing research, present information they discovered, create new stories, etc… However, in the era of standardized tests, teachers don’t think they have time for inquiry learning. So they lecture, kids pass the immediate test, and then forget what they’ve learned. Repeat cycle….

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  9. Pingback: The Durability of Teacher Lecturing and Questioning: Historical Inertia or Creative Adaptation? — Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice | David R. Taylor

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