For decades, many have frowned upon lecture-style classrooms in the U.S., where the teacher stands at the front of the classroom while all students listen and take notes. Instead, there’s been an emphasis on hands-on learning and problem-solving, where students learn by doing the work themselves.
But a working paper from the right-leaning Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard — summarized in the Summer 2011 issue of Education Next — suggests we shouldn’t be so quick to condemn the “sage on the stage” approach to teaching in favor of the “guide by the side” approach.
Researchers Guido Schwerdt and Amelie C. Wuppermann used middle-school data from the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) to look at both student performance and how teachers reported using classroom time (whether on lecturing, guiding students through problems, or having students work on problems by themselves). They found that in both math and science, the more time teachers spent lecturing, the higher their students scored on TIMSS.
Higher-achieving and “more-advantaged students” benefit the most from an emphasis on lecturing, according to the working paper, while there’s no evidence to suggest that low-achieving students are disadvantaged by lecturing.
Of course, there are other things that can have an impact on these TIMSS scores, such as the depth of the curriculum, the rigor of the standards and the sequence in which things are taught. It’s no secret that higher-performing countries tend to have very different approaches to teaching math and science than lower-performing countries.
The researchers didn’t make any sweeping conclusions, though: “Given the limitations of our data, our finding that spending increased time on lecture-style teaching improves student test scores results [sic] should not be translated into a call for more lecture-style teaching in general,” they wrote. “But our results do suggest that traditional lecture-style teaching in U.S. middle schools is less of a problem than is often believed.”