Notes and Lecture Aren't Bad Words

posted Jun 21, 2016, 12:33 PM by Kevin Roughton   [ updated Jul 13, 2017, 8:48 AM ]
Update 7/13/2017: I'm not alone! https://blog.bufferapp.com/science-of-storytelling-why-telling-a-story-is-the-most-powerful-way-to-activate-our-brains

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Over the last couple years I've heard over and over about how awful lecture is as a method of instruction.  It has mostly stemmed from this post by Grant Wiggins (of backwards design fame) and a push toward flipped instruction. I consider myself very forward-thinking in terms of educational methods but I find this to be utter nonsense. Why, in a time when podcasts are more popular than ever, are we saying that the spoken word is not a good way to deliver stories?

Before I get into why I feel lecture is still a very valid method of instruction lets briefly consider the alternatives. In this post on Wiggins' blog we hear from what, apparently, is Wiggins' suggested alternative. I'll spare you reading it all and simply say it is "reading" and suggests textbooks more than once.  The author argues that we teachers love history because we discovered it on our own terms. Find me one person that discovered a love of history through a textbook. Good luck. 

The other option, though it works hand and hand with textbooks often, is the flipped classroom idea. That is, short lectures are provided via video for students to view as homework. These lectures are often not specific and instead are links to various Crash Course videos that may, or may not, tell the story you really want it to tell. Classroom time then is used for students to explore the content on their own with you the teacher serving as their guide. While I'm all for this idea (see CYOA for example) I am not behind doing it all or even most of the time. I am the expert in my room - both in history and in educational methods. If my students aren't taking advantage of that they are missing out.

I compare it to Disneyland versus Knott's Berry Farm. Disneyland is the most planned out theme park in the world. Every step you take or thought you think while there has been guided by Imagineers. Did you know they literally pump vanilla smells into the air near the ice cream shop on Main Street? Did you realize that every land that opens up from the main spoke hub of the park has a huge entrance item to draw you in except for one? Fantasyland has the castle, Tomorrowland the rocket pods but Adventureland - the one land about finding your own way - can't be seen around the bend? All of that is by design. You are being told (and sold) a story and you love every single minute of it.

Knott's (or any Six Flags), on the other hand, doesn't have that level of design. It is much more the flipped amusement park. The rides are incredibly thrilling but thrown about the park without a thought other than "can we fit this new thing here?" You are given a map when you enter and you had better take it. There is no rhyme or reason to the layout. You're on your own to figure it all out. 

There's a reason Disneyland can charge over $100 for a day's visit while Knott's and Six Flags cost roughly half that. A guided experience makes all the difference.

Lecture, when done right, is that guided experience.

Of course there are bad lectures (and lecturers) out there. That can be true of any instructional method though. I've seen really bad games and simulations too - that doesn't mean we shouldn't use them.

But, don't take my word for it. Here's what some of my students had to say about taking notes in my 7th grade World History class. Most of these, interestingly enough to me, came not from my honors kids but my on-level ones and many of whom were struggling readers.

"I enjoyed notes because they are easier and more fun than notes in other classes." -Abby

I honestly don't know what she means by easier. I do color-code my notes based on importance - that's all I can think of. My kids write WAY more notes than they do in other classes. As far as more fun, definitely. I make sure my lectures are full of jokes, short interactive segments called Brain Snacks, videos, animations and stories. If I'm bored telling it they'll be bored hearing it!

"I liked doing the notes the most because they were really fun to do and I learn better when I'm actually interested and laughing from time to time." -Vanessa

I guess you don't need a doctorate to understand how kids learn best. Turns out they have a pretty good idea of it themselves. 

"The activity I liked most were the notes because the mini things added in like the "terrible jokes" Mr. Roughton says about the unit." -Priscilla

If there's one thing I've learned from Vine (and believe, it is only one thing) it is that middle schoolers are easily entertained. They love bad jokes! You don't even have to be a comedian to make them laugh a little bit. Make jokes, be human and your lectures will be much more effective.

