It’s easy to get in a teaching rut and rely too much on what’s comfortable. But those who use a wider variety of teaching strategies and tailor them to their teaching objectives will tend to have more success in making the material stick.
One way to think through the available options is to consider a distinction Mark Strom makes in Lead with Wisdom between conversation and communication. As he uses these terms, conversation involves “creating shared meaning,” whereas communication involves “sharing created meaning”. He says:
I don’t want to be precious about this. At a certain level communication and conversation are synonyms. Yet the distinction is not just playing with words. The bigger picture is our assumptions about knowing and meaning.
In Strom’s distinction, conversation allows knowledge to come about inductively and the process tends to “be a doorway to new meaning and new knowledge” and the formation not only of a single mind, but a community.
Conversation tends to assume that knowledge and meaning take shape through interaction. Conversations highlight how meaning is tied to relationship.
Communication, on the other hand, is about “sharing created meaning”.
[Communication] suggests there already exists some knowledge that others need to know. We need to communicate: clearly, concisely, and relevantly. This is crucial in every kind of enterprise. Sometimes things are straightforward, and the last thing we need is a never-ending process of consultation that’s supposed to deliver consensus. Communication tends to assume that knowledge and meaning are things to be discovered and passed on.
When I apply this distinction to teaching, conversation maps onto a set of techniques and philosophies about learning often called “active-learning”. Simply put, in active-learning students to learn by doing, and conversation is often involved, which requires asking good questions in a way that is formative, and cultivating a classroom culture that is condusive to discusion.
As a heads-up, I’ll tell you that there are various misconceptions about what active-learning means, and it’s something of a buzzword. So be careful. And if you’re a pedagogy nerd, you might find it useful to learn about the constructivist ideas behind this term. For that, Virginia Richardson’s overview and evaluations of the constructivist movement is helpful. But for those who want to get going faster, Cynthia J. Brame’s executive summary on active-learning is a great place to start.
Sometimes, active-learning advocates speak too strongly, which makes people ask questions like “Is it ever OK to Lecture? The answer is, yes. Of course it’s okay to lecture.
In a classroom setting, lecturing is the predominant form of what Strom calls “communication.” Lectures are especially good at passing on information, i.e. sharing meaning with others.
Of course, for this to happen, lectures need to be engaging, and the students need to know how to learn. And I’m not talking about VARK learning styles, a pedagogy idea that “keeps getting debunked”.
Unsurprisingly, mixing these two modes—conversation and conversation—in various proportions is usually best. The precise proportions will depend on your educational objectives. Bloom’s Taxonomies of educational objectives can help you choose your objectives.
*I updated this article in April 2019 with some new links. And to improve its clarity, I made significant revisions to the whole post. I added some links about learning (from the students perspective) in May 2019 and, in August, a couple links related to asking good questions. In March 2020, I added an excellent guide to cultivating better classroom discussion from The Chronicle of Higher Education.