Why a “Sage on the Stage” in a Classroom is not always a Bad Thing

The trendy denigration of classroom lectures is misguided.

Enter most math and science classes now in California, and you will see desks arranged in groups of four.  This is to facilitate group interactions and improve learning which is often “discovery-based.”  Teachers wish to keep students “engaged” in an era when everyone spends a lot of time looking at their cell phones.

By comparison, school is boring.  In fact, a lot of money is being devoted to developing teaching apps for devices specifically for the purpose of reaching students in the means to which they are accustomed, and this is seen as a positive development.  In fact this goal was lauded during my recent discussion with the SMUHSD Board of Trustees on the new NGSS science curriculum.

I spent a large part of my career in the high tech industry and have several IT certifications in addition to my Ph.D. and other scientific and business credentials.  I appreciate the advantages that some of these developments may bring.

However, I have also been a classroom teacher and am very concerned that, like most educational trends, this one will be taken to extremes.  The fact that there is a lot of public money that tech, publishing, and standardized testing companies can tap into is a very big concern as well, particularly when a significant fraction of people employed in public education and making the purchasing decisions are not very technical.

Current K-12 education theory tends to denigrate classroom lecturing, describing it as a relic of the middle ages.  Teachers are not supposed to be a “Sage on a Stage,” the derogatory term used for lecturers, but instead let students work in groups as much as possible to discover knowledge on their own.  This will lead to greater engagement with the subject material and better knowledge retention.

As a Ph.D.-level scientist there is no doubt in my mind that discovery-based learning is an important component of a good education.  Note that the University of California only validates high school science courses that spend at least 20% of their time doing laboratory experiments.

You will immediately note, however, that 20% is still a significant minority of total class time for an obvious reason.

Discovery-based learning is very time-consuming.  Even in math classes where one usually does not have to use equipment and make measurements, curricula such as CPM run into this problem.  Many teachers find that they have to take some time at the beginning of a class to explain some basic information to get students started or else they spend a large part of the period providing the same guidance to each group individually.

In the case of science classes, there is a simple logical reason why discovery-based learning must remain a minority of the classroom time.  Science would never make progress if each generation had to rediscover the knowledge gained by the previous generation.  Even though “faith” may seem anathema to science, science students must trust that previous generations of scientists did their work correctly and accept it at least provisionally if they are ever to reach the frontier of knowledge.

Human knowledge is very fallible, particularly when it is inductive / derived from observations.  Contrary to popular opinion, an incorrect idea may persist for a long time in a field that receives little attention from a significant number of scientists.  Scientists have to rely on the logical consistency of past knowledge and believe that an idea that is currently accepted, but is actually wrong, will eventually lead to some kind of contradiction.  This contradiction will lead to further investigations and eventually the truth will out if the area is of significant interest.

This process can take years however, even decades in some cases.  Once one reaches a certain level of complexity in a subject, discovery-based learning is impractical and is mainly important in training a student in the methods of tackling a problem.  It simply can not be used for the majority of instruction due to time constraints.

There is an even more important reason not to denigrate classroom lecturing.

How often do we listen to stories?  This very human activity goes back to prehistoric times.  The earliest works of literature are often epic tales of adventure such as Gilgamesh, the Illiad, and the Odyssey.  Even in our high tech era, a significant amount of time is spent watching stories on television, at the movies, or, in a few happy cases, by still reading novels.

No one likes to hear a boring lecture from a teacher / professor who drones their way through material out of a textbook.   I went out of my way to avoid such classes in college in favor of reading the text on my own.

However, when I started teaching, I worked for about three weeks on my introductory physics lesson and had the rapt attention of my class on the first day of school.  One student went home and told his mother that it was the most exciting science lesson that he had had in his four years of high school.  I also remember similar experiences from my own time as a student.

A good teacher should be an excellent storyteller.  That is how people learn the majority of time, starting in infancy.  The sad fact that there are many people who can not tell a good story should not be used as a reason to denigrate the efforts of those who can.

Sadly, that is what current education practice tends to do, and I do not believe that this trend is always beneficial for students.  Common sense, not educational doctrine, should prevail.

Author: David Kristofferson

Retired Ph.D. scientist, teacher (after retiring from industry, taught in private and public high schools and then worked a decade in my own private tutoring business), bioinformatician (managed both the NIH-funded GenBank National Nucleic Acid Sequence Databank and the BIONET National Computer Resource for Molecular Biology), IT director at Eos and Raven Biotechnologies, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist, and backpacker!

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