"I liked taking notes because the class goes faster." -Juliana

Far from the "Anybody...? Anybody...?" of Ferris Beuller, a good lecture can make time fly for students. If they are hooked by the story there's no limit to their attention span. Well, maybe there is but I can promise it is beyond 45 minutes.

"I liked notes the most because I can write it down and then study at home." -Diana

A surprising amount of my kids said something to this effect. Kids are not going to study their textbook at home. It is dull and boring. Those 10 minute Crash Course videos? Also not that interesting. Notes certainly can interesting and don't have to boring. PowerPoint is awesome if you learn how to use it.
 
"In my point of view the notes helped because there were a lot of animations which helped me remember." - Isaiah

Animation should help to tell your story. Don't use any animation other than a simple fade unless you have a story or design-based reason to do so. There's a reason you never see any other types of cuts in movies (Star Wars aside). Simple movement animations are way more effective than the random pop ins and zooms that PowerPoint, and even worse Prezi, are known for.  Words can be hard to remember. Animations help students build a memorable framework in their minds. Your kids should not have the "I just read this whole page and don't remember a single word of it" problem with your lectures.

"The type of activity that I like the most was doing notes because we could learn different things about countries or people." -Diego
"I liked notes because I like to learn about history." -Nikki
"I liked notes the most because I liked learning information about different places." -Kellcie

As I said, podcasts are more popular now than ever before. People purposefully choose to listen to long lectures (and these with no animations!) on a number of seemingly dry topics. Why? Simple. Learning is fun. Our brains like to learn. If our lectures are providing real information - not just facts and vocabulary - kids will enjoy them not in spite of the learning but because of it. We get to take them via our lectures to times and places they will never go. The Roman Empire is interesting. If I can bring my kids there they are going to love it and learn from it. If all I bring to them is a list of emperors... not so much.

"Notes because it's different. Its not like notes out of the book. You make it fun and make us want to do notes." Tanyah

Our kids often do essentially the same thing 4 or 5 times a day. They read something and write some simple responses to it. Imagine a world where notes are seen as a breath of fresh air! Apparently, that's my classroom.

"Notes because there were stories." -Juan

This was from a student who did very little work all year but did great on his tests and participated in every class discussion. He was hooked on the stories. He didn't care about much else. I think that is true of many of our under-performing students. They do care - just not about some of the nonsense we ask them to.

"I liked the notes because the PowerPoints were very creative and got me engaged." Isabel

If you are doing PPT slides with 3 bullets and a graphic or two please stop. Go watch a presentation by Steve Jobs to see what your presentation software should have. By no means are my presentations perfect (as evidenced by me redoing them all again for about the 7th time) but the kids see the difference in mine versus the others they see. Many of them commented on the effort I put in to making sure they looked good and were engaging. No stock designs, no blown up blurry images, clean matching fonts and small touches of animations goes a long, long way.

"I enjoyed the notes because Mr.Roughton designed them in enjoyable ways with animations and many teachers do boring slides filled with note-taking facts." -Angelina

Her words, not mine.

"I liked notes because they made us think about it and put it in our own words. I also like history." -Priscilla

I spend a good amount of time at the beginning of the year teaching my students how NOT to copy notes. I teach them to shorten things significantly and use their own words. Most of them don't. Most end up copying anyway. Those that do figure it out (usually the honors kids quite honestly) find themselves learning so much more. Copying does almost nothing for brain activity. It is the main reason why we experience the "but I taught them that!" syndrome so often. We may have told them that but we didn't ask them to think about it.


I was honestly surprised by how many of my students selected notes as their favorite activity. I always get a pretty good amount but this year it was over 25% (the rest divided pretty evenly between Choose Your own Adventure and labs) and nearly 1/3rd. I suspect it has something to do with the shift in instructional models in their other classes. Common Core has our kids reading and responding to articles almost every period in almost every class. Well presented notes can be a great break from that for them. It just so happens we have the perfect subject for it. History is story, period. I hope lecture never exits the history class. Lecture is how history has been taught for thousands of years prior to the recent arguments against it. Can it be done poorly? Of course. It is usually done poorly? Probably. But, it doesn't have to be that way. Any of us can add humor, art, creativity and interactivity to our presentations to make them student friendly. 

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